Chinese leader Xi Jinping warned US President Joe Biden against “playing with fire” over Taiwan yesterday, as tensions grow over a mooted visit by US House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, to the island.
In a phone call that lasted more than two hours and was described by Beijing as “candid”, Mr Xi reiterated China’s long-time stance that it considered Taiwan – a self-governed territory – to be an inalienable part of China, according to a Chinese statement.
“China firmly opposes separatist moves toward ‘Taiwan independence” and interference by external forces,” noted a statement from the foreign ministry in Beijing.
“Those playing with fire will get burnt,” Mr Xi was described as saying to Mr Biden. “It is hoped the US will be clear-eyed about this.”
In recent weeks, Beijing has escalated its warnings of retaliation if Ms Pelosi visits Taiwan as it has been reported she intends to. Ms Pelosi has yet to confirm details of her trip to Asia, which could begin as early as next Monday. It would make her the most senior US politician to visit the island in decades.
The White House did not mention the Chinese leader’s warning, but said Mr Biden repeated the long-time US policy that Washington supported the “one-China policy” on Taiwan – thus not recognising the island as a separate nation.
However, Mr Biden also told Mr Xi that the US “strongly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait”.
The White House described the call as “a part of the Biden administration’s efforts to maintain and deepen lines of communication”, with the two leaders discussing topics including climate change and health security.
Ms Pelosi’s trip was originally slated to happen in spring but was cancelled at the last minute after she caught Covid. It has now reportedly been rescheduled, much to the annoyance of Beijing.
Tan Kefei, a spokesman for China’s ministry of defence, said this week that if it went ahead, the Chinese military would “take strong measures to thwart any external interference and separatist plans for ‘Taiwan independence’ and resolutely defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
China has also increased military activity involving Taiwan, sending scores of fighter jets near the island in shows of force.
Beijing is “not exactly afraid of hyperbole”, a former US official said.
Chinese officials have referred to Ms Pelosi as “No 3 in the US government”, given her place in line to succeed the president, indicating Beijing sees her as under the direct control of Mr Biden, rather than as part of an independent branch of government, separate from the White House.
If Ms Pelosi does touch down on the island, she would be the most senior US lawmaker to visit Taiwan since one of her predecessors, Newt Gingrich, in 1997. Beijing was similarly upset then, though China has grown stronger – politically, militarily and economically – over the past 25 years.
The timing of Ms Pelosi’s trip also comes at a politically tricky time for Beijing. This autumn, Mr Xi is expected to continue in an unprecedented third five-year term as party leader.
Rivals could accuse him of appearing soft against the US over Taiwan, though in advance of major political events, the ruling Communist Party typically prefers stability.
Beijing considers official contact with Taiwan as implicit recognition of the island as a separate, independent nation, and a direct challenge to its sovereignty. Taiwan has a democratically-elected government, along with its own military, foreign policy and currency.
The US has long maintained a position of “strategic ambiguity” regarding whether it would come to Taiwan’s defence if conflict were to erupt.
US law, however, does mandate that America “provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character” and underscores that peace and stability in the region are in the interests of the US.