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Foreign Policy

Phone Call Diplomacy

Mar 10, 2021
  • Li Yan

    Deputy Director of Institute of American Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden had their first official phone call on Feb. 11, not long after Biden’s inauguration. The conversation, on the eve of the Lunar New Year, was a significant moment that sent an encouraging signal to the world.

For China and the United States, head-of-state diplomacy has traditionally been the most effective means of enhancing ties. True to form, this phone call signaled hope for a relationship that now stands at a crossroads. To the consternation of many, frictions have plunged the two countries to the lowest point in relations since the establishment of diplomatic ties. The phone call laid the initial groundwork for a positive turn.

During the call, President Xi’s statements on a wide range of issues provide strategic guidance and a road map for efforts designed to improve and stabilize the world’s most consequential bilateral relationship.

First, efforts to improve and stabilize China-U.S. relations must be built on the experience of past interactions. By reviewing a half-century of history and aware that bilateral relations over time have continued to move forward despite many twists and turns, Xi noted the importance of healthy ties and reiterated: “The two countries stand to gain from cooperation and stand to lose from confrontation. Cooperation is the only right choice for both sides.”

The downward spiral of the relationship in recent years, however, has generated various comments on the possible trajectory going forward, including a view that once prevailed that China and the United States will slide into a new Cold War. An examination of their relationship reveals that the relationship has been characterized by both win-win cooperation and efforts to deal with differences and crises. Therefore, both countries need to take a long-term view of their relationship, which stands at a crossroads, and gain a clear understanding of its direction. Indeed, President Xi’s statements provide strategic guidance for steering it properly. 

Second, efforts to improve and stabilize China-U.S. relations must be consistent with the shared interests of both countries and of the global population at large. As stressed by Xi, this involves the shared expectations of people in China and the United States, as well as the wider international community, to enhance the healthy and stable progress.

Over the past four years, the Donald Trump administration made a fundamental adjustment in U.S. strategy toward China. Trump’s moves to impose maximum pressure on China not only undermined the common interests of both peoples but also cast a shadow on world peace and stability.

In the context of a raging pandemic, nations around the world face a host of major challenges today, such as defeating the coronavirus and keeping the social and economic ship on an even keel. In the face of an uncertain international landscape, China and the United States — as two of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — have special responsibilities and obligations, so the need to improve and stabilize relations is urgent. 

Third, efforts to improve China-U.S. relations depends on constructive dialogues in which the two countries understand each other’s true intentions. In the phone call with Biden, Xi stressed the importance of maintaining communication and dialogue, managing differences and enhancing cooperation. An important factor in achieving such impressive results in relations over past decades lies in multilevel dialogue mechanisms established on many fronts, along with a model of interaction focused on results-oriented cooperation and effective management of differences.

To improve the situation today, the top priority for China and the United States must be to restart engagement on economic, financial, law enforcement and military fronts as soon as possible, so that there are channels to explain policy intentions and ultimately avoid misunderstanding and miscalculation. The Feb. 11 phone call paved the way.

In short, the phone call between the two presidents was constructive and provided new and possibilities. The long-term development of this relationship requires both countries — as Xi has put it — to “uphold the spirit of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation.” In doing so, the two countries can begin to implement key principles outlined in the call and expand their shared interests. 

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