Biden and Xi Jinping had a long call on Taiwan tensions

(CNN)– President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, had a long and candid discussion on Taiwan on Thursday, at a time when tensions between Washington and Beijing are rising, despite Biden’s longstanding hope of stabilizing the relationship. from country to country in the world.

The issue has become a serious point of contention, as US officials fear a more imminent Chinese move on the self-governing island and as a possible visit by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi prompts warnings from Beijing and a coordinated effort by the Biden administration to prevent tensions from escalating into conflict.

The matter was discussed at length in Thursday’s two-hour, 17-minute phone call. According to the Chinese version of events, Xi issued an ominous warning to Biden.

“Public opinion should not be violated, and if you play with fire you will get burned. I hope the US side sees it clearly,” he told Biden, according to the Chinese state news agency.

The White House reported the call less specifically.

On Taiwan, President Biden stressed that US policy has not changed and that the United States firmly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. reads in a statement from the United States.

The phone call was the fifth conversation between Biden and Xi since February 2021. In advance, US officials said a range of topics were likely to come up, from tensions over Taiwan to economic competition to the war in Ukraine.

But hopes of substantially improving ties with Beijing were slim. Instead, Biden advisers hope that maintaining a personal connection with Xi can, at most, avoid a miscalculation that could lead to confrontation.

“This is the kind of relationship that President Biden strongly believes in maintaining, even with nations with whom you may have significant differences,” National Security Council communications coordinator John Kirby said this week.

The planning of Biden’s phone call with Xi predated the scandal that Pelosi’s proposed visit to Taipei caused, as it had been under discussion for weeks. Biden is also currently weighing whether to lift some Trump-era tariffs on China in a bid to ease inflation, though White House officials said he had not yet made a decision and suggested the issue would not be a major factor in his decision. conversation with Xi.

Instead, the center of current tensions is China’s escalating aggression in the region, including over Taiwan and the South China Sea. US officials fear that, without open lines of communication, misunderstandings could escalate into unintended conflict.

This includes Beijing’s response to Pelosi’s possible visit to Taiwan.

Administration officials have worked over the past week to convince the Speaker of the House of Representatives of the risks inherent in visiting the autonomous island. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Wednesday that he had spoken with Pelosi to provide his “assessment of the security situation.”

Pelosi has made no announcement about her travel plans, which have not materialized.

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

However, even the unofficial news that the third in line to the US presidency was considering a visit to Taiwan provoked an outsized response from Beijing, which sees visits by top US officials as a sign of diplomatic relations with the island.

“If the US insists on going ahead, the Chinese military will never sit idly by, and will definitely take strong action to thwart any outside force’s interference and separatists’ plans for ‘Taiwan independence,’ and will resolutely uphold national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Defense Ministry spokesman Tan Kefei said Tuesday in response to questions about Pelosi’s alleged trip to Taipei.

The White House called those comments “unnecessary” and “unhelpful,” saying the rhetoric only served to escalate tensions “totally unnecessarily.”

They also revealed what US officials have said is a misunderstanding by Chinese officials about the significance of Pelosi’s possible visit. The officials said that China may be confusing Pelosi’s visit with an official administration visit, since both she and Biden are Democrats. Administration officials are concerned that China will not properly separate Biden and Pelosi.

That adds pressure to Biden’s call with Xi. Officials were cautious about whether Pelosi’s visit would come up, or how much it would sway the conversation. But China’s apparent confusion over the differences between the White House and Congress could inject a level of personal antipathy into the talks.

Government officials’ concern about Pelosi’s trip stems, in part, from her schedule. He would come at an especially tense time, with the upcoming Chinese Communist Party congress, during which Xi is expected to seek an unprecedented third term, putting pressure on leaders in Beijing to show his strength. Chinese party officials are expected to start laying the groundwork for that congress in the coming weeks.

With China recently posting its worst economic performance in two years, Xi finds himself in a politically sensitive situation ahead of the important meeting.

Biden and Xi spent many hours in each other’s company when each was their country’s vice president, traveling to China and the United States to bond. However, they have yet to meet face-to-face as presidential counterparts as Xi has avoided travel during the covid-19 pandemic.

That could change in November, when a series of summits in Asia, including the Group of 20 in Bali and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation in Bangkok, offer the opportunity for an in-person meeting.

People familiar with the matter said US officials are trying to organize such a meeting on the sidelines of one of the summits.

The last time Biden spoke to Xi was in March, when he tried to talk the Chinese leader out of supporting Russia in its invasion of Ukraine. Officials have been closely watching Beijing’s response to the invasion, hoping that the mostly united Western response, including an array of economic sanctions and billions of dollars in arms shipments, will illuminate China as it considers their actions towards Taiwan.

US officials believe there is a small risk that China will miscalculate in responding to a possible visit from Pelosi. Biden administration officials are concerned that China may try to declare a no-fly zone over Taiwan ahead of a possible visit, in an effort to thwart the trip, potentially raising tensions further in the region, a US official said. to CNN.

This possibility remains remote, according to officials. China will most likely increase its flights into Taiwan’s self-declared air defense zone, which could trigger further discussions about possible responses by Taiwan and the United States, the US official added. They did not detail what those possible answers would consist of.

— CNN’s Arlette Saenz and Betsy Klein contributed to this report.