WASHINGTON — U.S. President Joe Biden warned Chinese President Xi Jinping against military action to reunify Taiwan with the mainland but said he doesn’t support a formal declaration of independence by the island, in the first conversation between the two leaders since March.
Xi told Biden that it’s the will of the Chinese people to “resolutely safeguard China’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity” regarding Taiwan and that “whoever plays with fire will get burnt,” according to a statement by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, repeating a warning he’s used in past calls with the U.S. president.
Biden said that the U.S. “strongly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” according to a White House statement released after the Chinese readout.
Biden reiterated support for the United States' “One China” policy, which recognizes only Beijing as the government of China and not Taipei, according to the Chinese foreign ministry’s statement. Beijing’s statement pointedly did not call the conversation “constructive,” a term the ministry has used after previous calls between the men.
The White House statement said that the call was part of an effort to “maintain and deepen lines of communication between the United States and the PRC and responsibly manage our differences and work together where our interests align,” using an acronym for the People’s Republic of China.
The White House said the two leaders had assigned aides to follow up in particular on joint efforts to address climate change and health security, without elaborating.
Tensions between the U.S. and China over Taiwan have been exacerbated by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s possible plans to visit the island next month. The prospect, which Pelosi has not confirmed, has elicited warnings of a “firm and strong” response from China.
Thursday’s discussion was the fifth time Biden and Xi have spoken since the U.S. president took office. The session lasted about 2 hours and 20 minutes, according to the White House, which described the call as intended to keep relations stable despite rising tensions over Taiwan and the war in Ukraine.
U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns said in June that relations with Beijing have deteriorated to probably “the lowest moment” since former President Richard Nixon’s landmark visit to China in 1972.
China views any Taiwan trip by Pelosi as a violation of the deal that helped establish ties between Washington and Beijing a half-century ago, including an American promise to cease formal relations with Taipei.
Pelosi has refused to confirm her travel schedule, citing security concerns. The itinerary includes stops in Indonesia, Japan and Singapore, a person familiar with the matter said Wednesday, adding that Taiwan remains off the official itinerary.
The White House hasn’t taken a public position on any Taiwan visit, saying it’s Pelosi’s decision, but Defense Department officials have privately expressed unease to the speaker and her staff. The American, Chinese and Taiwanese military are all regularly active around the island and an aircraft carrier battle group led by the USS Ronald Reagan entered the South China Sea this week as part of what the Navy said was a scheduled operation.
Wang Yang, the Communist Party’s No. 4 official, told a meeting Tuesday that “no individual and no force should underestimate the resolve, the will and the ability of the Chinese people to defend their national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
At the same time, U.S. lawmakers from both parties have argued that it is important that the leader of Congress show no sign of giving in to pressure from the Chinese government. Republican lawmakers have particularly seized on Pelosi’s trip and Biden’s reticence to show public support, saying she should stick with the visit and accusing the president of kowtowing to Beijing.
Biden, who had been isolating with Covid-19 until yesterday, has said little publicly about the matter. It isn’t clear whether he supports the trip or if he’s spoken about it with Pelosi directly. He told reporters last week that the U.S. military didn’t think a Pelosi visit was a good idea, prompting consternation in Taiwan.
When the two presidents last spoke, shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, Biden pressed Xi not to provide support for President Vladimir Putin’s war.
Biden and his advisers also continue to assess whether to cut some of the tariffs imposed on Chinese imports by his predecessor, former President Donald Trump, though U.S. officials played down the likelihood of the topic coming up in the call.
John Kirby, a National Security Council spokesman, said before the call that he expected Biden and Xi to discuss Taiwan, as well as the economic relationship between the two superpowers and China’s aggression in the South China Sea. He declined to say whether Pelosi’s trip would come up and how Biden would respond to any concerns about it raised by Xi.
“The key thing is that the president wants to make sure that the lines of communication with President Xi remain open because they need to,” Kirby said. “There’s issues where we can cooperate with China on and then there’s issues where obviously there’s friction and tension.”
Kirby added that Biden would “reaffirm that there’s no change to America’s commitment to the ‘One China’ policy, none, zero.”