Joe Biden-Xi Jinping Call Shows President's Respect for China, State Media Says

President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping have held their first phone call since the commander-in-chief took office last month, with Biden raising China's human rights abuses and territorial expansion and Xi warning against conflict between the world's largest economies.

Biden has vowed to take a tough line on China, breaking from the strategy of President Barack Obama and previous administrations that sought to bring Beijing into the global diplomatic system and exploit its economic potential.

Although Biden raised several contentious topics, Chinese media reports on the call have focused on the potential for greater Washington-Beijing cooperation. During Donald Trump's term, state media was at the forefront of the Chinese Communist Party's attacks on the U.S., but it is now using a more conciliatory tone.

The nationalistic state-owned Global Times newspaper lauded the call as "indicative of the goodwill and respect that Biden shows to Xi and China." Editor Hu Xijin—who became known for his attacks on Trump—wrote that the conversation was a good sign for bilateral relations.

"It is no secret that there are some strategic divergences between China and the U.S.," Hu wrote. "Both countries need to face up to and manage these differences."

In a separate editorial, Global Times described the call as "the most anticipated phone conversation since Biden took office."

Noting the history of cooperation between the two leaders, the newspaper expressed hopes for a diplomatic thaw.

"A win-win situation between China and the U.S. will be a victory for modern human civilization and wisdom," the editorial read. "If the two countries end up in serious conflicts, it will be a tragedy for humanity."

"The top leaders of both countries demonstrated a gesture of goodwill to promote mutual understanding and control divergences on this special day. We hope the two societies would follow the lead, and the world's public opinion could also support the positive messages conveyed in the phone call."

Human rights abuses, territorial expansion, malign trade practices and the coronavirus pandemic combined to focus pressure on China under Trump. There is now bipartisan agreement that Beijing represents America's next great strategic challenge.

The call came hours after Biden announced a new Pentagon task force to assess the military's preparedness to meet the China challenge. It also followed a meeting between a senior State Department official and Taiwan's representative to the U.S.—signaling the administration's support for the democratic island coveted by Beijing.

Biden tweeted on Wednesday that he spoke with Xi "to offer good wishes to the Chinese people for lunar new year."

The president added: "I also shared concerns about Beijing's economic practices, human rights abuses, and coercion of Taiwan. I told him I will work with China when it benefits the American people."

A White House readout of the call said Biden also mentioned Beijing's crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and its oppression of Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang.

The president raised China's "increasingly assertive actions in the region"—a reference to territorial tensions in the South China Sea, Taiwan and at the Indian border—plus the coronavirus pandemic, climate change and arms control.

Xi, meanwhile, told Biden that any conflict between the two nations would be disastrous, echoing a warning from Foreign Minister Wang Yi before the inauguration.

Reuters, citing Chinese state television, said Xi described cooperation as the only choice and urged the new president to manage any disputes in a constructive way. On Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang, Xi told Biden he hoped the U.S. would be cautious.

The South China Morning Post reported that Xi told his American counterpart: "Cooperation can help the two nations and the world to accomplish big things, while confrontation is definitely a disaster."

Joe Biden speaks at the State Department
President Joe Biden speaks at the Eisenhower Executive Building in D.C. on February 10. Alex Wong/Getty Images/Getty