President Joe Biden said China would face “extreme competition” from the US in the latest sign of Sino-US tensions to come after his administration said it would hold Beijing accountable for its “abuses” and human rights record.
Biden told CBS News that he had not yet spoken to China’s president Xi Jinping since his inauguration but signalled that he would not take a softer stance towards Beijing than his predecessor, Donald Trump.
“I’ve said to him all along that we need not have a conflict,” Biden said. “But there’s going to be extreme competition . . . I’m not going to do it the way Trump did. We’re going to focus on international rules of the road.”
Biden, who spent considerable time with Xi as vice-president to Barack Obama, said the Chinese leader was “very bright” but “doesn’t have a democratic, small D, bone in his body”. At one point during the Democratic primary race last year, Biden described him as a “thug”.
In the first three weeks of the administration, senior US officials have taken a hard rhetorical stance towards China over everything from its rights record in Xinjiang and Hong Kong to its military activity near Taiwan.
So far, the administration has said it would take an approach of “patience”, but many foreign policy experts in Washington are waiting to see whether Biden will match the early tough rhetoric on China with assertive actions.
Antony Blinken, secretary of state, on Friday became the first top official to speak to Beijing. Following a conversation with Yang Jiechi, China’s top foreign policy official, Blinken said he had told his counterpart that the US would stand up for democratic values and hold China to account.
“I made clear the US will defend our national interests, stand up for our democratic values, and hold Beijing accountable for its abuses of the international system,” Blinken wrote on Twitter about the conversation.
The state department added that Blinken had told Yang the US would press China over its rights record in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong. He also urged Beijing to condemn the coup in Myanmar.
Last week, Yang blamed the Trump administration for the poor state of US-China relations. He said he hoped the two countries could improve the situation, but warned the US not to cross any “red lines” and told the Biden administration not to interfere in Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang.
The state department recently warned China to stop trying to intimidate Taiwan after Chinese fighter jets and bombers entered the island’s air defence zone and simulated attacks on the USS Theodore Roosevelt, an aircraft carrier.
In another sign that the Biden team intends to be tough on China’s rights record, Blinken recently described the repression of 1m Uighurs in Xinjiang province as “genocide”.
In an interview with CNN, Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador to the US, dismissed claims that Beijing was committing abuses against the Muslim minority. He denied China was holding Uighurs in what critics have described as punitive labour camps.
“They are just like a campus. Not a labour camp, but a campus,” Cui said.
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