By Jarrett Renshaw and Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Joe Biden vowed on Thursday to push China to play by international rules, criticized his Republican opponents and defended his policy to provide shelter to children crossing the U.S. border from Mexico at his first solo news conference since taking office.
Appearing before reporters for more than an hour, Biden seemed well-prepared, read from written papers occasionally, and calmly took questions, a sharp contrast to the often raucous, combative news conferences held by his Republican predecessor, Donald Trump.
Amid the worst U.S.-Chinese relations in decades, Biden compared Chinese President Xi Jinping to Russian President Vladimir Putin, calling them both supporters of autocracy.
But he said the United States was not looking for confrontation with China over differences on trade, Beijing's rollback of democracy in Hong Kong, treatment of minority Uighurs and military buildup.
“He’s one of the guys, like Putin, who thinks that autocracy is the wave of the future, (and) democracy can’t function in an ever-complex world,” Biden said of Xi. "He doesn't have a democratic - with a small 'd' - bone in his body, but he's a smart, smart guy."
He said he would insist the Chinese leader "play by the international rules, fair competition, fair practices, fair trade."
Biden also criticized Republican-backed measures in many state legislatures to restrict voting rights, saying they were worse than "Jim Crow," referring to laws put in place in Southern states in the decades after the 1861-65 U.S. Civil War to legalize racial segregation and disenfranchise Black citizens.
Struggling to contain a surge in unaccompanied children seeking asylum at the U.S. southern border, Biden suggested his Republican critics who say his policies are at fault were inhumane.
No previous administration had refused care and shelter to children coming over from Mexico, except that of Trump, Biden said. Rather than leaving those children to "starve to death" at the border, Biden said his administration would care for them.
Biden noted that he had selected Vice President Kamala Harris to lead diplomatic efforts with Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to stem the flow of migrants.
Biden faces opposition from congressional Republicans to his ambitious plans for what could end up being a $3 trillion plan for infrastructure and other priorities and tax increases to pay for it.
He said he believed the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate should make it harder for Republicans to use a parliamentary blocking maneuver called the filibuster that requires 60 votes to advance most legislation in the 100-seat chamber, saying it is being abused.
He called for a return to the “talking filibuster” - a tradition from decades ago that required senators to occupy the floor and make their case against legislation if they opposed it.
NEW VACCINATION TARGET
Biden's own political future came up at the news conference.
At 78 years old, many political analysts believe Biden could decide to serve only one term. But he said he planned to run for re-election in 2024, keeping Harris as his running mate. "That’s my expectation," he said.
On Jan. 20, Biden became the oldest U.S. president to be inaugurated.
Biden also on Thursday set a new goal of administering 200 million vaccination shots against COVID-19 in the United States in his first 100 days in office.
He said his initial goal of administering 100 million vaccination shots in his first 100 days in the White House was reached last week, 42 days ahead of schedule, and that he was doubling the target.
"I know it’s ambitious, twice our original goal, but no other country in the world has even come close," the Democratic president said.
Biden backed away from a May 1 deadline to withdraw U.S. troops in Afghanistan after Trump tried but failed to pull them out before leaving office.
"It's going to be hard to meet the May 1 deadline," said Biden. But he added: "We are not staying a long time" in Afghanistan, site of America's longest war.
He said he did not think the troops would still be there next year.
Biden read carefully from talking points in responding to a question about North Korea's missile launches, which have alarmed U.S. allies Japan and South Korea. "If they choose to escalate, we will respond accordingly," he said.
He said he was prepared for "some form of diplomacy" with North Korea, "but it has to be conditioned upon the end result of denuclearization."
Pyongyang wants the United States and other nations to ease economic sanctions imposed over its nuclear weapons program. U.S. officials have said they have tried to engage with North Korea diplomatically but received no response.
Biden was repeatedly pressed to defend his migration policy along the U.S. border with Mexico.
Biden said the increase in migration was cyclical.
"It happens every single solitary year. There is a significant increase in the number of people coming to the border in the winter months," he said. "It happens every year."
He said many migrants were fleeing problems in their home countries and blamed Trump for dismantling parts of the U.S. immigration system.
(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Alexandra Alper, Nandita Bose and Andrea Shalal; Editing by Heather Timmons, Alistair Bell and Peter Cooney)