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Biden and China's Xi 'check-in' call is the first contact since November

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Biden took time out of campaigning in the Midwest to make a phone call yesterday with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. It's the first time the two men have talked this year. NPR's John Ruwitch has been following developments. He's in Beijing. Hey there, John.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What did they talk about?

RUWITCH: Yeah, well, this was - a U.S. official called this a check-in, right? So the context is that when Biden and Xi Jinping met in November, they agreed on a range of things to try to lower the temperature in the relationship, including more contact at the senior level and at other levels. So this was a follow-up. And they covered a ton of ground. They talked about everything from trade to North Korea to climate change. And the White House said that Biden raised some U.S. concerns. One thing is, you know, he raised the importance of maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. There's a persistent tension there. He raised American concerns about Chinese support for Russia's defense industrial base, which is basically helping Russia in its war on Ukraine. And he also called out what the White House says are unfair trade policies and non-market economic practices by China.

INSKEEP: Oh, which has been a complaint of multiple U.S. administrations from both parties. So are they making any progress there?

RUWITCH: Well, it doesn't seem like it. I mean, this call seems to have sort of cast a spotlight on how much of an irritant it is in the relationship. I mean, the U.S. has taken steps to limit Chinese access to cutting-edge technology, like the most advanced microchips. Those are made outside China. And the fear is that they'll be used against the U.S. - excuse me - or to harm our national interest.

INSKEEP: Right.

RUWITCH: Biden kind of warned Xi that the United States would continue to take actions like this, as it saw them as necessary, and using - to prevent, you know, China from using U.S. technology against the U.S. It's been a sore point for Beijing.

INSKEEP: And I would imagine that Xi brought it up.

RUWITCH: He did. According to China's statement on this call, Xi pushed back pretty hard. He seemed to express sort of dismay about the U.S. continuing to take what he called a string of measures to suppress China's trade and technology development. I asked Wang Huiyao about this. He's a former trade official here in China who runs a think tank called the Center for China and Globalization here in Beijing.

WANG HUIYAO: China wants to stabilize, and China wants the U.S. to maintain its promises. I'm sure President Xi is not very satisfied with what's going on.

RUWITCH: And, you know, Xi told Biden during the call that China would not sit back and watch if the U.S. remains adamant, he said, on containing China's high-tech development.

INSKEEP: Words of warning - so where's this going?

RUWITCH: Yeah, well, the two - they agreed to keep talking, which was good. They said the phone call was positive. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen arrives in China tomorrow. Secretary of State Blinken is coming later on in the month. So there is some momentum here in this relationship, at least in getting the talking back up and running. The coming months are going to be a test of whether they can move beyond that and they can cooperate in areas where the two sides really have said that they have some common interests, like climate change, regulating AI, or going after, you know, illegal narcotics.

INSKEEP: John, how much of a factor was that other thing that's going on this year in the United States, the U.S. election in which President Biden is on the ballot?

RUWITCH: Well, neither side said it came up on the call. And it's not clear to me that Beijing would have a preference either way between Biden or Trump at this point. I mean, there's plusses and minuses to both. But the U.S. is pretty concerned that there might be efforts on China's part to interfere or influence the election or U.S. politics more broadly, either on social media or in other ways. Biden specifically raised concerns about China's ownership of the social media app TikTok when he talked to Xi. Beijing, though, you know, says it has a non-interference policy, and it doesn't get involved in the politics of other countries.

INSKEEP: John, I always appreciate your insights. Thanks so much.

RUWITCH: You bet.

INSKEEP: NPR's John Ruwitch in Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.