Joe Biden on Wednesday held his first call as president with Xi Jinping, pressing the Chinese leader about trade and Beijing’s crackdown on democracy activists in Hong Kong as well as other human rights concerns.
The two leaders spoke just hours after Biden announced plans for a Pentagon task force to review U.S. national security strategy in China and after the new U.S. president announced he was levying sanctions against Myanmar’s military regime following this month’s coup in the southeast Asian country.
A White House statement said Biden raised concerns about Beijing’s “coercive and unfair economic practices.” Biden also pressed Xi on Beijing’s crackdown in Hong Kong, human rights abuses against Uighur and ethnic minorities in the western Xinjiang province, and its actions toward Taiwan.
Biden, who had dealt with the Chinese leader when he served as Barack Obama’s vice-president, used his first three weeks in the White House to make several calls with other leaders in the Indo-Pacific region. He has tried to send the message that he would take a radically different approach to China than former President Donald Trump, who placed trade and economic issues above all else in the U.S.-China relationship.
With Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga late last month, Biden underscored the U.S. commitment to protecting the Senkaku Islands, a group of uninhabited islets administered by Tokyo but claimed by Beijing. In his call with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Biden emphasized the need for “close co-operation to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific.” And in his call with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison last week, the president highlighted that the two nations’ alliance was essential to stability in the region, the White House said.
Top aides to Biden have repeatedly heard from Asia-Pacific counterparts who had become discouraged by Trump’s frequently sharp rhetoric aimed at allies, talk of reducing troop levels in South Korea and odd interactions with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, according to a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private calls.
Allies in the region have made clear they want a more purposeful and steady approach to engagements going forward, according to the official.