Pelosi's Taiwan visit tests U.S.-China ties as Biden looks to ease tensions
WASHINGTON — A congressional trip to Taiwan led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., became the focus of President Joe Biden's call with Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Thursday, further underscoring the latest U.S.-China rift that has sent relations to their lowest point in decades.
Biden used his fifth phone call with Xi since taking office to try to manage the rancor over Pelosi's planned visit along with a list of tension points that have strained U.S.-China relations, including Beijing's refusal to condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine, as well as economic competition, security and human rights.
The nearly 21/2-hour call included a "direct and honest discussion" about Taiwan in which Biden emphasized that the two countries have managed differences over the democratically self-governing island for the last 40 years, and vowed that the U.S. would continue to maintain the status quo under Washington's "one-China" policy, according to a White House official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.
China had harsher words regarding Taiwan, reiterating Beijing's opposition to the island's independence and echoing Biden's promise to keep an open line of communication on the issue.
"Those who play with fire will perish by it," a Chinese readout of the call said. "It is hoped that the U.S. will be clear-eyed about this."
The prospect of a visit, which Pelosi has yet to publicly confirm, ratchets up already simmering tensions over Taiwan, which Beijing claims as part of its territory and has threatened to take by force. Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific region and a string of comments by Biden vowing to defend Taiwan militarily have further inflamed relations over the last year.
Discussion over Pelosi's trip, which spilled into public view last week after Biden hinted at military concerns over its timing, marks the latest test of the president's strategy to contain China's rising power while Biden and Xi look to avert a political miscalculation that could spiral into conflict.
It has also prompted escalating threats of retaliation from Chinese officials, who warned such a trip would be a "red line" for Beijing and would be met with strong measures in response, leading to unease within the Biden administration.
If Pelosi cancels the trip, it could give the impression that the U.S. is caving in the face of Chinese pressure, a politically perilous outcome for Biden that's preemptively drawn Republican criticism. If she proceeds, the U.S. risks a potential confrontation in the Taiwan Strait over what China may perceive as a change to Washington's long-held policy of supporting Taiwan without recognizing its sovereignty.
"There's so much momentum building for this trip to happen that it's increasingly unlikely she will not go," said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund, a nonpartisan public policy think tank. "I do think there are other steps the United States could take to signal support for Taiwan ... and to manage our differences with China in ways that we don't go to war."
Congress could move to pass some elements of the Taiwan Policy Act, which would bolster funding for the island's security assistance and designate it as a "major non-NATO ally," she said.
Pelosi could also postpone the trip as she did in April after testing positive for COVID-19, Glaser added, noting the timing of her visit could provoke a response ahead of the Chinese Communist Party's major political meeting in the fall. Xi, who is expected to defy precedent by seeking a third term as president, may feel pressure to show strength ahead of the meeting.
A longtime critic of the Chinese government, Pelosi wouldn't be the first lawmaker to make a congressional visit since China stepped up its military provocations toward Taiwan in recent months: Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., paid a visit this month while Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., traveled there in late May. But the last House speaker to make the trip was Republican Newt Gingrich, in 1997.
A growing chorus of lawmakers, including some of Pelosi's foes in the GOP, have rallied around the planned visit and argued a cancellation would amount to allowing Beijing to dictate U.S. policy.
"If she doesn't go now, she's handed China ... a victory of sorts," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Tuesday.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., echoed that sentiment and said he would lead a congressional delegation if he became speaker next year.
The White House has reiterated the president has little or no power over a House speaker's actions. But Beijing could misconstrue the visit from the third-highest ranking figure in the U.S. government as an official administration visit that Biden has the prerogative to stop, according to M. Taylor Fravel, a scholar who heads the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"Xi may now conclude that 1) the United States is continuing to 'hollow out' its One China policy, perhaps to a point of no return, and 2) that he has been snubbed / scorned / slighted by Biden," Fravel tweeted before the call.
"Thus, the stakes for Xi in how to respond will be even higher, and create even stronger incentives for a forceful response, than if no phone call occurred. Policy, reputation, and credibility will be seen to be at stake."
During Biden's last call with Xi in March, the president warned of consequences should Beijing send military aid to support Russia's war in Ukraine. U.S. officials have been closely watching how China has responded to Moscow's invasion for clues as to how Beijing might move forward with its long-held goal of "reunifying" Taiwan with China.
Chinese academics have reportedly been tasked by the ruling Communist Party to map out ways to seize the self-governing island of 24 million by force, according to Bonny Lin, who directs the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
"Beijing is worried that increasing U.S. and allied support for Taiwan and other regional partners elevates the risk of U.S.-China military confrontation and that China may find itself in the same situation as Russia," Lin said in recent testimony to the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific region.
"Some (Chinese officials) believe that the sanctions the United States and West took against Russia were originally designed for China if China invaded Taiwan," she added.
China has refused to condemn the Russian invasion or join sanctions punishing Moscow. But it has subtly shifted to opposing war and urging diplomacy. Yet many in Beijing believe they have not received any credit for that, Lin said.
Ukraine, along with a pending decision on whether to lift Trump administration-era tariffs on China in an effort to ease inflation, were among the complex agenda items Biden was forced to navigate in his latest call with Xi.
A sweeping $280-billion package designed to boost the domestic semiconductor industry and reduce U.S. reliance on Chinese manufacturing that cleared Congress on Thursday also appeared to cause friction during the call, according to a Chinese readout.
Biden and Xi also discussed areas in which they could work together, including climate change and health security. Biden also raised human rights issues including genocide and forced labor practices by the People's Republic of China, according to White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.
The conversation also provided a chance to lay the groundwork for the pair to meet face to face on the sidelines of the upcoming Group of 20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, or the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Bangkok in November, which would allow Biden to showcase his brand of personal diplomacy and the pair's relationship that dates to when the two served as vice presidents.
"Both of them will have to go through a political season before that, but they need to prepare for that," said Craig Allen, president of the U.S.-China Business Council. "That's important that they're going to be presumably sitting across the table from one another and having to coordinate the relationship going forward. ... They both know that."
A White House official declined to say whether either November summit would serve as the backdrop for their meeting but said that it was a "significant part of the conversation" and that both leaders agreed to have their teams find "a mutually agreeable time to do so."
But before any diplomatic reunions in the fall, Biden and Xi have to navigate what Glaser and other experts describe as a "continuous downward spiral and deterioration of the relationship" in the months ahead, beginning with potential fallout from Pelosi's trip.
Glaser said that although both leaders have discussed risk-reduction measures, the fractured relationship remains unchanged.
"Nothing is going to be resolved in this meeting, but maybe we're able to put a floor under the deterioration of the relationship," she said.