Biden Talks to Xi, the Leader of China, as Tensions Rise Over Taiwan!

President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, had a long and honest conversation about Taiwan on Thursday. This came as tensions between Washington and Beijing are rising, even though Biden had once hoped to stabilize the most important relationship between two countries in the world.

The two leaders did agree to start making plans for a face-to-face summit, which would be their first meeting since Xi doesn’t want to travel because of the Covid-19 pandemic. And some ways to work together, like dealing with climate change, were worked out.

But the Taiwan issue turned out to be one of the most tense. The issue has become a severe source of conflict because US officials fear that China will move on the self-governing island soon and because a possible visit by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has caused warnings from Beijing and a concerted effort by the Biden administration to keep tensions from getting out of hand.

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During the two-hour-and-17-minute phone call on Thursday, a lot was said about the subject. China’s account of what happened says Xi gave Biden a threatening warning.

“Public opinion shall not be violated, and if you play with fire you get burned. I hope the US side can see this clearly,” he told Biden, according to China’s state news agency. The White House’s account of the call was less specific.

“On Taiwan, President Biden stressed that US policy has not changed and that the US strongly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo or hurt peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” a US readout said.

A senior official in the US government said that the discussion about Taiwan was “direct and honest.” However, the official played down Xi’s warning, saying that it was normal for the Chinese leader to warn about the dangers of “playing with fire.”

Biden Talks Xi

This was the fifth time Biden and Xi have talked on the phone since February 2021. US officials said ahead of time that a wide range of topics, from the tensions around Taiwan to the war in Ukraine, were likely to come up.

But there weren’t many hopes that things would get much better with Beijing. Instead, Biden’s staff hopes that keeping in touch with Xi will, at most, prevent a mistake that could lead to a fight.

“This is the kind of relationship-tending that President Biden believes strongly in doing, even with nations with which you might have significant differences,” communications coordinator for the National Security Council John Kirby said this week.

As Thursday’s call was coming to a close, the two leaders talked about how much work they had given their teams, such as setting up a possible meeting in person. They haven’t met in person as presidents yet.

Opportunity for a summit could arise in November, when a series of summits will occur in Asia — including the Group of 20 in Bali, Indonesia, and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation in Bangkok, Thailand. People familiar with the matter said US officials are looking to arrange such a meeting on the margins of one of the summits.

Before the uproar over Pelosi’s planned trip to Taipei, Biden had already planned to talk to Xi on the phone. Neither side said if Pelosi’s plans were talked about in detail.

Biden is also considering whether to lift some tariffs on China that were put in place by Trump. He wants to do this to lower inflation, but White House officials said he hadn’t decided yet and that the topic wouldn’t be a big part of his talk with Xi.

Instead, the current tensions are caused by China’s growing aggression in the area, especially over Taiwan and the South China Sea. US officials worry that misunderstandings could lead to unintended conflict if they can’t talk to each other.

That includes how Beijing reacts to the idea of Pelosi going to Taiwan.

Officials from the administration have been working quietly over the past week to persuade the House speaker that going to the island with its government is dangerous. On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told Pelosi that he had talked to her to “assess the security situation.”

Pelosi hasn’t said anything about her trip plans, which haven’t been set in stone yet.

“I never talk about my travel. It’s a danger to me,” she said Wednesday.

Even though it wasn’t official, when Beijing heard that the third-in-line for the US presidency was thinking about going to Taiwan, it was a big deal. Beijing sees visits by high-ranking American officials as a sign of good relations with the island.

The Ministry of Defense Spokesperson Tan Kefei said on Tuesday in response to questions about Pelosi’s rumored trip to Taipei, “If the US insists on going its way, the Chinese military will never stand by and do nothing. It will take strong actions to stop any outside interference and separatists’ plans for “Taiwan independence,” and it will resolutely defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

The White House called those comments “unnecessary” and “unhelpful,” saying the rhetoric only served to escalate tensions “in a completely unnecessary manner.”

They also showed what US officials say is a misunderstanding on the part of Chinese officials about what Pelosi’s possible visit means. The officials said that since Pelosi and Biden are both Democrats, China might think that Pelosi’s visit is a visit from the government. Officials in the administration are worried that China doesn’t put much distance between Pelosi and Biden if any.

This makes Biden’s call with Xi even more important. Officials were not sure if Pelosi’s visit would come up or how much it would affect the discussion. But the fact that China doesn’t seem to understand the differences between the White House and Congress could make the talks more personal.

The timing of Pelosi’s trip is one reason why people in the administration are worried about it. It would happen at a very tense time, when the upcoming Chinese Communist Party congress, where Xi is expected to try for an unprecedented third term, is putting pressure on the leaders in Beijing to show strength. In the coming weeks, Chinese party officials are likely to start making plans for that conference.

China’s economy just had its worst year in two years, which puts Xi in a tricky political position before the important meeting.

Biden and Xi spent a lot of time together when they were both vice presidents of their countries. They travelled all over China and the United States to get to know each other better.

Biden’s last conversation with Xi was in March when he tried to get the Chinese leader to stop supporting Russia as it invaded Ukraine. Officials have been closely watching how Beijing reacts to the invasion. They hope that the mostly united response from the west, which includes harsh economic sanctions and billions of dollars worth of arms shipments, will help China decide what to do about Taiwan.

US officials believe there’s a small risk China would miscalculate in responding to a potential Pelosi visit. Biden administration officials are concerned that China could seek to declare a no-fly zone over Taiwan ahead of a possible visit as an effort to upend the trip, potentially raising tensions even further in the region, a US official told Journalworldwide.

That remains a remote possibility, officials said. More likely, they say, is the possibility China steps up flights further into Taiwan’s self-declared air defense zone, which could trigger renewed discussions about possible responses from Taiwan and the US, the US official added. They did not detail what those possible responses would entail.

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