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 talked for two hours and seventeen minutes about a variety of topics, including trade and resilience in supply chains. The agenda was dominated by Taiwan. “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.”
Continue reading: President Biden’s Vow To Defend Taiwan Is Bold but Incredibly Risky
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. It is required by Congress to give the island the necessary defense mechanisms and has many informal ties to Taipei.
Pelosi could visit Taiwan if she were to, but the White House, U.S. intelligence agencies and other organizations are working in the background to persuade her about the dangers of escalation. Pelosi (82), a veteran politician, is expected to retire and look to continue her role as Taiwan’s champion. Still, Biden told reporters last week that the U.S. military thinks the trip is “not a good idea right now.”
Experts estimate that there were dozens risky military confrontations in this year’s Asia-Pacific region between China, Vietnam, and other countries, such as the Philippines. That includes close fly-bys and harassment or obstruction of air and naval crews—sometimes involving lasers or water cannons—U.S. Ely Ratner, Assistant Defense Secretary, spoke at a South China Sea Forum organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “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.
The escalating tensions are being caused by domestic issues in the U.S. as well as China. 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. It would also be a major loss for Xi as he is preparing to take on a third, protocol-shredding leadership term. 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. Officials from the United States stated that they would increase the number of troops and resources in the Indo-Pacific to counter the growing threat assessment.
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. Tsai Ingwen (the current Taiwanese President of Democratic Progressive Party) does not recognize 1992 Consensus. This contributes to 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. In Beijing, Xi and Joko Widodo (the Indonesian president) met this week to discuss strengthening relations with other non-aligned countries ahead of the G20 Summit.
The U.S. tried to draw the geopolitical fault lines between democracy and autocracies amid the aftermath of the Ukraine war. 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. Analysts are not expecting any significant progress in these numerous issues.
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.”
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