The two leaders agreed to begin preparations for a face-to-face summit, their first since Xi opposed the trip amid the Covid-19 pandemic. And some areas of cooperation, including climate change, were eliminated.
The matter was discussed at length in a 2:17-minute phone call Thursday. According to China’s version of events, Xi issued an ominous warning to Biden.
“Public opinion should not be violated, if you play with fire you will get burned. I believe the US side will see this clearly,” he told Biden, according to China’s state news agency.
The White House’s account of the call was not specific.
“On Taiwan, President Biden underscored that America’s policy has not changed and that the United States strongly opposes unilateral efforts to undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.
A senior US administration official called the Taiwan discussion “direct and honest” but downplayed Xi’s warning, suggesting the Chinese leader’s warning of the dangers of “playing with fire” was consistent.
The phone call was the fifth conversation between Biden and Xi since February 2021. Ahead of that, U.S. officials said a number of topics — from tensions around Taiwan to economic competition in Ukraine — could come up.
But hopes of significantly improving relations with Beijing were slim. Instead, Biden’s aides believe that maintaining a personal connection with Xi can avoid a miscalculation that could lead to conflict.
“President Biden is committed to doing this, even with countries where you have significant differences,” John Kirby, communications coordinator for the National Security Council, said this week.
As Thursday’s call concluded, the two leaders outlined how much work had been done for their teams, including arranging a possible in-person meeting. They have yet to meet the President’s colleagues face-to-face.
A summit in November is likely, with a series of summits taking place in Asia — including the Group of 20 in Bali, Indonesia, and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation in Bangkok, Thailand. US officials plan to arrange such a meeting on the sidelines of a summit, people familiar with the matter said.
The scheduling of Biden’s phone call with Xi was preceded by anger over Pelosi’s visit to Taipei. Neither side disclosed whether Pelosi’s plans were specifically discussed.
Biden is currently weighing whether to raise some Trump-era tariffs on China in an effort to lower inflation, though White House officials have suggested he hasn’t yet made up his mind and the topic won’t factor heavily into him. A conversation with Xi.
Instead, China’s increasing aggression — including over Taiwan and the South China Sea — is at the center of current tensions. US officials fear that without open communication, misunderstandings could spiral into unplanned conflict.
That includes how Beijing responds to Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.
Pelosi has not made any announcements about her plans for the trip, which have not been finalized.
“I never talk about my journey. It’s a risk for me,” he said on Wednesday.
Yet even unofficial word that the third-in-line US president is considering a visit to Taiwan has prompted a major response from Beijing, which sees visits by top US officials as a sign of diplomatic ties with the island.
“If the U.S. insists on taking its own course, the Chinese military will never be idle and will take strong measures to defeat any outside power’s interference and separatist plans for ‘Taiwan independence,’ and resolutely uphold national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Defense Ministry spokesman Tan Kefei said Tuesday at Pelosi’s Taipei meeting. Answered questions about the trip.
The White House called the comments “unnecessary” and “unhelpful,” saying the rhetoric only served to heighten tensions “in a completely unnecessary way.”
They also revealed what U.S. officials said was a misunderstanding by Chinese officials about the significance of Pelosi’s potential visit. Because Pelosi and Biden are Democrats, China may have confused Pelosi’s visit with an official administration visit, officials said. Administration officials worry that China doesn’t separate Pelosi much from Biden.
That adds pressure to Biden’s call with Xi. Officials were tight-lipped about whether Pelosi’s visit would come up or how much it would factor into the conversation. But China’s apparent confusion over differences between the White House and Congress could fuel personal animosity in the talks.
Administration officials’ concerns about Pelosi’s trip are partly rooted in its timing. It comes at a particularly tense moment, with Xi expected to seek an unprecedented third term in office during the upcoming Chinese Communist Party congress, putting pressure on the leadership in Beijing to show strength. Chinese party officials are expected to lay the groundwork for that conference in the coming weeks.
With China recently reporting its worst economic performance in two years, Xi finds himself in a politically critical situation ahead of the crucial meeting.
While both Vice Presidents of their respective countries, Biden and Xi spent hours in each other’s company, traveling across China and the United States to develop a bond.
Biden last spoke with Xi in March, working to convince the Chinese leader not to support Russia amid its aggression in Ukraine. Officials are closely watching how Beijing responds to the invasion, largely expecting a unified Western response — including withering sanctions and billions of dollars in arms exports — as China sheds light on its actions toward Taiwan.
US officials believe there is little risk that China will miscalculate in response to Pelosi’s visit. In an effort to improve travel, Biden administration officials are concerned that China may seek to declare a no-fly zone over Taiwan, which could further escalate tensions in the region, a US official told CNN.
Officials said it was a remote possibility. They say China is likely to step up more flights inside Taiwan’s self-declared air defense zone, which could prompt renewed discussions about possible responses from Taiwan and the United States, the U.S. official added. They don’t elaborate on what those possible answers are.
CNN’s Arlette Saenz and Betsy Klein contributed to this report.
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