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US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping held a long-awaited call. Tension between their two nations has been exacerbated by reports of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi planning a trip to Taiwan. Photo: AP Photo

China-US relations: Xi warns Biden on Taiwan, urging ‘clear-eyed’ approach versus playing with ‘fire’

  • Chinese leader stresses commitment to resisting ‘interference by external forces’ in self-governing island, alluding to possible Pelosi trip
  • Two-hour call described as ‘candid, in-depth and constructive’, with both sides instructed to maintain communication, Chinese embassy adds
Chinese President Xi Jinping warned his US counterpart Joe Biden that China remained staunchly committed to resisting “interference by external forces” in Taiwan, as tensions soar between the two powers over a possible trip to the self-governed island by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“The position of the Chinese government and people on the Taiwan question is consistent, and resolutely safeguarding China’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity is the firm will of the more than 1.4 billion Chinese people,” he said.

“The will of the people cannot be defied and those who play with fire will perish by it,” Xi was quoted by the Chinese embassy in Washington as telling Biden in a phone call that lasted two hours and 15 minutes on Thursday, according to the White House. “It is hoped that the US will be clear-eyed about this.”

Xi also told Biden that Washington’s assessment that China represents the most serious long-term challenge to the US was a misperception of the bilateral relationship and a misreading of China’s development.

Asked whether Biden had perceived Xi’s comments as a threat, a senior White House official briefing reporters said the Chinese leader “used similar language in the conversation that the two leaders had back in November”. She added she “was not going to get into parsing metaphors”.

“The two leaders basically discussed the fact that the United States and China have differences when it comes to Taiwan, but that they have managed those for over 40 years, and that keeping an open line of communication on this issue is essential to continuing to do so,” she said.

As has been the case since reports began circulating about Pelosi’s plans, the White House official would not comment on the House speaker’s trip, saying only that “no trip has been announced and as we said previously, it’s her decision”.

Despite the stern rhetoric, each leader viewed the conversation as “candid, in-depth and constructive”, the embassy said, adding that both sides had instructed their teams to maintain “communication and cooperation”.

The White House official called the talks “substantive”, “in-depth” and “candid”, adding that the two leaders “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”.

Taiwan ‘will have to bear wrath of Beijing’ if Pelosi visit goes ahead

The fifth call between the two presidents since Biden took office last year was intended to manage the rivalry between the two powers. But that aim risked being upended amid reports of Pelosi planning a trip to Taiwan next month. She would be the first US House Speaker to visit the island since Newt Gingrich in 1997.

Beijing said a trip by Pelosi would be more of a violation of its sovereignty over Taiwan than previous visits to the island by US officials and politicians because she is second in the US presidential line of succession.

The Chinese military has already said it would take countermeasures if Pelosi went ahead, and the US military is reportedly planning to increase its movement of forces and assets in the Indo-Pacific region. Military watchers say the superpowers’ respective approaches could easily lead to a risk of conflict.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian reiterated the warning ahead of the call on Thursday.

China, US both build up military strength around Taiwan Strait as tensions rise

“China has repeatedly stated to the US its solemn position that it firmly opposes House Speaker Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan,” Zhao told a daily press conference.

“If the US insists on going its own way, the Chinese military will never sit idly by, and will take strong measures to thwart any attempt by external forces to interfere and support Taiwan independence”.

Echoing the White House’s readout of the call, the Chinese embassy reported Biden as having told Xi that Washington’s one-China policy would not change and that the US did not support Taiwanese independence.

“These calls, while I think constructive and we should be glad that they’re meeting, are not driving events,” said Robert Daly, director of the Wilson Centre’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States. “The events are unfolding, but the relationship keeps deteriorating quite regardless of these discussions.”

Call between Xi and Biden won’t break China-US deadlock, observers say

“Clearly the Biden-Xi phone call as a driver of relations is not as significant right at the moment as the potential for a Pelosi trip or the fact that an American aircraft carrier is sailing up toward the South China Sea and possibly the Taiwan Strait,” Daly added.

The leaders’ call follows a number of incidents in the South China Sea that US officials regard as evidence of Beijing’s increasingly aggressive stance.

However, Xi and Biden “did not have an opportunity to talk in depth about the South China Sea”, the White House official said, even though White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said on Wednesday that “tensions in the South China Sea” would be a topic of conversation.

Instead, the leaders did discuss “broadly speaking … concerns about ways in which the Chinese activities are at odds with the international rules-based order, issues surrounding the maritime region”, the White House official said in Thursday’s briefing.

Earlier Kirby described the bilateral relationship as “one of the most consequential” in the world, bearing ramifications “well beyond both individual countries”.

Economy over tariffs: US, China told to be ‘responsible’ global leaders

Other items on the call’s agenda included Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which the Chinese embassy referred to as the “Ukraine crisis”.
Beijing has refused to condemn Moscow’s attack on Ukraine, or refer to it as an invasion at all, drawing criticism from US officials who believe China could use its influence on Russian President Vladimir Putin to help de-escalate the conflict.

Xi had “reiterated China’s principled position” on the subject, according to the embassy.

The two leaders had also been expected to discuss human rights and economic policies. Biden is weighing whether to ease some tariffs imposed on Chinese goods during the previous Trump administration, a move meant to lessen the impact of soaring inflation on American households.
Biden has portrayed China’s military build-up as a threat to free navigation in a region that accounts for a large portion of global trade. The US has sought to bolster ties with allies and partnerships such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, a four-nation pact with Australia, India and Japan. Beijing has criticised such moves as a broader effort to contain China.

Chinese defence ministry spokesman Wu Qian hit back at US criticisms of Chinese military deployments in the South China Sea.

Wu told a press conference on Thursday that security concerns in the disputed waters had been triggered by “US provocations such as long-term, large-scale and high-intensity reconnaissance and military exercises”.

“China firmly opposes this, and takes reasonable, powerful, safe and professional measures to resolutely respond,” he added. “We urge the US to stop infringements and provocations.”

Wu also criticised US plans to deploy intermediate range missiles in Japan, saying: “This will seriously threaten the security of countries in the region and seriously undermine regional peace and stability. If it is put into practice, China will take firm countermeasures.”

Risk of US-China conflict over Taiwan could leave Japan badly exposed

The latest conversation between Xi and Biden was arranged following a meeting between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in early July on the sidelines of a Group of 20 meeting in Bali.
Wang said China had presented Blinken with a list of Beijing’s key concerns and demands, but had also highlighted areas for potential cooperation.

The foreign minister also warned the US not to make “subversive mistakes that ruin peace across the Taiwan Strait”.

Biden conducted the call against a backdrop of domestic economic headwinds in the form of a second consecutive quarter of economic contraction, which was announced soon after the call started, and record high inflation, which has dogged his administration for months.

‘Ineffective’ tariffs on Chinese tech imports cost US firms US$32 billion

The US Federal Reserve has begun a series of aggressive interest rate hikes to tame inflation, but this approach threatens to exacerbate the US economic slowing, all of which prioritises the question of what to do about America’s punitive tariffs on Chinese imports.
“We do believe … that the tariffs that were put in place by [Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump] were poorly designed,” Kirby said on Tuesday. “We believe that they’ve increased costs for American families and small businesses, as well as ranchers. 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,” Kirby added.

However, the White House official briefing reporters after the call said Biden did not end up discussing his plans for the tariffs. The US president instead brought up his “core concerns with China’s unfair economic practices, which harm American workers and harm American families”.

Competing interests tug at Biden as he mulls cutting tariffs on Chinese goods

Whether these tensions could be alleviated by a face-to-face meeting depends on whether the two leaders are able to bring accommodation, however minimal, to the proposed summit, said the Wilson Centre’s Daly.

“The challenge for the United States is to describe some version of a one-China policy that is convincing to China and that we can actually live by and abide by,” Daly said.

On the other hand, Beijing “is not going to give up its claims to Taiwan, but the notion that all of [the Chinese government’s] sensitivities should be honoured at all times by the United States and other countries is clearly not going to wash”, he added.