WASHINGTON — President Biden conducted a marathon call Thursday with Chinese President Xi Jinping in their first direct conversation in four months as tension grew over Taiwan and other sticking points, U.S. officials said and Chinese.
The White House said the call lasted two hours and 17 minutes, but provided no immediate account of what was said. Officials had not anticipated any specific progress that might come out of the discussion, but characterized it as a mission to quell the hostility that has been building in recent months.
China’s Foreign Ministry said after the call it was a productive conversation, but issued a stern warning against what it sees as US provocations without directly mentioning a possible trip to Taiwan by the President Nancy Pelosi who has annoyed Beijing in recent days. “Playing with fire will set you on fire,” the statement read.
The ministry said Mr. Xi had told Mr. Biden that China “firmly” opposes “interference by outside forces” on Taiwan’s status and that China “would never give space to forces.” Taiwan separatists in any form”.
“Public opinion cannot be violated,” the statement said, a reference to China’s policy that Taiwan belonged to the government in Beijing. “I hope the US side can see this clearly.”
The Chinese said Biden had expressed a desire to cooperate where possible and manage differences where they existed, adding that he reiterated that US policy towards China and Taiwan remained the same. “He reiterated that the United States’ one-China policy has not changed and will not change, and that the United States does not support ‘Taiwan independence,'” the statement read.
The call came as Ms Pelosi’s possible trip to Taiwan sparked irritation in Beijing, which has issued disturbing threats of retaliation if she does. No trip has been officially announced, but Ms. Pelosi has asked other members of Congress to join her next month for what would be the first visit by a Speaker of the House in 25 years to the self-governing island.
The White House feared the trip would unnecessarily provoke China even as the United States and Europe race to help Ukraine fight off Russian invaders. Mr Biden has publicly stated that the military thought it would be a bad time for Ms Pelosi. And while White House officials officially say it’s up to the speaker to decide her own schedule, the unspoken message on Capitol Hill prompted her to postpone or cancel.
Tensions have been high in the region for months as China refused to join the US-led effort to isolate Russia, claimed control of the Taiwan Strait and engaged in several encounters close quarters with American, Canadian and Australian aircraft. The war in Ukraine is being watched closely for its implications for Taiwan, another small neighbor coveted by an aggressive great power.
Mr Biden vowed in May to use force to defend Taiwan if attacked, the third time he has said so during his brief presidency, although he and his aides later insisted on the fact that it did not change the longstanding US policy of “strategic ambiguity”. on how he would react in such a circumstance. The president’s language emboldened Taiwan and US hawks even as he was condemned in Beijing.
Learn more about Asia-US relations
- Countering China: In a bipartisan vote, the Senate passed a $280 billion bill aimed at bolstering America’s manufacturing and technological advantage to counter China. This is the largest US government intervention in industrial policy in decades.
- Taiwan: The Biden administration has grown increasingly worried that China will try to move against the self-governing island over the next year and a half — perhaps by trying to close the Taiwan Strait.
- Exchange Policy: The new trade deal announced by President Biden during a trip to Asia is based on two big ideas: containing China and moving away from the focus on markets and tariffs.
China’s international claims come as Mr Xi faces significant problems at home ahead of a critical party congress in November at which he is expected to be confirmed for a third term. China’s ‘zero Covid’ lockdown policies have been deeply unpopular and the economy has slowed dramatically as youth unemployment rises and mortgage and debt crises plague some regions.
In the region, the USS Ronald Reagan carrier battle group departed Singapore on Tuesday and headed north into the South China Sea toward the Taiwan Strait.
A Seventh Fleet spokeswoman, Cmdr. Hayley Sims, described the move as “the continuation of the carrier’s normal, scheduled operations as part of its routine patrol in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific.” She declined to say if or when the carrier would reach nearby Taiwan.
Ahead of Thursday’s call, Beijing issued stronger-than-usual statements about Ms Pelosi’s planned trip, hinting that China could use military force if the speaker goes ahead with his plans. The United States would “bear the consequences” if Ms Pelosi traveled to Taiwan, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said this week.
The strong rhetoric was meant to dissuade Ms Pelosi from making the trip, but it did not mean China would use military force, a Chinese expert on US relations said.
China did not want to argue with the United States over its visit, said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. “The Chinese have made it clear that they want Pelosi’s visit cancelled, but Beijing certainly doesn’t want a military conflict right now,” he said.
The fact that Mr. Xi went ahead with the call showed he was at least willing to talk to Mr. Biden even as tensions between the two countries grew, he added.
The call would produce no movement on geopolitical, economic or climate issues given the “confrontation and rivalry” that had grown more fragile with the prospect of Ms Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, Mr Shi said. The mood was “remarkably worse” than in March, when the two leaders last spoke to each other via video call, he added.
China supported Russia’s war in Ukraine, buying large amounts of Russian oil and blaming the conflict on NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken called on Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi for China to distance itself from Russia only to be pushed back.
Chinese statement released after Thursday’s call said the leaders had ‘exchanged views’ on Ukraine, calling the war a ‘crisis’, a nod to China’s fundamental support for Russia which Mr. Biden has often criticized.
Ms. Pelosi’s possible visit to Taiwan in early August comes at a particularly sensitive time for the Chinese military. Communist leader Mao Zedong founded the People’s Liberation Army on August 1, 1927, a date that is one of the most important in the army’s calendar.
An integral part of China’s military training is to stage a future takeover of Taiwan, a self-governing island of 23 million that China claims as its own and has vowed to conquer if necessary.
Ms Pelosi would travel in a military plane if she made the trip, as is tradition. One question raised by her planned visit was whether the Chinese air force would attempt to escort Ms Pelosi’s plane, or otherwise interfere with it, as it approached Taiwan.
The mood and outcome of the call could influence whether Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi meet in person later this year in what would be their first face-to-face meeting since Mr. Biden became president, he said. said Yun Sun, director of the China program. at the Stimson Center in Washington.
The pair have known each other since 2011, when they were both vice presidents, and met in China during a “getting to know you” trip from Mr Biden. They are both likely to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit, known as APEC, in Bangkok in November.
Jane Pearl reported from Seoul. Li you contributed to Shanghai research.