Xi Jinping warned Joe Biden not to “play with fire” as the Chinese and US presidents spoke for the first time since Beijing was angered by a planned visit to Taiwan by House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi.
In a statement posted on the Chinese foreign ministry’s website after the two leaders talked on Thursday, Xi did not directly mention Pelosi’s possible visit but said his administration would “resolutely safeguard China’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
“Those who play with fire will perish by it. It is hoped that the US will be clear-eyed about this,” China’s president added. China’s foreign ministry also quoted Biden as saying Washington’s one-China policy had not changed and that his administration did not support independence for the self-ruled island, which Beijing claims as part of its territory.
In its own account of the call, the White House also avoided mention of Pelosi’s possible visit. However it said Biden “underscored that the United States policy has 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”.
It added that the call lasted for more than two hours, with Biden and Xi discussing a range of issues, and that the leaders directed their teams to follow up on topics covered in the conversation, particularly on climate change and health security.
The call was the leaders’ first since March, when tensions were also running high in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Xi met Vladimir Putin shortly before the Russian president sent his army into Ukraine and has tacitly supported Moscow throughout the conflict.
Beijing sees trips to Taiwan by US lawmakers as a contravention of Washington’s “one China” policy, which recognises Beijing as the sole government of China. Pelosi would be the most senior US lawmaker to visit Taiwan in 25 years.
Pelosi’s plans earlier this year to visit Taiwan were postponed when she contracted Covid-19. Her office has not yet confirmed the dates for her August trip, which Biden said had raised concerns among US military commanders.
“China US relations are pretty bad in all respects,” said Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor at Renmin University in Beijing. He added that the People’s Liberation Army was likely to take “necessary countermeasures” if Pelosi proceeded with her trip, but said China would still seek to “avoid full and direct military confrontation with the US”.
The USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier transited the South China Sea earlier this month before docking in Singapore on July 22. It then cancelled a planned port call in Vietnam before sailing back towards the contested sea, where China is embroiled in a series of long-running territorial disputes with its maritime neighbours.
Zhao Lijian, a China foreign ministry spokesperson, on Wednesday repeated Beijing’s “firm opposition” to Pelosi’s potential Taiwan trip.
“If the US side insists on making the visit and challenges China’s red line, it will be met with resolute countermeasures,” Zhao said. “The US must assume full responsibility for any serious consequences.”
Wen-Ti Sung, a China expert at Australian National University, said Beijing’s posturing in the run-up to Thursday’s call had been “tough but far from its toughest”, probably reflecting that the Chinese Communist party leadership was still deciding how to react if Pelosi does not call off the visit.
Taiwan officials are worried that any Chinese countermeasures would likely be directed against the island. But they also fear that Xi will be emboldened if Pelosi does postpone or cancel her trip.
“[Taiwan and the US] do not want to show weakness,” said one Asian diplomat, who asked not to be identified. “I don’t think there is anyone who wants to be dictated to by Beijing.”
The planned visit also comes at an awkward time for Xi, who is preparing for a quinquennial party congress in coming months at which he is expected to secure an unprecedented third term as head of the party, state and military.
Additional reporting by Xinning Liu and Maiqi Ding in Beijing