U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke at length Thursday morning amid tensions over a proposed visit to Taiwan by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, which Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian has warned would “be met with forceful measures.”
A senior administration official told reporters afterward that the two leaders also “discussed the value of meeting face to face and agreed to have their teams follow up to find a mutually agreeable time to do so.”
In its brief readout of the two-hour call, the White House said the U.S. has not changed its policy on Taiwan, saying, “The United States strongly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”
This was the fifth call between the leaders since Biden took office in 2021.
Some analysts said the world’s two most powerful leaders were left in the same place they were before.
“Unfortunately, it did not substantially change things,” said Anita Kellogg, a postdoctoral fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute at Johns Hopkins University. “It did not reduce the tensions, which are at historic highs between the two countries. And I believe the positions essentially remain the same.”
An unwelcome visitor
Beijing sees U.S. lawmakers’ trips to Taiwan as contradicting Washington’s “One China” policy that recognizes Beijing as the sole government of China. Beijing views self-ruled Taiwan as a breakaway province.
The speaker’s potential visit is viewed as especially fraught, as she is third in succession to the presidency, after Vice President Kamala Harris.
"China is always in a state of high dudgeon,” Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center, told VOA via Zoom. “They seem always to be angry about the United States for something. And so, it can be very difficult to discern when they are actually a little bit angrier and might take action, as opposed to when they are crying wolf or just objecting as a matter of form.
“This one, I think, is different,” Daly added. “Speaker of the House is third in line to the presidency. She also has a long history as a human rights provocateur against China. … The Chinese tend to see her as a particular sort of thorn in their side. So, China has made clear that if she makes this trip, China will escalate in some way.”
Daly said Beijing may decide to shadow Pelosi’s plane, or perhaps send more overflights over Taiwan’s airspace.
“We don't really know,” he said. “But China has committed itself to doing something. And this is an escalation in U.S.-China tensions that neither side will benefit from.”
A spokesperson for Taiwan's official office in Washington declined to comment on Pelosi's potential trip but told VOA: "We thank President Biden for underscoring the importance of our shared interest in peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait."
Playing with fire
Chinese state media reported that Xi told Biden on Thursday the U.S. should abide by the "One China" principle and ensure that its actions are consistent with its words.
"Those who play with fire will only get burned," Xi reportedly told Biden during a phone call. "Hope the U.S. side can see this clearly."
The Biden administration said it has no power to dictate travel by members of Congress, but officials said they have explained that a visit by Pelosi could trigger a crisis across the Taiwan Strait.
When asked what the two leaders said about Pelosi’s proposed Taiwan trip, the official said, “No trip has been announced, and as we said previously, it’s her decision.”
The Foreign Ministry's Zhao criticized the proposed trip when it became public last week, saying it would "seriously undermine China's sovereignty and territorial integrity."
Speaking in Chinese, he said, "If the U.S. side obstinately clings to this course, China will definitely take resolute and forceful measures to firmly defend its national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Concerned by the vague threat, Pentagon officials told The Associated Press that if Pelosi continued with plans, the military would increase its movement of forces and assets in the Indo-Pacific region. Fighter jets, ships, surveillance assets and other military systems would likely be used to provide overlapping rings of protection for her flight to Taiwan and any time on the ground there.
Many China watchers believe a visit by the speaker will escalate tensions created by Biden’s statement during his Asia trip in May that Washington has a commitment to defend Taiwan should Beijing attack. Additionally, former secretaries of state and defense during the Trump administration, Mike Pompeo and Mark Esper, suggested the United States abandon the "One China" policy during visits to Taipei earlier this year.
“Xi feels that the United States is changing the status quo, with Biden saying the U.S. has a commitment to defend Taiwan, and Republicans suggesting doing away with the 'One China' policy. They see Pelosi’s visit as another move in this direction,” Zack Cooper, senior fellow at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, told VOA.
The timing is also sensitive, as Chinese Communist Party senior leaders are about to gather for their annual summer retreat, which comes just months ahead of a National Party Congress. At the congress, which happens once every five years, Xi is expected to seek an unprecedented third term in office.
While some observers say Xi’s preparations for the congress could deter him from launching a major escalation, others say some sort of forceful Chinese response is inevitable, and there are real risks of accidental or inadvertent escalation.
“Ahead of the party congress, Xi will have to show strength,” Cooper said.
South China Sea
According to the White House, the pair did not have an in-depth discussion about tensions in the South China Sea, over which Beijing’s claims of sovereignty are widely disputed. Washington has often called out Beijing’s militarization in those strategic waters and China’s “coercive and aggressive behavior” toward countries and territories in the region.
However, they broadly discussed "ways in which the Chinese activities are at odds with the international rules-based order,” the official told VOA.
Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam hold territorial claims over parts of the sea, which includes the disputed Paracel and Spratly islands.
China also announced military exercises in the sea earlier in July in response to a patrol operation by the U.S. Navy.
Also on the agenda was discussion of Trump-era U.S. tariffs on China, which National Security Council spokesman John Kirby described as “poorly designed.” The tariffs impose duties of about 25% on billions of dollars' worth of Chinese imports.
“President Biden explained to President Xi [his] core concerns with China's unfair economic practices, which harm American workers and harm American families,” the administration official said. “But he did not discuss any potential steps he might take with President Xi, and it would be wrong to believe that somehow a decision on any next steps was somehow waiting for this conversation.”
Beijing has called the U.S. tariffs “irresponsible,” and when asked in June, Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said, “With inflation rates running high across the globe, the U.S. needs to lift all the additional tariffs imposed on China, as this will serve the interests of businesses and consumers and benefit both countries and the world at large.”
“We believe that they've increased costs for American families and small businesses as well as ranchers,” Kirby said Tuesday of the tariffs. “And that's, you know, without actually addressing some of China's harmful trade practices. So, we thought that the previous administration's approach to tariffs was a shoddy deal, but I don't have anything more.”
There was no mention of tariffs in the White House readout.
The call also came during the House passage of the CHIPS and Science Act, which the Biden administration touts as a move to make major appliances, computers and everyday goods less expensive, while also creating American jobs.
"I don't think that China has any really legitimate objections to the CHIPS Act, in terms of any Chinese interests that have been harmed,” said Daly of the Wilson Center. “What China objects to is the framing of the package — the notion that China is a major geostrategic threat and that America has to counter it.”
While Taiwan and bilateral concerns figured prominently in the Biden-Xi call, the two leaders also touched on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“I would not characterize any particular breakthroughs that I personally saw in that conversation” on Ukraine, a senior administration official told reporters. “But obviously given, you know, the sort of global impact of Russia's war in Ukraine — as well as the very specific impact on the Ukrainian people, and on the European continent —it's an incredibly important issue for the two leaders to continue to discuss and for President Biden to make very clear his concerns there.”
VOA's Chris Hannas contributed to this report.