Biden Brings Human Rights, Military Threats to Fore in Phone Call With Xi Jinping

U.S. President Joe Biden has criticized China’s human rights violations and military aggression against the democratic island of Taiwan, in his first phone call with Chinese leader Xi Jinping ahead of the Lunar New Year celebrations on Thursday.

While the phone call was timed to wish Xi a happy Lunar New Year, Biden also brought up “fundamental concerns” about the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s genocidal policies in Xinjiang, a crackdown on peaceful dissent and political opposition in Hong Kong, and increasing military threats against Taiwan, the White House said in a statement.

“President Biden underscored his fundamental concerns about Beijing’s coercive and unfair economic practices, crackdown in Hong Kong, human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and increasingly assertive actions in the region, including toward Taiwan,” the statement said.

The leaders also discussed the pandemic, climate change, and preventing weapons proliferation, with Biden pledging to “advance the interests” of the U.S. and its allies.

Earlier Wednesday, Biden visited the Pentagon and announced that the Department of Defense had set up a task force focused on U.S. strategy towards China.

“We need to meet the growing challenges posed by China to keep peace and defend our interests in the Indo-Pacific and globally,” he said.

“It will require a whole government effort, bipartisan cooperation in Congress, and strong alliances and partnerships,” added Biden.

Former Tsinghua University politics lecturer Wu Qiang said it was significant that Biden had already waited three weeks to make the call since taking office in late January.

“China has been eager to gauge U.S. strategic intentions, after ties that have been frozen for more than a year,” Wu said. “The state of diplomatic decoupling had gotten to a more serious and [potentially] dangerous than … even the period after 1971.”

Three problem areas

Wu said Biden had clearly identified three major problem areas in the U.S.-China relationship.

“The first is … regional security, which includes Taiwan, the second is around Hong Kong and the [breaching of] the Sino-British Joint Declaration, and its commitment to rule Hong Kong unchanged for 50 years, and China’s overall attitude towards freedom and democracy in Hong Kong,” Wu said.

“The third problem area is China’s human rights abuses, which are exemplified by [its policies in] Xinjiang,” he said.

Last month the U.S. State Department determined that repression of Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities in its northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), including its use of internment camps and forced sterilizations, amounts to “genocide” and “crimes against humanity.”

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s designation has been recommended by Uyghur exile groups and human rights experts since the revelation in 2017 of mass re-education camps that have held as many as 1.8 million Uyghurs. Biden’s team supports its predecessor’s decision.

“President Biden has given great hope to the Uyghur people in recognizing and raising China’s genocide of and crimes against humanity towards the Uyghurs,” said Dolkun Isa, president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) exile group.

“The next step for the Biden Administration is to call on China to stop the 21st century genocide, close all the concentration camps and release all the Uyghurs arbitrarily detained,” he told RFA’s Uyghur Service.

Shortly before Biden spoke with Xi, Taiwan’s U.S. representative Hsiao Bi-khim met with U.S. State Department officials to discuss regional security and economic cooperation.

Hsiao was told that the U.S. is committed to a deeper relationship with Taiwan, a democratic and pluralistic society that has never been ruled by the CCP, nor formed part of the People’s Republic of China.

Hsiao’s meeting was also Taiwan’s first official contact with the State Department since Biden took office.

“The Taiwan issue is … [regarded as] an integral part of the security situation in the Indo-Pacific region,” Wu said.

Little room for mutual tolerance

By continuing the recent relaxation of protocol enabling more direct contact with officials from Taiwan, which hasn’t had formal diplomatic ties with Washington since 1979, the Biden administration has signaled that it will likely continue where the Trump administration left off when it comes to the Taiwan relationship.

Hong Kong current affairs commentator Willy Lam said the situation hasn’t changed much with the change of U.S. president.

“On geopolitical issues like the South China Sea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, … there isn’t much room for mutual tolerance, because Xi Jinping has vowed to build China up with more saber-rattling at least until 2022,” Lam said.

“The Clinton or Obama administration continued the [Democrats’] policy of engagement with China, which entailed a multilateral cooperation, but after four years of the Trump administration, nobody feels that they can afford to be seen as weak on China, whether they are Democrats or Republicans,” Lam said.

U.S.-based scholar Lu Jun said the presidents’ conversation carried more of a symbolic than a practical significance.

“It was a long time coming, and he only called Xi Jinping today because it is about to be Lunar New Year in China,” Lu said.

“If he hadn’t called, I think this might have been a tough year for Xi.”

Shortly before the two leaders spoke, the U.S. aircraft carriers Theodore Roosevelt and Nimitz, along with their carrier strike groups, carried out dual carrier operations the South China Sea, the U.S. Navy Times website reported.

“Through operations like this, we ensure that we are tactically proficient to meet the challenge of maintaining peace and we are able to continue to show our partners and allies in the region that we are committed to promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Rear Adm. Doug Verissimo, commander of the Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group, said in a Navy news release.

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