United States President Joe Biden and China’s President Xi Jinping on Thursday held a phone meeting amid rising tensions between the two countries on a range of issues, most recently on the possible upcoming visit of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan.
Thursday’s call was their first since March – and the fifth since Mr. Biden took office – and came amid fears of a new Taiwan crisis, adding to an already long list of tensions on matters ranging from trade and technology to the South China Sea.
China this week stepped up its warnings on the announced visit by Ms. Pelosi and said the U.S. would bear all the consequences if the visit, which would mark the most high-level engagement between the U.S. and Taiwan since 1997, went ahead.
Observers pinned their hopes on Thursday’s call as providing a last possible off-ramp. Mr. Biden is expected to make the case that the U.S. President cannot veto a visit by a House Speaker representing a different branch of Government. Mr. Xi, for his part, might demand a reiteration from Mr. Biden of his Government’s commitment on its “One China” policy.
“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,” White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told the media.
Warns against Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan
China’s Foreign Ministry and military issued separate warnings on the possible visit. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence said China “will not sit back”. “China demands that the United States honour its promise that it would not support ‘Taiwan independence’,” PLA Senior Colonel Tan Kefei said, adding, “if the U.S. side insists on making the visit, the Chinese military will take strong actions to thwart any external interference or ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist scheme.”
A visit by Ms. Pelosi, whom he referred to as the third most important U.S. political figure after the President and Vice President, would “seriously violate the one-China principle and the stipulations in the three China-U.S. joint communiques, seriously harm China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and seriously damage the political foundation of China-U.S. relations.”
“Over the past few days, the Chinese side has repeatedly made clear to the U.S. side its firm opposition to the potential visit of Speaker Pelosi to Taiwan,” added Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian. “The Chinese military will never sit idly by, and will certainly take strong and resolute measures to thwart any interference by external forces and secessionist attempts for ‘Taiwan independence’. We Chinese mean what we say.”
Observers have suggested China could take several military measures to coincide with Ms. Pelosi’s visit should it go ahead, ranging from military drills, which have in the past been timed along with visits that China has opposed, to closing off the airspace or a temporary naval blockade. Mr. Xi will face a balancing act between showing strength at home, ahead of a key leadership congress set for October that will mark the start of his third term, and avoiding an escalation that could spiral out of control.
The Associated Press quoted U.S. officials as saying the U.S. military “would likely use fighter jets, ships and other forces to provide protection for her flight.” Officials said they “doubt China would take direct action against Pelosi herself or try to sabotage the visit” but “don’t rule out the possibility that China could escalate provocative flights of military aircraft in or near Taiwanese airspace and naval patrols in the Taiwan Strait should the trip take place… [and] don’t preclude Chinese actions elsewhere in the region as a show of strength.”