Biden, Xi clash but seek to manage tensions as US officials head to China

US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping -- seen here in California in November 2023 -- have clashed in telephone talks (Brendan SMIALOWSKI)
US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping -- seen here in California in November 2023 -- have clashed in telephone talks (Brendan SMIALOWSKI)

Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping clashed in a telephone call Tuesday about US trade restrictions on technology and on Taiwan, but they looked to manage their tensions, with two top US officials heading shortly to Beijing.

The nearly two-hour telephone conversation was the two leaders' first direct interaction since a summit in November in California that saw a marked thaw in tone, if not the long-term rivalry, between the world's two largest economies.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen will leave Wednesday and visit both Guangzhou, the southern city emblematic of China's manufacturing power, and Beijing, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken due in China in the coming weeks, officials said.

"We believe that there is no substitute for regular communication at the leader level to effectively manage this complex and often tense bilateral relationship," National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters after the call.

US officials said the talks were not aimed at managing but rather resolving differences, and the two leaders were open about heated disagreements.

Xi accused the United States of creating economic risks through Biden's sweeping ban on high-tech exports to China.

"If the United States insists on suppressing China's high-tech development and depriving China of its legitimate right to development, we will not sit idly by," Xi warned, according to Chinese state media.

Biden rebuffed his appeal, with the White House saying he told him "the United States will continue to take necessary actions to prevent advanced US technologies from being used to undermine our national security, without unduly limiting trade and investment."

Biden also refused to back down on TikTok, the blockbuster Chinese-owned app that Congress is threatening to ban unless it changes hands, with Kirby saying Biden insisted he wanted to protect Americans' data security.

- Incentives for thaw -

Xi, China's most powerful leader in decades, has solidified power at home and taken a tough approach in Asia, with a crackdown on freedoms in Hong Kong and assertive confrontations in recent weeks with the Philippines on the South China Sea.

But US observers see Xi as eager to temper the friction with the United States as China weathers rough economic headwinds.

At the California summit, he agreed to two key asks by the United States -- curbs on precursor chemicals for making fentanyl, the synthetic painkiller behind a US overdose epidemic, and restoring dialogue between the two militaries to manage crises.

Xi may also believe there is more opportunity to work with Biden, who faces a rematch in November's presidential election with Donald Trump, who has cast China as an arch-enemy.

Biden has preserved or even accelerated some of Trump's tough measures, but has also identified areas of common interest, such as fighting climate change.

- Raising alarm on Taiwan -

The White House said Biden pressed Xi to ensure "peace and stability" across the Taiwan Strait ahead of the inauguration on May 20 of President-elect Lai Ching-te.

China has denounced Lai, a longtime supporter of a separate identity for the self-ruling democracy claimed by Beijing, but US officials have been cautiously optimistic that China's military moves ahead of the inauguration will not go beyond past practice.

In the phone call, Xi told Biden that Taiwan remains an "uncrossable red line" for China, according to state media.

The United States has voiced growing alarm over rising Chinese moves against the Philippines in the dispute-rife South China Sea.

The Biden administration, while maintaining dialogue with China, has put a strong focus on supporting allies.

In the midst of the diplomatic flurry with China, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida will pay a state visit to Washington next week, with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos joining for three-way talks.

Blinken and Yellen will both be paying their second visits to China in less than a year, marking a return to more routine interaction following the Covid pandemic and soaring tensions under Trump.

The extensive diplomacy stands in contrast with Biden's approach to Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he has shunned since Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.

Biden raised concern about growing Chinese efforts to help Russia rebuild its military-industrial base, calling it a risk for European security, the White House said.