Joe Biden's call with Xi Jinping came at a pivotal moment. Here's why

Ju Peng/Xinhua via AP

To say that America’s relationship with China has been “rocky” this year would be a significant understatement. In what seems to have been an effort to ease the tensions a bit, President Joe Biden requested a call with Chinese President Xi Jinping and that happened yesterday. The Associated Press obtained some of the agenda items for the call and how the two leaders handled it. On the surface, it seemed as if it was mostly the typical pablum. They wanted to discuss areas where our nations’ mutual interests might align and ways to reduce tensions in matters where we diverge. But this call came at a moment when China is significantly shifting its traditional positions in both domestic and foreign affairs, a fact that much of the world seems to be a bit slow in realizing, or at least responding to.

President Joe Biden spoke with China’s Xi Jinping on Thursday amid growing frustration on the American side that high-level engagement between the two leaders’ top advisers has been largely unfruitful in the early going of the Biden presidency.

Biden initiated the call with Xi, the second between the two leaders since Biden took office. It comes at a moment when there is no shortage of thorny issues between the two nations, including cybersecurity breaches originating from China, Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and what the White House has labeled as “coercive and unfair” trade practices by the Chinese.

But Biden’s aim with the 90-minute call was less focused on any of those hot-button issues and instead centered on discussing the way ahead for the U.S.-China relationship after it got off to a decidedly rocky start in his tenure.

Biden’s strategy was apparently to find areas where he and Xi could agree. He settled on two of them: climate change and the need to avoid a literal nuclear meltdown on the Korean peninsula. That was pretty much the only low-hanging fruit available. China has always been willing to publicly mouth the right words about climate change and carbon emissions, while rarely if ever doing anything substantive about it. In fact, they’ve actually gotten worse on emissions while the United States has drastically reduced our own. As far as the situation with North Korea goes, both sides know that Xi will never abandon Kim Jong-un, but he also wants to ensure that the situation on his own border doesn’t entirely destabilize.

As to the other more contentious issues, Xi seemed to be having none of it. He told Biden that current American policies toward China caused “serious difficulties” in relations. He also ominously warned that “Chinese-U.S. confrontation will bring disaster to both countries and the world.”

In other words, this call was a lot more confrontational than we’re used to seeing. But that’s really just an escalation of the lower-level interactions that American officials and diplomats have been having with their Chinese counterparts all summer long. Just last week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi got into a very public scrap with John Kerry, in which Yi threatened to even stop cooperating on climate change if America didn’t change its “aggressive” posture toward China. A couple of months earlier, Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng was blasting the American State Department with allegations that the United States was trying to “contain and suppress China’s development.”

And now the Chinese president has come as close to a slap-down toward Joe Biden as we’ve seen from him in a very long time. So what’s causing these diplomatic breakdowns? It’s really not a secret to those who have been following the latest developments in Sino-American relations. If you haven’t read John Sexton’s article on Xi Jinping’s “Great Leap Backward” you should do so now to grasp the new stance and goals of the CCP’s leadership. And someone should brief Joe Biden on it as well.

China has been moving aggressively to reform itself in an earlier (and tougher) version of communism and inspire its people to recapture the spirit of “the great revolution” of Mao Zedong. They are expressly condemning the tenants of capitalism and the desire of some Chinese to “get rich quick” when they should be more focused on sacrifice. And as they condemn the concept of capitalism in general, Xi has been painting a distinctly American face on the supposed shortcomings of such a system. He has recently enacted hundreds of new policy mandates, ranging from curbing “expressions of individualism” to limiting the number of hours children can spend playing video games. His policies seek to eliminate “money worship” and “sissy” culture, with an obvious focus on identifying those cultural benchmarks as being distinctly American. He is demanding that his people “toughen up” in the face of the perceived softness and decadence of capitalists in general and Americans in particular.

Is it any surprise that his rhetoric toward the American president would suddenly become more brusque and threatening? This is China’s new attitude, calling for far more austerity both at home and abroad. And it’s taking place even as China beefs up its military forces and moves to solidify its control of the South China Sea. Xi Jinping is also continuing to buy China’s way into Afghanistan in a fashion so obvious that even CNN was forced to take note of it. They are sending cash, food supplies and vaccines to the Taliban for distribution to the people, hoping to prevent unrest and any destabilization of the Taliban’s rule. Such generosity will surely pave the way for their anticipated takeover of the Bagram airfield.

This is the new reality of China in 2021 as Xi Jinping prepares to embark on a third term as president. Don’t expect their attitude to change any time soon. And the United States had best be prepared to deal with a more aggressive and potentially even militant China on the world stage. After watching how the United States bailed out on the people of Afghanistan, some observers are concerned that China may be emboldened to take direct action against Taiwan or militarily finalize their full control of Hong Kong. Their reach is simultaneously pushing westward through Central Asia and toward Europe. Do we have a viable response prepared for these eventualities? You’d better hope so, because the world is changing even as we watch, and China is obviously no longer content to simply collect money and control the world’s supply chains.