Chinese President Xi Jinping has warned US President Joe Biden against “playing with fire” over Taiwan in a phone call as concerns mount over a possible visit to Chinese-claimed island by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Chinese state media said Xi told Biden that the United States should abide by the “one-China principle” and stressed that China firmly opposed Taiwanese independence and interference of external forces.

Biden told Xi that US policy on Taiwan had 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 – a reference to the body of water separating the island from the mainland, a White House statement said.

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While highligting Taiwan, Xi also stressed that the two sides needed to maintain communication on macroeconomic policies, global supply chains and safeguarding global food and energy security, Chinese state media said.

China has issued escalating warnings about repercussions should Pelosi – a Democrat like Biden – visit Taiwan, a move that would be a dramatic, although not unprecedented, show of US support for the island, which says it is facing increasing Chinese military and economic threats.

“Those who play with fire will only get burnt,” Chinese state media quote Xi as telling Biden.

“(We) hope the US side can see this clearly.”

The White House said the call, the fifth between the two as leaders, lasted for more than two hours. 

The US readout said the two leaders also discussed a range of other issues, including climate change and health security.

US officials had said it would have a broad agenda including discussion of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which China has yet to condemn.

At its core though, US officials said they saw the exchange as another chance to manage competition between the world’s two largest economies, whose ties have been increasingly clouded by tensions over democratically-governed Taiwan, which Xi has vowed to reunite with the mainland, by force if necessary.

The US does not have official relations with Taiwan and follows a “one-China policy” that recognises officials in Beijing, not Taipei, diplomatically. 

But it is obliged by US law to provide the island with the means to defend itself, and pressure has been mounting in Congress for more explicit support.

“This is about keeping the lines of communication open with the president of China, one of the most consequential bilateral relationships that we have, not just in that region, but around the world, because it touches so much,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby told reporters ahead of the call.

One person briefed on planning for the call said Biden’s administration thinks leader-to-leader engagement is the best way to lower tensions over Taiwan.

Some analysts believe Xi also has an interest in avoiding escalation as he seeks an unprecedented third term in office at a congress of China’s ruling Communist Party expected in the northern hemisphere autumn.

The US administration has been debating whether to lift some tariffs on Chinese goods as a way to ease soaring inflation but US officials have said a decision was not expected ahead of the call.

When Biden last spoke to Xi in March, he warned of “consequences” if China gave material support for Russia’s war, and the US government believes that that red line has not been crossed in the months since.

Taiwan has complained of stepped-up Chinese military manoeuvres over the past two years to try and force it to accept China’s sovereignty. 

Just ahead of Thursday’s call, Taiwan’s military said it fired flares to warn away a drone that “glanced by” a strategically located and heavily fortified island close to the Chinese coast that was possibly probing its defences.

The White House has reiterated that its “one-China” policy has not changed despite speculation over a possible trip by Pelosi, which the Speaker has yet to confirm.

The last time a Speaker of the US House visited Taiwan was in 1997, and as a co-equal branch of government, the US executive has little control over congressional travel.

China has grown more powerful militarily and economically since, and some analysts worry such a visit at a time of fraught ties, could spur a crisis across the 160km wide Taiwan Strait waterway separating China and Taiwan.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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