Xi warns Biden against ‘playing with fire’ over Taiwan

Two hour call between the two leaders comes amid escalating tensions over a potential Taiwan visit by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Headshots of Biden and Xi next to each other
The last time United States President Joe Biden and China's President Xi Jinping spoke was in March, shortly after Russia's invasion of Ukraine [File: Alex Brandon and Eraldo Peres/AP Photo]

Chinese President Xi Jinping has warned his US counterpart Joe Biden against “playing with fire” over Taiwan, as the pair held their fifth call as leaders at a time of simmering economic and geopolitical tensions.

Chinese state media reported that Xi told Biden that the United States should abide by the “one-China principle” and stressed that China firmly opposed Taiwanese independence and “interference” by external forces.

“Those who play with fire will only get burnt,” Xi was quoted as telling Biden. “[We] hope the US side can see this clearly.”

The White House said in a statement that Biden told Xi that US policy had not changed and Washington “strongly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait” – the body of water separating the island from mainland China.

Following the call, Taiwan’s foreign ministry said it thanked Biden for his support and would continue to deepen its security partnership with the United States.

The Biden-Xi call, which lasted more than two hours, came as the US president tries to find new ways to work with China amid growing global competition and tensions between the two nations over human rights, global health and economic policy, among other issues.

Most recently, Beijing has issued escalating warnings over a potential visit to Taiwan by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, saying it would view such a trip as a provocation. The self-governing island receives informal defensive support from the US, but Beijing considers Taiwan part of its territory and has not ruled out the use of force to achieve its goals.

Nancy Pelosi
China has issued warnings over Pelosi’s potential visit to Taiwan [J Scott Applewhite/AP Photo]

“If the US insists on going its own way and challenging China’s bottom line, it will surely be met with forceful responses,” Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, told reporters earlier this week. “All ensuing consequences shall be borne by the US.”

Pelosi would be the highest-ranking US elected official to travel to Taiwan since Republican Newt Gingrich visited in 1997 when he was House speaker. Biden last week told reporters that US military officials believed it was “not a good idea” for Pelosi to visit the island right now.

Al Jazeera’s Kimberly Halkett, reporting from the White House, said Biden held the call with Xi “in order to tamp down the diplomatic tensions that have been in place for some time, but have escalated as a result of this potential visit” by Pelosi.

US officials said Biden also touched on a raft of other sensitive issues, including China’s “genocide and forced labor practices” and its increasingly assertive military posture in the Asia Pacific.

Face-to-face summit

A senior Biden administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters later in the day that Biden and Xi discussed a possible face-to-face meeting during their call. The two leaders last spoke in March, shortly after Russia began its invasion of Ukraine.

John Kirby, a US national security spokesman, said this week that it was important for Biden and Xi to regularly touch base, describing the relationship between Washington and Beijing as “one of the most consequential bilateral relationships in the world today”.

“The president wants to make sure that the lines of communication with President Xi remain open because they need to,” Kirby told reporters at a White House briefing on Wednesday. “There are issues where we can cooperate with China on, and there are issues where obviously there are friction and tension.”

Biden and Xi on a call
Biden is weighing whether to ease some Trump-era tariffs on Chinese-manufactured goods in order to lessen the impact of growing inflation in the US [File: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]

The Chinese foreign affairs ministry added on Thursday that Xi underscored in the call with Biden “that to approach and define China-US relations in terms of strategic competition and view China as the primary rival and the most serious long-term challenge would be misperceiving China-US relations and misreading China’s development”.

Michael Swaine, the director of the Quincy Institute’s East Asia programme, said despite the two hour discussion there was no indication of any “meaningful” dialogue.

“Neither is really addressing the interests and concerns of the other,” he told Al Jazeera from Maryland in the US. “It’s really in some ways a dialogue of the deaf.”

Since taking office last year, Biden has moved to reduce US reliance on Chinese manufacturing, expressing support for legislation that passed in Congress this week to encourage semiconductor companies to build more high-tech plants in the US.

Biden – who has kept in place tariffs on many Chinese-manufactured goods that were created under his predecessor Donald Trump to maintain leverage over Beijing – is also weighing whether to ease at least some of them in an effort to lessen the impact of soaring inflation on American households.

The US administration official said the issue of tariffs did not come up during Thursday’s call.

Some analysts believe Xi also has an interest in avoiding escalation as he seeks an unprecedented third term in office at a congress of China’s ruling Communist Party expected later this year.

Scott Kennedy of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies said he did not believe the two sides were on the edge of a crisis, but “the risk of a major crisis is well above zero” and a Biden-Xi call was important to avoid an unwanted clash.

“Beijing, Taipei and Washington are full of people steeped in how to send and interpret signals conveying threats and reassurance, and I’m sure no one wants a war right now,” Kennedy told the Reuters news agency.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies