Biden-Xi call will come later than the US hoped as China ties fray

China’s leaders still haven’t responded to US requests to set up the call, which American officials had said would take place soon after an annual meeting of the country’s legislature concluded March 13.

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US officials now expect that a phone call between President Joe Biden and China’s President Xi Jinping won’t happen as soon as they had hoped, as ties between the world’s two biggest economies continue to fray, according to people familiar with the matter.

China’s leaders still haven’t responded to US requests to set up the call, which American officials had said would take place soon after an annual meeting of the country’s legislature, the National People’s Congress, concluded March 13, said the people, who asked not to be identified discussing private deliberations.

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The US now expects a call won’t happen until after Taiwan’s president passes through the US in early April, the people said. That stop, which Chinese officials have already criticized, may include a meeting with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

The delay isn’t provoking panic but reflects a broader deterioration in the two countries’ relationship after a series of spats, testy exchanges and full-blown crises in recent months, all of which has been accompanied by increasingly aggressive rhetoric on both sides.

Asked to comment about the US assessment on the timing of a call, National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson dismissed it as “idle speculation by an unnamed official.”

“The two leaders will speak at some point in the coming weeks, but we have nothing specific to announce,” Watson said.

The delay fits an emerging pattern: China still hasn’t responded to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s effort to speak with his Chinese counterpart, outreach the US made after Biden deployed US fighter jets to shoot down an alleged Chinese spy balloon that transited the US in February.

The balloon provoked a national uproar and led Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a trip to Beijing. China said the balloon was a harmless weather craft that drifted off course and accused the US of “hyperventilating.”

US officials have said restoring communications is a top priority. Blinken has been looking to reschedule his trip, and others including Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen may visit the People’s Republic of China.

“It’s important that we keep those lines of communication open, particularly now when tensions are so high,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said earlier in the week. “As a matter of fact, we’re having discussions with the PRC right now about a potential visit by Secretary Yellen and Secretary Raimondo to go over there and talk about economic issues.”

Biden has put a particular emphasis on using one-on-one chats with other leaders as a way to smooth relations. He last met Xi in person in November on the sidelines of a Group of 20 meeting in Bali, Indonesia. The two leaders’ pledge to arrest the slide in ties was drowned out by the balloon uproar as well as US accusations that China is moving closer to Russia and may provide it lethal assistance for the invasion of Ukraine.

Tsai’s visit to Central America will be the latest irritant. She’s expected to stop over in New York on March 29 and 30 and then again in Los Angeles a week later.

Such stopovers are normally routine but will draw new scrutiny given how bad the US-China relationship is now.

Lower-level contacts between the US and China have continued, including between the Pentagon and the Chinese military as well as a recent visit to Beijing by the head of the State Department’s new “China House,” Rick Waters.

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