Chinese President Xi Jinping warned U.S. President Joe Biden not to “play with fire” over Taiwan during a phone call early Thursday, with tensions between the two superpowers swelling in recent days over a proposed visit by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to the self-ruling island, over which Beijing claims sovereignty.
Biden and Xi spoke for 2 hours and 17 minutes on a range of topics including pandemic recovery, trade and supply chain resilience. But it was Taiwan that dominated the agenda. “Resolutely safeguarding China’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity is the firm will of the more than 1.4 billion Chinese people,” Xi told Biden, according to a Chinese readout of the call. “Those who play with fire will perish by it. It is hoped that the U.S. will be clear-eyed about this.”
China described the call—the leaders’ fifth since Biden took office—as “candid and in-depth.” The language was markedly stronger from the two leaders’ last call in March, when Xi warned Biden that “if the Taiwan issue is not handled well, it will create an overturning influence on bilateral relations.”
According to the White House readout of the call, “President Biden underscored that the United States policy has not changed and that the United States strongly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.” Washington doesn’t have official relations with Taiwan and follows a “one-China policy” that diplomatically recognizes Beijing. But it is obliged by act of Congress to provide the island with the means to defend itself and maintains scores of unofficial ties with Taipei.
Were Pelosi to visit Taiwan, she would be the first House speaker to do so in a quarter-century, although the White House and U.S. security agencies are reportedly working behind the scenes to convince her of the escalation risks. With Republicans likely to retake the House following midterms in November, the veteran Pelosi, 82, appears to be nearing retirement and looking to cement her legacy as a champion of Taiwan. Still, Biden told reporters last week that the U.S. military thinks the trip is “not a good idea right now.”
Experts say that dozens of risky military confrontations between China and other Asia-Pacific nations, like Vietnam and the Philippines, have occurred this year. That includes close fly-bys and harassment or obstruction of air and naval crews—sometimes involving lasers or water cannons—U.S. Assistant Defense Secretary Ely Ratner told a South China Sea forum by the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Tuesday. “We see Beijing combining its growing military power with greater willingness to take risks,” Ratner said.
Beijing has especially stepped up its rhetoric and actions toward Taiwan in recent months, repeatedly sending warplanes into the island’s self-declared air defense identification zone. Russia’s war in Ukraine has heightened threat perceptions across Asia and U.S. officials have expressed concern that China’s moves may augur even more aggressive steps ahead.
Domestic issues in both the U.S. and China are contributing to the raised tensions. While Biden is keen not to look soft on China at a time when his approval rating is below 40%, Pelosi’s trip would coincide with the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) annual leadership conclave in the seaside resort of Beidaihe. For these reasons, it would be a loss of face for Xi just as he prepares to assume a protocol-shredding third leadership term in the fall. August also marks the anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) founding.
Earlier this month, China’s Foreign Ministry vowed to retaliate with “forceful measures” if Pelosi does visit Taiwan, while a Defense Ministry spokesman said the PLA would take “strong actions.” In a briefing note, the Eurasia Group political risk consultancy suggests that potential scenarios include PLA aircraft buzzing near Pelosi’s plane, Beijing declaring a no-fly zone around Taiwan during her visit or even conducting missile tests near the island—as it did during the 1995-1996 Third Taiwan Strait Crisis. In response to the escalating threat assessment, U.S. officials said that the U.S. military would mobilize increased forces and assets in the Indo-Pacific.
Still, it’s unclear how much is just bluster. This week marks 30 years since the 1992 Consensus, when both Beijing and the former Nationalist government of Taipei agreed that there is “one China,” even if both sides differ on which is the legitimate government. This “agreement to disagree” formed the bedrock for rapprochement and flourishing business ties across the Taiwan Strait. (The current Democratic Progressive Party administration of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen does not recognize the 1992 Consensus, contributing to the current chill.)
At a meeting at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People to mark the anniversary, Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Yang—the CCP’s fourth most powerful official and head of Taiwan policy—reemphasized that peaceful reunification was the preferred option. But he also warned “Taiwan compatriots” that “foreigners are not dependable,” an apparent reference to Washington.
That Wang didn’t draw an explicit link between a possible Pelosi visit and any shift in Taiwan policy is notable given her trip has been floated since April, when an earlier visit was canceled after she caught COVID-19. “Beijing’s response to a Pelosi visit to Taiwan is very unlikely to involve an escalation that would set China on a path to conflict with the United States,” the Eurasia Group briefing note said.
Still, there’s a good chance that Beijing could sanction Pelosi personally and the spat could prompt Xi to refuse a mooted in-person meeting with Biden on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Bali on Nov. 15-16. This week, Xi met G20 host, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, in Beijing in what was seen as an attempt to strengthen relations with non-aligned states ahead of the confab.
Amid the fallout from the Ukraine war, the U.S. has been trying to sketch out the geopolitical fault-lines as being between democracy versus autocracies. China, however, has been lobbying leaders across Africa, Central Europe and South America to present it as “the West versus the rest,” says Sung Wen-ti, a scholar specializing in China’s foreign relations at the Australian National University.
Also discussed on the call was cooperation around climate change and health security, although it’s unclear whether potential reductions in tariff hikes left over from former President Donald Trump’s trade war were broached. Few analysts expect any substantive progress on these multiple bugbears in the near future.
Nevertheless, the true value of Thursday’s call is not what was said, but that it happened at all—signaling to each other and subordinates in both camps that the leaders still commit to the guardrails, which is “competition without catastrophe,” says Sung.
“If they can reassure each other that neither side has an interest in using force to radically alter the status quo, then they will be better able to weather tactical maneuvers like the Pelosi visit, so that they don’t become runaway escalations.”