WASHINGTON — President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke for the first time in seven months on Thursday, expressing concern about China’s cyber activities while arguing that the leaders of the world’s two largest economies could set aside their differences to work together on climate change.
The call represented a rupture in what experts have described as one of the worst points in the two countries’ relationship in decades. It was only the second time the leaders had spoken since Mr. Biden’s inauguration; the lack of communication reflects rising tensions between their countries as each seeks to limit the other’s global influence.
The call, which lasted 90 minutes, according to a senior administration official, came at an especially sensitive time. Tensions over Taiwan and the South China Sea are rising, and Mr. Biden is attempting to rally the West in what he calls a battle of “autocracy versus democracy.” It also came less than two weeks after the US completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan, where China has expressed an interest in mining for commodities.
Even as Mr. Biden’s senior officials emphasised the importance of engaging directly with Mr. Xi after months of stalled talks, administration officials provided remarkably few details from the call on Thursday evening. According to officials, Mr. Biden did press China to agree to a set of policy guidelines while also emphasising the importance of mitigating climate change.
According to a White House statement, the discussion “was part of the United States’ ongoing effort to responsibly manage competition between the United States and the P.R.C.,” which is an abbreviation for the People’s Republic of China. Mr. Biden “emphasised the United States’ enduring interest in peace, stability, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and around the world,” and the two leaders “discussed the responsibility of both countries to ensure competition does not devolve into conflict.”
According to the official Chinese translation of the call, Mr. Xi told Mr. Biden that the United States’ policies toward China had strained relations and that it was in both countries’ interests to avoid confrontation.
“The policies that the United States has adopted toward China for some time have pushed Chinese-US relations into serious difficulties, which is out of step with the fundamental interests of both countries’ peoples and the shared interests of every country in the world,” Mr. Xi said, according to a summary of the call released online by the Chinese Foreign Ministry. “Whether China and the United States can handle their mutual relations properly is a question for the century that concerns the fate of the world, and both countries must answer it.”
According to the Foreign Ministry, Mr. Xi mentioned climate change, pandemic prevention and control, and economic recovery as areas where Beijing and Washington should collaborate. He did, however, emphasise that the effort should be based on “respect for each other’s core concerns and appropriately managing differences.”
The call between the two leaders, their first substantive conversation since February, demonstrated the White House’s sense of urgency in competing with Beijing and establishing policymaking expectations.
Prior to the call in the Treaty Room, senior administration officials stated that the discussion was necessary because previous discussions had erupted in criticism and ended with few commitments to collaborate.
A March meeting between China’s top diplomats and senior Biden administration officials, including Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, ended in condemnations and no joint statement of intent to collaborate. Wendy R. Sherman, the deputy secretary of state, visited China in July and found little progress.
During the most recent attempt to collaborate on climate change, Chinese officials told US climate envoy John Kerry in Tianjin last week that escalating tensions would stymie any potential cooperation.
“Any stabilisation of the relationship, any progress toward work of mutual concern like climate or pandemic, is impossible without political will at the very top of both governments,” said Myron Brilliant, executive vice president and head of international affairs at the US Chamber of Commerce. “It begins with the two leaders agreeing on a framework for collaborating on areas of mutual concern.”
Mr. Brilliant stated that the next phase of the two leaders’ dialogue would need to be “backed by more concrete steps toward engagement in areas where the two sides also have differences and challenges,” such as trade and technology.
Mr. Biden discussed cybersecurity concerns with Mr. Xi, two months after the administration accused the Chinese government of breaching Microsoft email systems used by the world’s largest corporations and the US rallied a broad group of allies to condemn Beijing for cyberattacks around the world.
The Chinese Communist Party was enraged by the Biden administration’s effort to organise denunciations from multiple countries. However, according to the Foreign Ministry’s summary of the call, both countries “agreed that it was very important for the leaders of China and the United States to engage in thorough communication” and that they would keep in touch on a regular basis.
The discussion took place weeks after experts assembled by Avril D. Haines, the director of national intelligence, reported that they were unable to determine whether the coronavirus had escaped from a laboratory or arose from a virus mutation in the animal population. The review’s inconclusiveness is bound to fuel competing theories about how the coronavirus emerged — and the extent to which Beijing, which has blocked access to key researchers, bears responsibility.