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Biden-Xi phone call is expected to cover Taiwan, tariffs and other issues

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

President Biden and China's president, Xi Jinping, spoke this morning by phone. The relationship has been tense between the world's two biggest economies, and it's only getting more tense, with reports that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi might be planning a trip to Taiwan. Earlier this morning, we asked NPR's John Ruwitch in Beijing to tell us what this fifth conversation between Biden and Xi might cover.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Well, the Biden administration says this call's been planned for a while. It's part of what they dubbed relationship tending. John Kirby, the National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, had this to say about the call yesterday during a briefing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN KIRBY: The president wants to make sure that the lines of communication with President Xi remain open because they need to.

RUWITCH: Yeah, that's because it's a challenging time. Relations remain frayed across the board. China and the U.S. don't see eye to eye on how they can make things better in the relationship. The Chinese government insists that the U.S. is the cause of the breakdown in relations and it's up to the Biden administration to fix it. Beijing even issued a list of demands a few weeks ago, things it thinks the U.S. should do to that end.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Now, from the U.S. side, the buzzwords for policy toward China are, invest, align and compete, right? What does that mean? And does it leave room to improve the relationship?

RUWITCH: Well, invest is invest in America. Align is to align, you know, with allies in policy toward China. And compete is to compete with China on a broad range of issues. U.S. officials say there is room to work together on topics like climate change. And the Chinese acknowledge that there should be cooperation, but they really aren't happy with the U.S. approach. Scott Kennedy is with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

SCOTT KENNEDY: The Chinese seem to be actually dragging their feet on trying to, you know, really make progress on areas where we could collaborate because they're waiting for the U.S. to give that broad signal.

RUWITCH: You know, these are the two most powerful countries on Earth.

FADEL: Right.

RUWITCH: U.S. officials have said that Ukraine will be on that list of issues that they're going to be discussing. China is aligned with Russia in the Ukraine issue. Taiwan, of course, is also going to come up. It's a perennial issue at the heart of the relationship, but it's been stirred up because of this - these reports that House Speaker Pelosi is planning a trip to Taiwan. That trip is not confirmed yet. But Beijing considers the island, of course, a part of China, even though it doesn't control it and has threatened, quote, "forceful measures" if there is a visit.

FADEL: What about tariffs? The Biden administration has been discussing this as a possible way to lower inflation at home. Is that something that could break the ice?

RUWITCH: Well, the White House has been considering rolling back some Trump-era tariffs on consumer products. It's unclear how much it would help with inflation. So there's still debate about that. China has always seen them as illegitimate. Here's Scott Kennedy again.

KENNEDY: I don't expect the two presidents really to make tariffs in the negotiation about whether to reach a deal or not a central part of their phone call. But I do think that they might talk about to what extent do we have an economic relationship, which ought to be more positive sum (ph) than it is right now.

FADEL: Right. So how does that happen? These are the world's two biggest economies, but they're at loggerheads.

RUWITCH: Yeah, there are strong headwinds, and both sides have been focusing lately on that sort of compete element of the relationship, taking steps to strengthen and insulate their economies. You know, just yesterday, the Senate passed a bill to help American semiconductor makers compete with China. The administration's also been trying to curtail China's access to global chip supply. That's just reinforced the notion in China that in order to survive, it needs to be self-sufficient, not just in chips but things like energy and food. You know, Biden and Xi Jinping might not make much concrete progress in these talks, but the fact they're having a discussion, you know, underscores the point that both seem to believe that talking is better than not talking.

FADEL: NPR's John Ruwitch in Beijing. Thank you, John.

RUWITCH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.