Joe Biden

Background Press Call on the Bilateral Relationship with the People's Republic of China

April 02, 2024

Via Teleconference

6:07 P.M. EDT

MODERATOR: Thank you all for joining us this evening for a call on the United States' bilateral engagement with the People's Republic of China.

Just a couple of quick ground rules. For awareness but not for reporting, joining us on the call this evening is [senior administration official]. The call is going to be held under embargo until noon tomorrow -- that's April 2nd, noon Eastern Time.

And with that, I won't hold us up any further and I will turn the call over to [senior administration official]. She can be attributed on background as a senior administration official. Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks so much. And, folks, thanks for joining us on a Monday evening.

Tomorrow, on April 2nd, in the morning, President Biden will hold a phone call with President Xi Jinping of the People's Republic of China. Ahead of that, we thought it would be useful to give some context on the expected shape of that call and what we plan to raise.

As many of you are tracking, the two leaders met face-to-face in Bali in November 2022 and then held a summit meeting in Woodside, California, in November 2023. At Woodside, the two leaders agreed to maintain regular open lines of communication to responsibly manage competition and prevent unintended conflict. And this phone call really is just part of that ongoing effort.

I will note just for folks' awareness, the last call between the two leaders was July 2022. So it's been a bit since we've done a telephone call between President Xi and President Biden.

This call, of course, builds on the in-depth meetings between National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and CCP Director of the Office of Foreign Affairs Commission and Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Bangkok on January 26th, 27th of this year, and Secretary Blinken's meeting with Wang Yi in Munich in February.

On the call tomorrow, we anticipate President Biden and President Xi will discuss the U.S.-China bilateral relationship, the continued importance of strengthening lines of communication and managing competition responsibly, and a range of regional and global issues.

I should note as well, of course: We have not changed our approach to the PRC, which remains one focused on the framework of invest, align, and compete. Intense competition requires intense diplomacy to manage tensions, address misperceptions, and prevent unintended conflict. And this call is one way to do that.

There are also, of course, areas of cooperation where our interests align, and it is important to work together to deliver on issues that matter to the American people. These areas include counternarcotics, risk and safety issues related to AI, resumption of mil-mil communication channels, and climate issues. We expect the leaders will discuss progress on each of these issues since the Woodside Summit.

On the upcoming call, we expect President Biden to emphasize the need for continued progress and substantive action on counternarcotics to address the scourge of illicit narcotics trafficking.

Since Woodside Summit, we have seen the PRC implement some initial measures to restrict and disrupt the flow of certain precursor chemicals used to produce illicit synthetic drugs. But, of course, the drug trade is continually evolving and changing. And in order to ensure that we are disrupting this trade flow, we, the U.S. and China, need to maintain close consultations, both law enforcement to law enforcement, at the technical level and otherwise, to really drive that substantive law enforcement action.

We also urge the PRC to follow through by scheduling chemicals agreed upon by the international community at the recent U.N. Commission on Narcotic Drugs.

On mil-mil communication, another outcome of the summit, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Brown, held a virtual meeting with his counterpart in December. The Defense Policy Coordination talks took place in early January.

This week in Honolulu, operator-level Military Maritime Consultative Agreement meetings, the MMCA -- it just rolls right off your tongue -- will take place. The goal of that is really to talk at the operator level about how to avoid and better understand the actions of the other party.

We also expect communications at the minister-secretary level and between theater commanders in the coming months.

All of these interactions from the operator up to the very top, SecDef level, are important to avoid misunderstandings and miscalculations.

President Biden has made clear that this mil-mil communication is critical at all times but especially during times of heightened tensions.

Another outcome from the summit: On AI, we are working towards a U.S.-China dialogue in the coming weeks aimed at managing the risk and safety challenges posed by advanced forms of AI.

I will note as well: On March 21, the PRC supported a landmark resolution on AI at the United Nations as a co-sponsor, along with more than 120 countries, including the United States. We think it is critical for the U.S. and China to better understand respective views and approaches to managing the risks associated with AI applications and to communicate about particular areas of concern. That's just what this AI dialogue will do in the coming weeks.

We're also continuing discussion in key channels on climate and economic issues, and seeking to strengthen ties between the people of the two countries, including by expanding educational and other exchanges.

The call will also be an opportunity, as I mentioned, for the President to raise issues outside of bilateral issues. We expect him to touch on a number of those. This call will be an opportunity for the President to reaffirm the U.S. One China policy and reiterate the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, especially given the upcoming May presidential inauguration in Taiwan.

The President may also express concern over destabilizing PRC actions in the South China Sea, including the dangerous recent action of the PRC coast guard against routine Philippine maritime operations near Second Thomas Shoal.

He will likely also raise concern about the PRC's support for Russia's war against Ukraine and its efforts to help Russia reconstitute its defense industrial base. We're increasingly concerned that this action will impact longer-term European security. And I think you heard many of these same concerns voiced by the French foreign minister in Beijing over the weekend.

We also expect the two leaders to cover a range of other regional and global issues including efforts to advance the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

On economic and trade issues, President Biden will likely reiterate concerns about the PRC's unfair economic practices and convey that the U.S. will continue to take actions to protect our economic and national security interests. This includes, among other things, ensuring a fair and level playing field for American workers, as well as preventing advanced U.S. technologies from being used to undermine our national security.

And all of this is focused on de-risking, not decoupling, and the President will make clear that is the direction we continue to follow.

In his many conversations with President Xi, President Biden has consistently underscored the critical importance of respect for human rights. And I expect the President will again raise concerns regarding the erosion of Hong Kong's autonomy and PRC human rights abuses, including in Xinjiang and Tibet.

I also expect the President will repeat his call for China to release U.S. citizens wrongfully detained or under exit bans.

There is no substitute, of course, for regular communication at the leader level to effectively manage this complex and often tense bilateral relationship. Following the leaders call, we will continue to advance our interests through cabinet-level diplomacy, including visits to the PRC by Secretary of the Treasury Yellen in the coming days and Secretary of State Blinken in the coming weeks. We also expect a SecDef-Minister of Defense call soon. And of course, paired with this is travel by PRC officials here to the United States as well.

I've gone on for a bit, so I'll leave it there for now. And I welcome any questions you all may have.

MODERATOR: With that, we'll begin to take your questions.

Our first question will go to MJ Lee with CNN.

Q: Hey. Thank you so much for doing this call. I had two questions for you.

First, before the summit in Woodside last year, it was clear that U.S. and Chinese officials had done the legwork ahead of time so that coming out of the summit the two leaders could announce the restoration of the military (inaudible) and also the announcement on curbing fentanyl. Are there specific, sort of, gettables that the Biden administration has been working towards that are likely to be announced after their phone call tomorrow?

And second, do you expect President Biden to follow up on Xi telling him in their last meeting that China doesn't want to interfere in the 2024 U.S. election? And did the President sort of take him at his word on that?

And how do you expect the President to sort of talk to President Xi about Chinese hackers targeting U.S. critical infrastructure?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks so much for the questions. On the first one, on any announcements or outcomes from the call, you know, we approach calls a little bit differently than we do summits. You know, summits generally once a year. Really a lot of effort to go in to lay the groundwork through secretary level and other engagements to drive towards outcomes. I would take a phone call more as a check-in, so checking in on the three outcomes from the summit, trying to drive progress in that area. But don't anticipate new outcomes from this.

Really, this is kind of what the responsible management of the relationship looks like. In between those top-level, senior-level meetings that can occur about once a year, really finding a chance for the two leaders to talk through the tough issues and ensure that we're responsibly managing the competition between the two countries.

But as I mentioned before, I do expect a discussion of those outcomes from Woodside and, again, a goal of trying to drive additional efforts in each of those baskets.

On your question regarding election influence or interference, you know, this has been a topic at, I would say, nearly every, if not every, senior-level engagement, ensuring that we are being crystal clear about our concerns that any country interfere or influence our elections. We have undertaken a whole-of-government effort to protect our elections against these foreign attempts to interfere or influence.

And I would say, like with any message we deliver to China or to other countries, it is one of continual reinforcement of concern. And I don't think we ever really take the Chinese at their word when they say they will or will not do something. It is about verifying what the president says, verifying the results we see, the actions we see, and then continuing to underscore and press home what our concerns are.

On cyber-related issues, another longstanding concern the U.S. has had with China, of course: We've been clear both publicly and privately that we will take actions to address threats to our national security for malicious cyber activity. We've done that through attribution. We've done that through work with multilateral partners. And we've done that through other unilateral means. We'll continue to convey to the PRC these concerns about accesses on U.S. critical infrastructure, on hacking. And again, this is another issue I see as a longstanding one we're going to have to continue to message at and take action on.

MODERATOR: Next, we'll go to Ed Wong with the New York Times.

Q: Hi. Thanks. A couple of questions related to America's partners in the Asia Pacific region. I was just in Taipei and I heard concerns from Taiwanese officials who insist that China has been ramping up its gray zone activity, whether it's incursions across the median line using fighter jets, or ship activities around the offshore islands. And also, we've seen, as you mentioned, the very active measures taken by Chinese ships towards the Philippine military ships around the Second Thomas Shoal.

The U.S. has rhetorically pushed back on all of these, but China continues these activities. What else can Biden be doing or saying to Xi to try and get China to limit these activities?

Second, obviously, China has great concerns about the ramping up of military ties between the U.S. and its partners and the upcoming Three Leaders Summit this month between the presidents of the U.S. and the Philippines and the prime minister of Japan. So, will Biden mention this to Xi or try and placate any anxiety Xi about this? Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks for the questions, Ed.

On the first one, on gray zone activity, you know, I think this has been a longstanding PRC practice to (inaudible) slowly, or sometimes more quickly ramp up pressure (inaudible). Sometimes it's through military activities, sometimes it's through economic tools, some through diplomatic pressure. So I don't see anything particularly new here with PRC behavior in the Cross-Strait or South China Sea.

Our toolkit with which we respond is similarly, I think, a wide range of different tools, whether it's diplomatic messaging. You mentioned the Japan-Philippines-U.S. trilat and the bilat engagements later this month. Certainly, South China Sea and what we're seeing in that space will be a topic of discussion.

Similarly, you've seen it come out in statements. G7 and otherwise are concerned about coercive activity in the South China Sea and Cross-Strait. So, messaging is a piece of that. Of course, we have economics, (inaudible).

This is just, unfortunately, business as usual. And I think pushing back on that gray zone coercion is both about U.S. actions but also working closely with allies and partners, (inaudible) doing with the trilat later this month.

We've been clear, both from the President but all the way on down to Secretary of State and at high level as well, that U.S. alliances and partnerships are not about China. They're about the partnership. They're about the affirmative engagement. But oftentimes, Chinese action motivates a lot --much of what we talk about. But that is -- you know, that is something certainly well within China's control, what it says and does, and the impact it has on U.S. partners and allies throughout the region.

But certainly, I would expect at the upcoming meetings China to be a topic of conversation.

Over.

MODERATOR: Next, we'll go to Selina Wang with ABC.

Q: Hi. Thanks for doing this. I have a few questions. So, on the first one, how did the call come about? Which side initiated this call?

Secondly, is the President going to use this call to pressure China to use its closeness with Iran to influence the Israel-Hamas war?

And just lastly, any reaction from the administration on, you know, a group of CEOs, including American CEOs, that recently met with Xi Jinping?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Great. Thanks so much, Selina. On the first one, on the call, you know the diplomatic dance that usually precedes scheduling up a call like this.

You know, at Woodside, just to take it back to that meeting last November, both President Biden and President Xi agreed that they would try to pick up the phone a bit more; use that tool as a means of responsibly managing the relationship, of being in closer touch at the leader level, which is so very critical in the Chinese system, on a more regular basis.

So, you know, looking back between the last two summits, November 2022 and November 2023, we did not have a leader-level call. And I think both sides realized that it's important to do that to really manage the relationship in a more responsible fashion.

So, after that agreement in Woodside last year, National Security Advisor Sullivan saw Director Wang Yi in Bangkok in January, discussed trying to do something in the first quarter of the year. And then it was, of course, a trade-back of dates and times. That 12-hour time difference does not make for easy scheduling, I can tell you. From a granular working level, not an easy thing to do. But landed on this week as a good chance to do it in almost the first quarter of 2024.

On your second question, on Middle East: This, of course, has come up at -- most recently, Secretary Blinken, before that National Security Advisor Sullivan, both with Director Wang Yi, and of course, back in Woodside as well. We've been pretty clear in these high-level engagements of the role that the PRC should play in using its leverage with Iran, particularly to bring an end to Houthi attacks against civilian ships in the Red Sea. These are exacerbating regional tensions, instability, and of course, impacting trade flows. China should have a very direct interest in trying to limit that fallout. So I suspect that, of course, could come up in conversation again.

You asked about the U.S. CEOs meeting in Beijing. Of course, saw the reports. I think it's pretty standard for U.S. CEOs to meet with Chinese leadership when they go back to China for the CDF, the China Development Forum. I think it's often a two-way conversation. Of course, they're raising their concerns about the business environment as well.

But encourage you to reach out to them for more detail on that. I don't have any additional information.

MODERATOR: Great. Next, we will go to Demetri with the Financial Times.

Q: Thank you. Good evening. Two questions. The first is: There appear to have been no, quote, unquote, "risky and coercive" intercepts by Chinese fighter jets since San Francisco. I'm just wondering, why has China shifted course there? Was it something that was agreed between the two sides, or was that a unilateral move by China?

And then separately, is there anything that the U.S. should be doing differently around the Second Thomas Shoal to make sure that that flashpoint doesn't erupt even more?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks for the questions, Demetri. On the unsafe intercepts, you know, this has certainly been a feature of mil-mil communication going way back, just raising these areas of -- raising the chances that an unsafe intercept could very quickly lead to loss of a ship, loss of an aircraft; it could lead to loss of life. Just incredibly risky behavior that could spin up into conflict, (inaudible) -- but could spin us into unanticipated consequences quite quickly.

It certainly has been discussed in track two channels. It's been discussed in Secretary Blinken's meetings, National Security Advisor Sullivan, and it did come up at Woodside as well.

I would not say there was an agreement to stop doing this, but we have consistently raised our concerns about the behavior and how irresponsible it is in a relationship between -- one like between the United States and China. I don't know what motivated China to pull back from that. I'd encourage you to reach out to them and see if there's any additional detail there.

But we have seen a reduction in that kind of activity, which is a welcome sign and a welcome signal of more responsible behavior in some aspects. Right? I would hasten to note, of course, we have not seen a reduction in some of the unsafe behavior around Second Thomas Shoal and around some of our other partners' engagements with China, whether it's Japan or Australia, in different areas in the Pacific.

So a good sign, and hope that we will see additional pullback from some of that unsafe or risky behavior.

You asked about a second question, which I foolishly did not write down.

Q: Yeah. Should the U.S. be doing something differently with the Philippines around the Second Thomas Shoal to reduce the chances of that flashpoint erupting in a serious way?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Are you asking me if our policy is incorrect in any way, Demetri? (Laughs.)

Q: I'm asking you if it's perfect.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: (Laughs.) Look, I think this is an area -- again, another one of longstanding discussion between the United States and China going back years, going back since the grounding of the Sierra Madre. It's come up in every high-level engagement I've recently been in. We are increasingly concerned that PRC's behavior in this space could lead us closer to, really, unintended consequences, both with our Philippine partners.

But of course, we've talked about the mutual defense treaty as well. We've made clear we remain committed to promoting freedom of navigation and overflight, respect for international law, peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea, and close coordination with our allies and partners.

But I think it's fair to say just increasingly risky behavior in that space has us quite concerned and that I expect this will be a topic of conversation between Japan, Philippines, and the U.S. when the three leaders meet later this month both trilaterally and bilaterally.

MODERATOR: Our next question will go to Zeke Miller with the AP.

Q: Thanks so much for doing this. Just a technical question in terms of the timing of the call. When this call comes off embargo, will the President have already had that conversation, or will it take place in the future? Just so we can describe it accurately in our reporting.

And then, will there be any further discussion of a potential -- yet another summit this year? Obviously, it's an election year, but some other face-to-face meeting between the two leaders at the leader-to-leader level this year. Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'll take the first, which is: The call will have occurred by the time the embargo lifts.

And just another logistical flag for this group: It is likely that we will move up the lifting of the embargo. So please be looking out for outreach from me on that front.

And I will hand the second question over to [senior administration official].

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks so much. And thanks for the question, Zeke.

You know, I think both sides recognize the value in more regular touch points between the leaders. We're doing that now via calls. I would anticipate, you know, depending what happens in the coming year, there would be -- we would hope there would be a chance for another in-person meeting, but don't have anything even to speculate on when that might be. But certainly, value in that in-person meeting and the calls in the interim.

MODERATOR: And our last question is going to go to Aurelia End with the AFP.

Q: Thanks for taking my question. I was just going to follow up. How hard do you expect the President to put pressure on President Xi regarding the PRC's links with Iran and Russia?

And another one that's not about the call itself but somehow related to the issues in the region. According to the Yonhap News Agency, North Korea just fired a ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan. And I was wondering whether you could confirm that and also comment maybe. Thank you so much.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks for that, Aurelia. On the first question, Iran/Russia, certainly expect the topic to be raised on the call.

You know, on Russia in particular, this has been a part of our diplomatic conversations with the PRC since the start of Russia's war on Ukraine. Started out talking about lethal assistance and concerns around that, use of tactical nuclear weapons by Russia in Ukraine. Both of those issues, I think thanks in part to the diplomacy not just by the United States with China but European partners as well, we saw more positive action from China on.

But as time has gone on, we've really seen the PRC start to help to rebuild Russia's defense industrial base, essentially backfilling the trade from European partners, helping provide the components that get us slowly towards increasing Russia's capabilities in Ukraine. And that has, of course, longer-term impacts on European security as well, as, again, you heard from the French foreign minister in Beijing over the weekend.

So, quite a bit of concern around this. China, of course, is a sovereign country; it will make its own decisions about its relationships. But quite concerned about the direction of travel on this one, and I'm certain it will come up.

You asked as well, sorry, on the missile launch. I don't have a comment on that. Will perhaps refer you to [senior administration official] to come back on the DPRK missile launch. But certainly growing concern about DPRK's provocations and the risks of its growing economic, military, and technological partnership with Russia. You know, we certainly continue to underscore these concerns to China while also reiterating our readiness to conduct diplomacy with North Korea and our determination to take steps to deter further provocations by the DPRK.

MODERATOR: And with that, we're going to conclude this evening's call. Thank you all for joining us. We anticipate that we will issue a transcript of the call following the call.

And just as a final reminder, the embargo is currently set to noon Eastern Time on April 2nd. Thank you.

6:35 P.M. EDT

Joseph R. Biden, Background Press Call on the Bilateral Relationship with the People's Republic of China Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/371064

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