President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke over the phone Thursday as tensions continue to rise between the U.S. and China.
The White House readout of the call was light on detail, full of vague and trite language that would make most Fortune 500 human-resource departments blush. “The call was a part of the Biden Administration’s efforts to maintain and deepen lines of communication between the United States and the PRC and responsibly manage our differences and work together where our interests align,” the White House said.
“The two presidents discussed a range of issues important to the bilateral relationship and other regional and global issues,” the release added. What they are, the White House mostly did not say, though it added that the countries are working together to address “climate change and health security.”
The readout continued:
On Taiwan, President 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.
Missing from the readout of the call, unsurprisingly, is whether the two leaders discussed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s potential trip to Taipei. Biden administration officials believe that Pelosi’s trip overseas, which has not been finalized, risks derailing the administration’s efforts to organize an in-person meeting with Xi, and have reportedly been trying to convince the Speaker not to go.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin stated Wednesday that he had provided an "assessment of the security situation” of the potential Taiwan trip to Pelosi.
The administration seems rightly worried that Pelosi’s trip could further strain U.S. relations with China, as well as Biden’s personal relationship with Xi, formed during his tenure as vice president and about which then-candidate Biden boasted on the campaign trail. Tan Kefei, China’s defense-ministry spokesperson, told reporters Tuesday, "If the US insists on taking its own course, the Chinese military will never sit idly by, and it will definitely take strong actions to thwart any external force's interference and separatist's schemes for 'Taiwan independence,' and resolutely defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
The president himself suggested Pelosi’s trip wasn’t a good idea, though he hid behind the military to do it. “The military thinks it’s not a good idea right now,” Biden said Wednesday. One of the more extreme scenarios that the military reportedly fears is that China could create a no-fly zone that prevents Pelosi from landing on the island.
When Pelosi was asked about the trip, the Speaker said, "I never talk about my travel. It's a danger to me.”
Also missing from the readout of Thursday’s call was any talk of tariffs. Biden is apparently considering lifting some of the tariffs imposed by the Trump administration, allegedly to ease inflationary pressures. Politico reported that former federal officials with knowledge of the Biden administration’s plan said Biden wants to dial back tariffs using Section 301 on a group of imports that amount to about $10 billion.
Thursday marked the fifth time Biden and Xi have conversed over the phone or video conference during the 46th president’s tenure. Though he’s 18 months into his first—and, increasingly likely, only—term, Biden and Xi have yet to have an in-person meeting, though much of the blame falls on Xi, who has largely refused to travel outside of China during the Asian power’s vain struggle for "Covid zero."
The last time the pair spoke on the phone was in March, primarily regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that started in late February. The White House’s readout of the call said:
President Biden outlined the views of the United States and our Allies and partners on this crisis. President Biden detailed our efforts to prevent and then respond to the invasion, including by imposing costs on Russia. He described the implications and consequences if China provides material support to Russia as it conducts brutal attacks against Ukrainian cities and civilians. The President underscored his support for a diplomatic resolution to the crisis.
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The pair also discussed the issue of Taiwan. Biden seems to believe, at least at some level, the establishment-Republican line that his weakness as president in the realm of foreign affairs could invite more Chinese military adventurism in the South China Sea—namely an invasion of Taiwan.
“The President reiterated that U.S. policy on Taiwan has not changed, and emphasized that the United States continues to oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo,” the White House’s statement read. Notice, the president’s reported statements on Taiwan in his last two calls are nearly identical. Maybe the president forgot what he told Xi the last time they talked. After all, this is Joe Biden we’re talking about.
As Biden’s former running mate once said, “Don’t underestimate Joe’s ability to f— things up.”