WASHINGTON — President Biden conducted a marathon call with President Xi Jinping of China on Thursday in their first direct conversation in four months as tension has risen over Taiwan and other points of friction, American and Chinese officials said.
The White House said the call lasted for two hours and 17 minutes but provided no immediate account of what was said. Officials had forecast no specific progress likely to result from the discussion but characterized it as a relationship-tending mission to tamp down hostility that has grown in recent months.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said after the call that it was a productive conversation but issued a stern warning against what it considers American provocations without directly mentioning a prospective trip to Taiwan by Speaker Nancy Pelosi that has riled Beijing in recent days. “Playing with fire will set yourself on fire,” the statement said.
The ministry said Mr. Xi told Mr. Biden that China “firmly” opposed “interference by external forces” on Taiwan’s status and that China would “never leave any space for Taiwan independence forces in any form.”
“Public opinion cannot be violated,” the statement said, a reference to China’s policy that Taiwan belonged to the government in Beijing. “I hope the U.S. side can see this clearly.”
The Chinese said that Mr. Biden expressed a desire to cooperate where possible and manage differences where they existed, adding that he repeated that American policy toward China and Taiwan remains the same. “He reiterated that the one-China policy of the U.S. has not changed and will not change, and that the U.S. does not support ‘Taiwan independence,’” the statement said.
The call took place as Ms. Pelosi’s possible trip to Taiwan has raised hackles in Beijing, which has made ominous threats of retaliation if she goes through with it. No trip has been officially announced, but Ms. Pelosi has asked other members of Congress to join her next month for what would be the first visit by a House speaker in 25 years to the self-governing island.
The White House has been concerned that the trip would unnecessarily provoke China even as the United States and Europe are consumed with helping Ukraine fight off Russian invaders. Mr. Biden publicly said that the military thought it would be a bad time for Ms. Pelosi to go. And while officially White House officials say it is up to the speaker to decide her own schedule, the unspoken message on Capitol Hill has been pressure on her to postpone or cancel.
Tensions have been high in the region for months as China has refused to join the American-led effort to isolate Russia, made assertive claims to control over the Taiwan Strait and engaged in several close encounters with American, Canadian and Australian aircraft. The war in Ukraine is being watched carefully for implications for Taiwan, another small neighbor coveted by a large and aggressive power.
Mr. Biden vowed in May to use force to defend Taiwan if it is attacked, the third time he has said so during his brief presidency, even though he and aides later insisted that he was not changing the longstanding American policy of “strategic ambiguity” over how it would respond in such a circumstance. The president’s language heartened Taiwan and American hawks even as it drew condemnation in Beijing.
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China’s international assertions come as Mr. Xi faces significant troubles at home before a critical November party congress in which he is expected to be confirmed for a third term. China’s “zero Covid” lockdown policies have been deeply unpopular, and the economy has slowed considerably, as youth unemployment is on the rise and mortgage and debt crises are afflicting some regions.
In the region, the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan carrier group left Singapore on Tuesday and headed north into the South China Sea, in the direction of the Taiwan Strait.
A spokeswoman for the Seventh Fleet, Cmdr. Hayley Sims, described the movement as the carrier’s “continuing normal, scheduled operations as part of her routine patrol in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific.” She declined to say if or when the carrier would reach the vicinity of Taiwan.
In the lead-up to the Thursday call, Beijing issued louder than usual statements about Ms. Pelosi’s planned trip, implying that China might use military force if the speaker went ahead with her plans. The United States would “bear the consequences” if Ms. Pelosi traveled to Taiwan, a spokesman at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Zhao Lijian, said this week.
The strong rhetoric was intended to dissuade Ms. Pelosi from making the trip, but it did not mean China would use military force, a Chinese expert on relations with the United States said.
China did not want a fight with the United States over her visit, said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. “The Chinese have made clear they want Pelosi’s visit canceled, but Beijing surely does not want military conflict right now,” he said.
The fact that Mr. Xi went ahead with the call showed that he was at least willing to talk to Mr. Biden even as the strains between the two countries grew, he added.
The call would not produce any movement on geopolitical, economic or climate issues given the “confrontation and rivalry” that had become more brittle with the prospect of Ms. Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, Mr. Shi said. The atmosphere was “remarkably worse” than in March, when the two leaders last spoke by video call, he added.
China has supported Russia’s war in Ukraine, buying large amounts of Russian oil and blaming the conflict on NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has appealed to the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, for China to distance itself from Russia only to be rebuffed.
The Chinese statement issued after Thursday’s call said the leaders “exchanged views” on Ukraine, referring to the war there as a “crisis,” a nod to China’s basic support of Russia that Mr. Biden has often criticized.
Ms. Pelosi’s possible visit to Taiwan in early August comes at a particularly sensitive time for the Chinese military. The Communist leader, Mao Zedong, founded the People’s Liberation Army on Aug. 1, 1927, a date that is one of the most important in the army’s calendar.
An integral part of China’s military training is how to stage a future takeover of Taiwan, a self-governed island of 23 million people that China claims as its own and has vowed to conquer if necessary.
Ms. Pelosi would travel on a military plane if she makes the trip, as is traditional. One question raised by her planned visit was whether the Chinese air force would attempt to escort Ms. Pelosi’s aircraft, or interfere with it in any way, as it approached Taiwan.
The mood and outcome of the call could influence whether Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi meet in person later in the year in what would be their first in-person encounter since Mr. Biden became president, said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center in Washington.
The two men have known each other since 2011, when they were both vice presidents, and met in China on a “getting to know you” trip by Mr. Biden. They are both likely to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, known as APEC, in Bangkok in November.
Jane Perlez reported from Seoul. Li You contributed research from Shanghai.