A congressional trip to Taiwan led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) became the focus of President Biden’s call with Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Thursday, further underscoring the latest rift between the United States and China that has brought relations to their lowest point in decades. .
President Biden used his fifth phone call with Xi since taking office to try to manage rancor over Pelosi’s planned visit along with a list of sticking points that have strained US-China relations, including the refusal to Beijing to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, coupled with economic problems. competition, security and human rights.
The nearly two-and-a-half-hour call included a “straightforward and honest discussion” on Taiwan in which Biden emphasized that the two countries have managed differences over the democratically autonomous island for the past 40 years, and vowed that the U.S. maintain the status quo. under Washington’s “one China” policy, according to a White House official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.
China had harsher words on Taiwan, reiterating Beijing’s opposition to the island’s independence and echoing Biden’s promise to keep an open line of communication on the issue.
“Those who play with fire will perish by it,” said a Chinese reading of the call. “The United States is expected to be clear-eyed on this.”
The prospect of a visit, which Pelosi has yet to confirm publicly, heightens already simmering tensions over Taiwan, which Beijing claims as part of its territory and has threatened to take by force. Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific region and a series of comments by Biden vowing to defend Taiwan militarily have further inflamed relations over the past year.
Discussion about Pelosi’s trip, which spilled into public view last week after Biden hinted at military concerns about his timing, it marks the latest test of the president’s strategy to contain China’s rising power as Biden and Xi seek to avoid a political miscalculation that could escalate into conflict.
It has also sparked an escalation of threats of retaliation from Chinese officials, who have warned that such a trip would be a “red line” for Beijing and would be met with strong action in response, sparking unrest within the Biden administration.
If Pelosi cancels the trip, it could give the impression that the US is bowing to Chinese pressure, a politically dangerous outcome for Biden that draws preemptive criticism from Republicans. If it continues, the United States risks a potential confrontation across the Taiwan Strait over what China may perceive as a change in Washington’s longstanding policy of supporting Taiwan without recognizing its sovereignty.
“There’s so much momentum for this trip to happen that it’s increasingly unlikely that he won’t go,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund, a nonpartisan public policy think tank. “I think there are other steps that the United States could take to signal support for Taiwan … and manage our differences with China so that we don’t go to war.”
Congress could move to pass some elements of the Taiwan Policy Act, which would bolster the island’s security assistance funding and designate it as a “major non-NATO ally,” he said.
Pelosi could also postpone the trip as she did in April after testing positive for COVID-19, Glaser added, noting that the timing of her visit could spark a response before the Chinese Communist Party’s main political meeting in the fall. Xi, who is expected to defy precedent by seeking a third term as president, may feel pressure to show strength ahead of the meeting.
Pelosi, a longtime critic of the Chinese government, would not be the first lawmaker to visit Congress since China stepped up its military provocations toward Taiwan in recent months: Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) paid a visit this week. month while Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) visited in late May. But it would be the first time a House speaker has visited the island since Republican Newt Gingrich traveled there in 1997.
A growing chorus of lawmakers, including some of Pelosi’s enemies in the GOP, rallied behind the planned visit, arguing that cancellation would amount to allowing Beijing to dictate US policy.
“If you don’t go now, you’ve given China … a victory of sorts,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday.
Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) echoed that sentiment, saying he would lead a congressional delegation if he becomes speaker next year.
The White House has reiterated that the president has little or no power over the actions of a speaker of the House. But Beijing could misconstrue the visit by the third-ranking figure in the US government as an official visit by the administration that Biden has the prerogative to stop, according to M. Taylor Fravel, an academic who directs the Study Program. Security at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“Xi can now conclude that 1) the US continues to ’empty’ its One China policy, perhaps to the point of no return, and 2) that Biden has despised/despised/despised him,” Fravel tweeted earlier. the call.
“So the stakes for Xi on how to respond will be even higher and create even stronger incentives for a forceful response than if no phone call were made. Politics, reputation and credibility will be seen to be at stake.” play”.
During Biden’s last call with Xi in March, the president warned of consequences if Beijing sends military aid to support Russia’s war in Ukraine. US officials have been closely watching how China has responded to Moscow’s invasion for clues as to how Beijing might move forward with its goal of “reunifying” Taiwan with China.
The ruling Communist Party has reportedly tasked Chinese academics with coming up with ways to take over the self-governing island of 24 million by force, according to Bonny Lin, who directs the China Energy Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank
“Beijing is concerned that increased support from the US and its allies to Taiwan and other regional partners will raise the risk of a military confrontation between the US and China and that China may find itself in the same situation as Russia.” Lin said in recent testimony before the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee. in the Asia and Pacific region.
“Some [Chinese officials] I think the sanctions that the United States and the West took against Russia were originally designed for China if China invaded Taiwan,” he added.
China has refused to condemn the Russian invasion or join the sanctions punishing Moscow. But he has subtly moved on to oppose the war and urge diplomacy. However, many in Beijing believe they have not received any credit for it, Lin said.
Ukraine, along with a pending decision on whether to lift Trump administration-era tariffs on China in an effort to ease inflation, were among the complex agenda items Biden was forced to navigate in his latest call with Xi.
A vast package of $280 billion designed to boost the domestic semiconductor industry and reduce US reliance on Chinese manufacturing that Congress authorized on Thursday also appeared to cause friction during the call, according to a Chinese reading.
Biden and Xi also discussed areas they could work on together, including climate change and health security. Biden also raised human rights issues, including genocide and forced labor practices by the PRC, according to White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.
The conversation also provided an opportunity to lay the groundwork for the pair to meet face-to-face on the sidelines of the upcoming Group of 20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, or the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Bangkok in November, which that would allow Biden to show his style of personal diplomacy and the couple’s relationship that dates back nearly a decade when the two served as vice presidents.
“Both of them will have to go through a political season before that, but they need to prepare for that,” said Craig Allen, president of the US-China Business Council. “It’s important that they’re presumably going to be sitting across from each other at the table and they’re going to have to coordinate the relationship going forward… They both know that.”
A White House official declined to say whether any of the November summits would serve as a backdrop for their meeting, but said it was an “important part of the conversation” and both leaders agreed their teams would find “a mutually acceptable to do so.
But before any diplomatic meeting in the fall, Biden and Xi have to navigate what Glaser and other experts describe as a “continued downward spiral and deteriorating relationship” in the coming months, beginning with the potential fallout from Pelosi’s trip.
Glaser said that while both leaders have discussed risk reduction measures, the fractured relationship remains unchanged.
“Nothing is going to be resolved in this meeting, but maybe we can put a floor under the deteriorating relationship,” he said.
This story originally appeared on Los Angeles Times.