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18 May


Timing of first Biden-Xi phone call speaks volumes

On the eve of the Lunar New Year, Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden had their first official phone call since the latter's inauguration

Photo: AFP

/NOVOSTIVL/ Three weeks after he replaced Donald Trump, U.S. President Joe Biden had his first telephone call with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on Thursday morning, Beijing time.

It was the eve of the Lunar New Year, the most important day for spending quality family time in China. Thursday also marked the first day of the weeklong string of New Year's holidays known as the Spring Festival.

Which side requested the long-awaited call?

In an interview with CBS aired on Feb. 7, Biden had expressed his intention to call Xi. "Well, we haven't had occasion to talk to one another yet," he said, adding, "There's no reason not to call him."

The English service of China's state-run Xinhua News Agency reported that Xi "took a phone call from" Biden. It might be true that Biden called and Xi answered. But the Chinese-language version of the Xinhua report -- the official one -- hints there is more to the story.

One term that often appears in reports about Xi's telephone talks with foreign leaders is missing from the Chinese version: yingyao. It is used to imply that Xi made an appointment for a telephone conversation in response to a request from others.

When Xinhua reported on calls between Xi and Trump, it used "yingyao" almost every time.

The fact that the term is missing from the Chinese report strongly suggests that it was Xi's side, not Biden's, that requested the call.

There is also reason to think that the Xi-Biden chat was specifically set for the morning of Chinese New Year's Eve in response to a request from Beijing.

According to Xinhua, Biden offered his New Year's greetings to the Chinese people at the outset of the conversation. After listening to Xi, Biden is quoted as saying, "China is a country with a long history and great civilization, and the Chinese people are great people."

It sounds as if Biden called Xi to offer his New Year's greetings and sang China's praises.

State-run China Central Television, known as CCTV, treated the call as an "auspicious event," with a female announcer in a traditional bright-red festive dress reading out the news.

There is a 13-hour time difference between Washington and Beijing. The call occurred on Wednesday night, Washington time.

Now consider Biden's first call with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. It was set at shortly before 11 a.m. Washington time on Jan. 27 -- perhaps out of concern for the 78-year-old U.S. leader's health.

But that was shortly before 1:00 a.m. on Jan. 28, Tokyo time. One might even call it a thoughtless time to call another country's prime minister, who happens to be 72.

To me, this suggests Biden is giving greater consideration to Xi than to Suga.

Xi reportedly told Biden that China and the U.S. "should reestablish the various dialogue mechanisms." The Chinese president probably felt he could talk with Biden easily compared with the unpredictable Trump.