President Joe Biden and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping held “candid” phone calls on Thursday, with Xi warning the US leader not to play with fire on Taiwan, according to Chinese state media.
The virtual summit, which lasted more than two hours, took place as Beijing and Washington are increasingly at risk of open conflict over the self-governing island, which China considers part of its territory.
“Those who play with fire will eventually burn themselves,” Xi told Biden in reference to Taiwan, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency — in the same language he used when they spoke last November.
“I hope the American side fully understands that,” Xi told Biden.
“The stance of the Chinese government and the people on the Taiwan issue is consistent,” Xi said. “It is the determination of the more than 1.4 billion Chinese to firmly protect China’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
While this was Biden’s fifth meeting with Xi since he took office a year and a half ago, it is becoming increasingly difficult to mask the growing mistrust between the two countries amid a trade war and tensions over Taiwan.
The latest flashpoint is a possible trip by an ally of Biden and Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, to the island, which has its own distinctly democratic government.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby had said “tensions over China’s aggressive, coercive behavior in the Indo-Pacific” would be high on the agenda — using the US’s term. government for the Asia-Pacific region.
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Although US officials regularly visit Taiwan, which is separated from mainland China by a narrow strip of water, Pelosi considers a trip to Pelosi a major provocation. She is second in line to the US presidency and is allowed to travel with military transport given her position.
Washington will “bear the consequences” if the trip, which Pelosi has yet to confirm, goes ahead, China warned on Wednesday.
General Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that if Pelosi asks for military support, we will do whatever it takes to ensure safe, secure operations.
And the Pelosi dispute is the tip of an iceberg, with US officials fearing Xi is considering using force to impose control over democratic Taiwan.
Once considered unlikely, an invasion, or minor form of military action, is increasingly seen as possible by China watchers — perhaps even timed to boost Xi’s prestige when he moves to a third term later this year.
Biden’s conflicting remarks about whether the United States would defend Taiwan — he said it would in May, before the White House insisted there was no change to its hands-off “strategic ambiguity” policy — have not spurred the tension. helped.
No face to face
Biden is proud of a close relationship with Xi that dates back years, but – largely due to travel restrictions from Covid – the two have not met in person since he took office.
According to the White House, Biden’s main goal is to create “guardrails” for the two superpowers.
This is intended to ensure that, while they strongly disagree on democracy, and are increasingly rivals on the geopolitical stage, they can avoid open conflict.
“He wants to make sure that the lines of communication with President Xi on all issues, whether they are again issues that we agree on or issues that we have significant issues with, are still able to pick up the phone and be candid with each other,” he said. said Kirby.
However, where to place the guardrails is a challenge amid so many unresolved disputes, including a simmering trade war that started under Donald Trump’s presidency.
Asked if Biden could lift some of the 25 percent tariffs Trump has levied on billions of dollars worth of Chinese products, Kirby said there was still no decision.
“We believe… that the tariffs introduced by its predecessor were poorly designed. We believe that they increased costs for American families and small businesses, as well as ranchers. And that is, you know, without actually address some of China’s harmful trade practices,” Kirby said.
But “I don’t have any decision to talk to regarding tariffs by the president. He’s working this out.”