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Biden to Xi: We should talk…when you’re ready

March 14, 2023 Updated Tue., March 14, 2023 at 12:56 p.m.

By Olivier Knox and Caroline Anders Washington Post

Don’t call it a reset.

But the White House made clear Monday that President Biden wants to talk with Chinese President Xi Jinping sooner rather than later, reviving efforts to shore up lines of communication and defuse some tensions in The World’s Most Important Bilateral Relationship (™).

“I can’t give you a date because there’s no date set,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said. “But President Biden has indicated his willingness to have a telephone conversation with President Xi once they’re back and in stride coming off the National People’s Congress.”

That annual legislative convention, which wrapped up Monday, formally gave Xi an unprecedented third presidential term. He has also filled senior government posts with loyalists who will strengthen his hand as he grapples with an economy that appears to be faltering.

The Washington Post’s Ellen Nakashima reported “a U.S. official said that Sullivan was ‘trying to signal’ willingness to reengage. ‘I know the president wants to be clear that we want to keep the lines of communication open.’”

“The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the matter’s sensitivity, said it is likely a conversation between the two leaders will eventually take place. But, the official cautioned, ‘it takes two to have a call.’”

China hasn’t yet agreed, in other words.

A Biden-Xi call would be the most visible effort yet to overcome the latest flare-up of tensions, sparked in late January by a Chinese spy balloon that lazily hovered over sensitive U.S. military sites across several states before a U.S. fighter jet took it down off the South Carolina coast.

The incident led Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a visit to China at the last minute.

And last week, Xi delivered his sharpest, most direct public criticisms of the United States, saying America and its Western allies “have implemented all-round containment, encirclement and suppression against us.”

On Monday, he vowed to build his military into “a great wall of steel” to protect Chinese economic and security interests.

“We believe there is competition, and we welcome that competition,” Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force One on the way to California. Biden was headed there to celebrate a deal to equip Australia’s navy with nuclear-powered submarines, a response to Chinese ambitions.

“But there is no need for conflict, there is no need for confrontation, there is no need for a new Cold War,” Sullivan said. “And we will look to work with China in areas where it’s in our mutual interests and the wider world’s interest to do so.”

Sullivan also played down bipartisan anger in the incident’s aftermath, saying it “has come from voices, of course, not within the U.S. administration” and underlining “President Biden sets the terms of this relationship, and he sets the tone for this relationship for the U.S. government.”

If it happens, the call will come after two interesting developments in China’s international diplomatic outreach.

China helped broker an agreement last week between regional archrivals Saudi Arabia and Iran to reestablish diplomatic relations. The deal, which Xi appears to have personally worked for, was seen as a major success for Beijing.

And the Wall Street Journal’s Keith Zhai reported Xi “plans to speak with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for the first time since the start of the Ukraine war, likely after he visits Moscow next week to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin.”

“A direct conversation with Mr. Zelensky, if it happens, would mark a significant step in Beijing’s efforts to play peacemaker in Ukraine, which have so far been met with skepticism in Europe.”

“The new surge of diplomacy reflects a conviction on the part of Mr. Xi and the Communist Party that China can offer an alternative to the U.S.-led model of international relations by relying on commercial ties rather than military might to sway the decisions of other countries,” Zhai wrote.

Sullivan played down the significance of both developments.

He said the Saudis had kept Washington informed throughout the process and that any resulting reduction in tensions was in America’s interests and “a good thing.”

And he said Washington had supported direct communication between Xi and Zelensky.

“We have been encouraging President Xi to reach out to President Zelensky because we believe the [People’s Republic of China] and President Xi himself should hear directly the Ukrainian perspective and not just the Russian perspective,” Sullivan said.

But, as is the case with an eventual Biden-Xi phone call, there’s hearing, and there’s listening.

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