Chinese President Xi Jinping exchanged warnings with his US counterpart, Joe Biden, over Taiwan in a telephonic conversation on Thursday that lasted for over two hours. Biden told Xi that the US opposed any unilateral actions to change the status of the island and warned him that the US policy on Taiwan has not changed. To this, the Chinese president retorted “whoever plays with fire will get burnt.”
According to a Chinese government summary of Thursday’s call, Xi also warned Biden against splitting the world’s two biggest economies. Economists warn such a change, brought on by Chinese industrial policy and the US curbs on technology exports, might hurt the global economy by slowing innovation and increasing costs.
Meanwhile, Xi and Biden are also looking at the possibility of meeting in person. Xi has been invited to Indonesia in November for a meeting of the Group of 20 major economies, making it a potential location for a face-to-face meeting between the two leaders.
Tensions between the two superpowers have been mounting on the issue of Taiwan, which China considers a “renegade province that must be united with the mainland by force if necessary.” Under its one-China policy, Washington does not recognize the de jure Taiwan independence, but it does support Taiwan’s membership in international organizations, such as the World Trade Organization (WTO), the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum and the Asian Development Bank, where statehood is not necessary. The US does sell weapons to the democratically self-governed island so that it can defend itself.
Washington has a strong commitment to defending Taiwan, and Biden made it clear earlier this year that the US will recourse to using violence if China invaded Taiwan.
Tensions over the issue of Taiwan have been rising since the rumoured plan of US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi to visit Taiwan. The State Department says that Pelosi has not announced any travel plans, but China has warned of “serious consequences” if she proceeds with the visit. President Biden told reporters that the US military “thinks it’s not a good idea”, but also called China’s rhetoric against any such trip “unnecessary and unhelpful.”
Nancy Pelosi, who is the third highest ranking individual in the USA after the president and the vice-president, would be the highest-ranking US politician to visit Taiwan since 1997.
In a summary of the call, the White House said it was part of the efforts to “responsibly manage differences” and work together where “interests align.” The phone call did not indicate progress on trade, technology or other irritants.