JULY 28, 2022
TAIPEI, Taiwan — President Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping spoke by phone Thursday morning, and Chinese officials said Xi issued a sharp warning over what it perceives to be provocative Americans actions on Taiwan, including a potential visit to the island by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
The call, lasting a little over two hours, came at a time of heightened tensions over China’s increasingly aggressive encounters with the United States and its partner militaries in the Indo-Pacific and Biden’s seemingly off-the-cuff assertions that the United States would defend Taiwan militarily. (The White House has walked back those comments.)
These flaring disputes have joined long-simmering differences over trade, technology, security and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the tensions reached new heights in recent weeks over a possible visit to Taiwan by Pelosi (D-Calif.).
China’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement after the call that was littered with critiques of the U.S. administration and its attitude toward Beijing. It said Xi made “candid” comments on Taiwan during the exchange between the leaders.
“We firmly oppose ‘Taiwan independence’ separatism and interference by external forces, and will never leave any space for ‘Taiwan independence’ forces in any form,” the statement said, adding that “those who play with fire will perish by it. I hope the U.S. side can see this clearly.”
The White House initially issued a brief statement saying the call was an effort to maintain communication between the two countries, confirming that Taiwan was discussed along with climate and health security issues. Biden reiterated to Xi that the U.S. policy on Taiwan remained unchanged and that the United States opposes any threat to peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, the statement said.
The conversation was the fifth between the two leaders since Biden took office. China’s Foreign Ministry said that aside from Taiwan, the leaders discussed Ukraine, as well as communication between the two countries over economic issues, energy and food security matters.
The Chinese Communist Party, despite having never ruled Taiwan, insists that the self-governing island of 23 million is part of its territory and threatens the use of force should the democratically elected administration in Taipei declare formal independence. Beijing is highly sensitive to any sign of support or respect for Taiwan, and a possible visit by Pelosi has become an irritant between the United States and China in recent days.
“If Pelosi goes, then that really will push things to the edge of a cliff and will break the relationship’s guardrails,” said Lu Xiang, research director at the Chinese Institute of Hong Kong, an affiliate of the state-run Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
He added that Beijing does not accept the argument that Biden cannot prevent Pelosi from visiting because of the separation of powers, and it instead considers her potential trip an indicator of the administration’s willingness to depart from the foundational understandings of the U.S.-China relationship.
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At the end of the Trump administration, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi declared that Beijing viewed the relationship as being at its worst point since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1979. Four earlier phone calls between Xi and Biden, as well as numerous lengthy meetings between top diplomats, have not brought about a significant detente.
In a meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken this month, Wang delivered four lists that Beijing hopes to guide the relationship, including one on “U.S. wrongdoings that must stop” and another on areas of possible cooperation if tensions are reduced.
Progress on areas of shared concern will be impossible until the Taiwan issue is resolved, said Lu, adding that China has found Biden harder to understand than Donald Trump because the latter was “intentionally unpredictable” while the current administration appears to Beijing to be “unintentionally unpredictable” and unable to enforce a clear policy on Taiwan. He noted that the severity of the disagreement over Pelosi’s visit could cause the leaders’ call to be delayed or canceled.
The United States maintains that its one-China policy — which neither challenges nor endorses Beijing’s territorial claims and is intentionally vague about whether the U.S. military would intervene in cross-strait conflict — is unchanged.
China’s Foreign Ministry said that Biden reiterated the U.S. policy of not supporting Taiwanese independence during Thursday’s call, and urged the United States not to stray from that position.
Xi and Biden’s last call, in March, focused on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the implications of the crisis for U.S.-China relations. Biden warned Xi that there would be consequences if Beijing aided Russia economically or militarily in its war against its neighbor, officials said then.
White House officials have since said they have not seen “systematic efforts” to help the Russians evade sanctions and export controls.
The call also comes as Xi is preparing for a twice-per-decade political meeting, the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, where he is expected to take on a precedent-breaking third term as general secretary of the party, affirming his position as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.
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The call was in the works before the controversy of Pelosi’s trip erupted. But tensions spiked this month after Beijing threatened consequences if Pelosi followed through with her planned visit to Taiwan in August, pledging to take “strong measures” in response.
Although delegations of lawmakers make trips to Taiwan periodically — Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) was there this month and Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) visited from May 30 to June 1, Pelosi would be the first House speaker to visit since Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) in 1997.
The Biden administration has become increasingly concerned that such a trip at this time — ahead of the major party conclave in the fall — could provoke China to respond in a way that sparks a crisis across the Taiwan Strait, and defense, military and intelligence officials have mounted a vigorous effort to lay out the risks to the speaker’s office. Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, personally briefed Pelosi.
The USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier and its strike group, meanwhile, have returned to the South China Sea after a port call in Singapore, Reuters reported Thursday.
Biden himself, however, has not spoken with Pelosi. That might persuade her, analysts said, but the administration, saying it respects separation of powers, “does not want it to appear that Biden turned it off,” said one person familiar with the matter.
Analysts Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund and Zack Cooper, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, argued in an op-ed in the New York Times that China and the United States are on a “collision course in the Taiwan Strait” and that Pelosi’s visit could provide the “single spark [that] could ignite this combustible situation into a crisis that escalates to military conflict.”
But some former U.S. officials played down those fears, saying a military conflict is unlikely.
In the short term, said one former senior U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity, “the administration fears a freeze in the relationship arising out of a Pelosi trip might close channels of communication to responsibly manage ties.”
The former official added: “But in the medium term, it opens up space for the allies to show more public support for Taiwan by citing the U.S. example. That’s the trend of the last few years. If the United States does things more openly, others will be willing to, too.”
“If Pelosi visits Taiwan, then she is pushing the envelope. In that case, Beijing will respond by pushing the envelope on the Taiwan issue, too. That’s why the Chinese military has sent a strong signal to U.S. counterparts,” said Wu Xinbo, dean of the Institute for International Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.
Many Taiwanese security experts, however, argue that Beijing’s angry response is mostly for show and play down the possibility that China will intervene militarily to prevent a visit with risky maneuvers like shadowing Pelosi’s plane into Taiwanese airspace. They instead suggest that China will signal displeasure through increased saber-rattling, such as sending dozens of People’s Liberation Army aircraft deep into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone.
Taiwan’s military has said that rising concerns of a new Taiwan Strait crisis did not lead to adjustments in military preparedness drills held across Taiwan this week. In a speech on Tuesday, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen did not address concerns over the possible visit but warned of increasing “gray zone” tactics — coercive military maneuvers that stop short of outright conflict — from authoritarian nations that were upsetting the regional security balance.
“In Taiwan, the focus is more on whether the U.S. can withstand the pressure,” said Jeremy Huai-Che Chiang, a Taipei-based analyst and former researcher at the Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation, a think tank. “Many experts in Taiwan are surprised by the overreaction to the Pelosi trip in the U.S. think tank community.”
At stake for Taiwan is a trend of former and current officials from friendly countries who, assuming U.S. support, have made increasingly frequent visits to Taipei despite Beijing’s censure. “If the U.S. can’t stand it anymore, what signal does it send to our allies?” Chiang asked.
John Kirby, a White House spokesman, said Tuesday that the call was about tending to a critical international relationship.
“This is one of the most consequential bilateral relationships in the world, in one of the most important parts of the Indo-Pacific region,” Kirby said. “And from everything from the tensions over Taiwan to the war in Ukraine, as well as how we better manage competition between our two nations, certainly in the economic sphere, there’s a host of issues.”
He added that Biden “wants to make sure that the lines of communication with President Xi [remain open] on all the issues, whether they’re issues that we agree on or issues where we have significant difficulties.”