The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden talks with China’s Xi amid tension over Taiwan

Fifth call between leaders comes as China warns that relations cannot improve if House speaker visits Taiwan

President Biden and Xi Jinping, the Chinese president. (Bloomberg News)

President Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping spoke Thursday amid growing tensions between their two countries — most recently over a potential trip to Taiwan by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — but while Chinese officials said Xi aired grievances, the U.S. characterized the call as a basic effort to improve communication.

The call, lasting close to 2½ hours, came as China has more aggressively challenged U.S. and partner militaries in the Indo-Pacific and follows seemingly off-the-cuff assertions by Biden that the United States would defend Taiwan militarily if it were attacked, which the White House later walked back.

Those flare-ups come atop long-simmering differences over trade, technology, security and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, adding up to what many on both sides consider one of the lowest points in U.S.-China relations in recent decades.

After the Biden-Xi call Thursday, China’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement littered with critiques of the U.S. administration and its attitude toward Beijing, adding that Xi made “candid” comments on Taiwan to the American president.

“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. It did not directly mention the potential visit by Pelosi (D-Calif.) but indicated that there would be consequences for missteps on the issue, and said, “I hope the U.S. side can see this clearly.”

The White House issued a brief statement that struck a gentler tone, describing the call as an effort to maintain an open channel between the two countries, though it confirmed that Taiwan was discussed along with climate and health security issues. Biden reiterated to Xi that the U.S. policy on Taiwan is unchanged and that Washington opposes any threat to peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, the statement said.

A senior administration official said the call also focused on the war in Ukraine and on areas of potential U.S.-China cooperation, as well as on tentative plans for a face-to-face visit between the two leaders. In addition, Biden raised concerns about Beijing’s economic practices and over Americans detained in China, the official said.

The conversation was the fifth between the two leaders since Biden took office. The sharp response from Beijing over Taiwan made it clear that tensions remain high between the two powers, while Biden has actively sought to shift U.S. foreign policy toward a global focus on limiting China’s influence.

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 from other countries, and a possible visit by Pelosi has become a major irritant between the United States and China in recent days.

Taiwan hones invasion response amid China’s threats over Pelosi trip

“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 considers her potential trip an indicator of the administration’s willingness to depart from the basic underpinnings of the U.S.-China relationship.

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. The four previous 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 will 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 former president Donald Trump because the latter was “intentionally unpredictable” while the current administration appears to be “unintentionally unpredictable.”

Administration fears a Pelosi trip to Taiwan could spark cross-strait crisis

Biden, for his part, has strongly signaled his view that the United States has been overly focused in recent years on such issues as Middle East terrorism, and that China is a far bigger long-term threat — economically, diplomatically and militarily — that must be countered whenever possible.

At the same time, 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 on Thursday reiterated the U.S. policy of not supporting Taiwanese independence.

The senior U.S. administration official said Thursday that the call resulted in a “clear, affirmative” agenda despite the tensions. “This is what responsible nations do,” the official said. “They manage areas where they have differences and they find ways to work together.”

The last call between Biden and Xi, which took place 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” by China to help the Russians evade sanctions and export controls.

The call also came as Xi is preparing for a twice-per-decade political meeting, the 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.

The call between the leaders was in the works before the furor over Pelosi’s travel plans. But tensions spiked this month when Beijing threatened consequences if Pelosi followed through with a visit to Taiwan in August, pledging to take “strong measures.”

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 is a far more prominent official and would be the first House speaker to visit since Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) in 1997. Beyond that, Pelosi’s longtime criticism of the Chinese regime has made her a target of particular hostility by Beijing.

The Biden administration has become increasingly concerned that such a trip at this time could provoke China to respond in a way that sparks a crisis across the Taiwan Strait. As a result, defense, military and intelligence officials have mounted a vigorous effort to lay out the risks to the speaker’s office, including a personal briefing for Pelosi by Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

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, speaking 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” between Washington and Beijing.

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.”

Wary of China threat, Taiwanese join Ukraine’s fight against Russia

That could be a dangerous calculus, Chinese experts warned.

“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,” said Wu Xinbo, dean of the Institute for International Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. “That’s why the Chinese military has sent a strong signal to U.S. counterparts.”

President Biden said July 20 that the U.S. military believes it's "not a good idea" for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to visit Taiwan at the moment. (Video: Reuters)

Many Taiwanese security experts, however, argue that Beijing’s angry response is mostly for show. They instead suggest that China would probably signal its displeasure through increased saber-rattling, such as sending 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 Tuesday, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen warned of increasing “gray zone” tactics — coercive military maneuvers that stop short of outright conflict — from authoritarian nations that she said 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. “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 Biden-Xi 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.”

Lyric Li in Seoul and Vic Chiang in Taipei contributed to this report.