Four years ago, Xi joined other leaders in calling Donald Trump just hours after he was declared the winner of the presidential election on November 9, a day after the vote. Xi’s hesitation this time around partly reflects the deep rift between Beijing and Washington, which looks likely to continue regardless of who is in the White House, analysts say.
European leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson are among those who have congratulated Biden since the election was called in his favour on Saturday.
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Their messages have come despite vows from Trump to wage a legal battle against the election results, alleging voter fraud, and as his supporters continue to hold rallies across the country in support of the president.
In Beijing on Monday, foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin chose his words carefully at a regular press briefing, saying China had “taken note of Biden declaring victory” without referring to the former vice-president as the US president-elect.
“We understand that the election results will be confirmed according to related US laws and procedures,” Wang said, adding that Beijing hoped Washington would manage differences between the two countries on the basis of mutual respect and dialogue.
Trump has refused to concede since major US media outlets called the November 3 election for Biden. The president and his lawyers have promised to take legal action against the election results, which could drag on for weeks, while Biden and running mate Kamala Harris have declared victory.
Observers in China said Beijing would tread carefully on the issue.
“Chinese leaders feel it is not the appropriate time to extend congratulations, not only because of the deep civilian divide over the election results, but also because US-China relations are in such a bad state overall,” said Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor at Renmin University in Beijing and adviser to the State Council, China’s cabinet.
While officials have been quiet, state-run tabloid Global Times said it was a “foregone conclusion” that Biden would be the next US president, in an editorial published on Sunday. It also said the US was unlikely to ease pressure on China when Biden took power.
The tabloid’s editor-in-chief Hu Xijin tweeted on Monday that Beijing had not followed Western countries in congratulating Biden just yet to “avoid getting entangled in [US] controversies”.
Shi echoed those views. “Biden’s hostile attacks against China during the campaign show there is no sign that he will take a very different line [from Trump] towards US-China relations,” he said.
Biden called President Xi a “thug” on the campaign trail and has blasted Beijing over its policies in Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
“There’s no need for China to rush to congratulate Biden at this point,” Shi said.
In Taiwan, President Tsai Ing-wen was among the first to congratulate Biden with a Twitter message on Sunday. But Russian leader Vladimir Putin has yet to acknowledge Biden’s win.
“It’s less sensitive for close friends of Washington to make a statement, but the situation is different for China or Russia,” said Yu Wanli, a Beijing-based foreign policy analyst.
“With Trump still contesting the vote, there’s a chance that a statement from these countries could even be seen as electoral interference,” he said. “The simplest answer, however, is that the election is simply not over, even if [US] media outlets have made their calls.”
Zhang Baohui, a political-science professor at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, said Beijing was “very sensitive to how the China issue has affected the US presidential election”.
“So it does not want to add fuel to the fire,” Zhang said. “By keeping a low profile on the election matter, Beijing thinks it can minimise the salience of the China issue in US politics at this difficult moment.”
Additional reporting by Catherine Wong
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