Biden Tells Xi What Happens If He Backs Putin, But Taiwan Still Top Issue

President Joe Biden outlined specific measures the United States would take against China if it supports Russia's attack on Ukraine during a nearly two-hour call with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, according to a senior U.S. administration official.

And while no conclusion was said to have been reached, narratives from both sides suggested another top issue, that of Taiwan, remained a central sticking point in strained relations between Beijing and Washington.

Speaking to reporters hours after the leaders' "direct, candid, detailed and very substantive conversation" concluded Friday, the senior Biden administration official said that the two men "spent the preponderance of their time discussing Russia's unprovoked and unjustified invasion of Ukraine, as well as the implications of the crisis for U.S.-China relations and the international order."

While Beijing has remained officially neutral on the conflict launched late last month, Xi has maintained a close bond with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and U.S. officials have claimed that China was considering offer economic and military support for its neighbor, something the Biden administration has warned would be met with punitive measures.

"President Biden made clear the implication and consequences of China providing material support, if China were to provide material support to Russia, as it prosecutes brutal war in Ukraine," the senior administration official said, "not just for China's relationship with the United States, but for the wider world."

And while the senior administration official did not go into specifics about what exactly the steps would be, Biden was said to have "described" the options to his Chinese counterpart, "being able to lay out very clearly in substantial detail, with a lot of facts and really walking President Xi through the situation, making very, very clear our views, the views of others, what we have laid out in the previous month and the actions we're taking now."

As to whether Biden felt he had been able to influence Xi's calculus on the crisis, the senior administration official said that "China will make its own decisions" and that it remained to be seen "what decisions China makes in the days and weeks ahead."

China, Xi, US, Biden, meeting, March, 2022
President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping hold a virtual meeting on March 18, 2022. White House Press Office

A readout released by the White House echoed this account, stating that "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," the readout said. "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."

From Beijing's perspective, a readout released earlier Friday by the Chinese Foreign Ministry readout described the talks as "a candid and in-depth exchange of views on China-U.S. relations, the situation in Ukraine, and other issues of mutual interest."

Xi was said to have noted "new major developments in the international landscape" since the two men held their first virtual meeting in November as a major Russian military buildup along Ukraine's borders began to raise alarms in the U.S.

"The prevailing trend of peace and development is facing serious challenges," Xi said. "The world is neither tranquil nor stable."

Citing China and the U.S.' positions as permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and the world's leading economies, the Chinese leader said the two countries "must not only guide their relations forward along the right track, but also shoulder their share of international responsibilities and work for world peace and tranquility."

On Ukraine, Xi said that "China does not want to see the situation in Ukraine come to this" as his country "stands for peace and opposes war." He affirmed Beijing's commitment to international law and the U.N. charter and reiterated a six-point initiative outlined earlier this week to support humanitarian efforts to address the growing crisis in Ukraine, including an offer of direct aid from China.

And while the Chinese leader stressed his support for talks between Russia and Ukraine to resolve the conflict, he also called on Washington and its allies to hold discussions with Moscow to address Russian grievances that served as a prelude to the war now raging in Europe.

"All sides need to jointly support Russia and Ukraine in having dialogue and negotiation that will produce results and lead to peace," Xi was cited as saying. "The U.S. and NATO should also have dialogue with Russia to address the crux of the Ukraine crisis and ease the security concerns of both Russia and Ukraine."

The Chinese leader also expressed opposition to the sanctions that the U.S. has sought to rally the world to impose against Russia, with Xi saying that such "sweeping and indiscriminate" measures "would only make the people suffer."

"If further escalated," Xi said, "they could trigger serious crises in global economy and trade, finance, energy, food, and industrial and supply chains, crippling the already languishing world economy and causing irrevocable losses. The more complex the situation, the greater the need to remain cool-headed and rational. Whatever the circumstances, there is always a need for political courage to create space for peace and leave room for political settlement."

Xi said China was supportive of efforts toward this end.

"It is imperative that the parties involved demonstrate political will and find a proper settlement in view of both immediate and long-term needs," Xi said. "Other parties can and should create conditions to that end. The pressing priority is to keep the dialogue and negotiation going, avoid civilian casualties, prevent a humanitarian crisis, and cease hostilities as soon as possible."

A major part of the readout, however, was focused on the issue of Taiwan, a self-ruling island claimed by China and backed militarily by the U.S.

Xi also took "very seriously" Biden's pledges "not seek to have a new Cold War with China, to change China's system, or to revitalize alliances against China, and that the U.S does not support 'Taiwan independence' or intend to seek a conflict with China."

Despite these commitments, Xi said U.S.-China relations still faced a "growing number of challenges" since the drastic downturn in bilateral ties he blamed on former President Donald Trump's administration, according to the Chinese readout.

"What's worth noting in particular is that some people in the U.S. have sent a wrong signal to 'Taiwan independence' forces," the Chinese readout said. "This is very dangerous. Mishandling of the Taiwan question will have a disruptive impact on the bilateral ties. China hopes that the U.S. will give due attention to this issue."

But Xi avoided blaming Biden himself, saying instead that the "direct cause" for the current state of strained relations was that "some people on the U.S. side have not followed through on the important common understanding reached by the two presidents and have not acted on President Biden's positive statements."

"The U.S. has misperceived and miscalculated China's strategic intention," according to the readout.

Taiwan, Tsai, reservists, military, base, Taoyuan
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (C) checks a rifle while inspecting reservists training at a military base in Taoyuan on March 12. The island has been on heightened alert since Russia's attack on Ukraine. SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images

The conversation between the two leaders follows a near-seven-hour-long series of consultations led Monday by White House national security security adviser Jake Sullivan and Chinese Central Foreign Affairs Commission Director Yang Jiechi in Rome, during which similar issues were said to have been discussed.

The high-level meetings come about a month after the 50th anniversary of then-President Richard Nixon's iconic visit to China, an overture that served as the foundation of Washington's shift to recognize Beijing in 1979, three decades after the Chinese Communist Party took control of the mainland, forcing nationalists to form a rival government on Taiwan.

The basis of this relationship is laid out in a set of mutual understandings signed between over the course of a decade following Nixon's visit and known as the Three Communiqués.

And while Washington severed official diplomatic relations with Taipei at the time, the U.S. has retained informal contacts as part of carefully constructed as part of another set of conditions known as the Six Assurances, as well as in the Taiwan Relations Act.

During Friday's press call, the senior U.S. administration official confirmed that Xi raised the issue of Taiwan during the call and said that Biden "was very clear that our policy has not changed," a stance also mentioned in the White House readout.

"He reiterated our one China policy based on the Taiwan Relations Act, the Three Communiques, Six Assurances and he underscored as well concerns about Beijing's courses and provocative actions across the Taiwan Strait," the senior administration official said.

"President Biden made clear that we remain opposed to any unilateral changes to the status quo across the Taiwan Strait and I would just remind, obviously, that President Biden himself voted for the Taiwan Relations Act and he's firmly committed to the principles in it," the senior administration official said. "And the Biden administration has consistently demonstrated rock-solid support for Taiwan and will continue to do so."

This support has come in the form of recents arms sales and even a visit of former U.S. officials, including Trump's top diplomat, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to Taiwan last month.

Chinese officials have argued reacted strongly to such moves, arguing they mark a departure from the fundamental arrangements that serve as the cornerstone of U.S.-China relations.

An opinion piece published by the Chinese Defense Ministry earlier Friday accused the U.S. of "playing with fire" in recent moves on Taiwan that threatened to "fuel the fire in a tense and severe situation."

"The Taiwan question is the most important and sensitive issue in China-US relations as it bears on China's sovereignty and territorial integrity," the article said. "On this major issue of principle, it is absolutely impossible for China to compromise and concede. No force should take any chances on this."

"The US side must recognize the high sensitivity and serious harm of arms sales to Taiwan. It must not be obsessed with playing the 'Taiwan card,'" it added. "The US must handle Taiwan-related issues prudently and properly, stop arms sales to and the military ties with Taiwan region, and refrain from sending any wrong signals to the 'Taiwan independence' separatist forces."

To drive in this point, the People's Liberation Army sent its Type 002 aircraft carrier Shandong through the Taiwan Strait early Friday, hours before Biden and Xi's call.

When a report from Reuters, which first reported on the passage through the disputed waterway, asked Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian about the action conducted in the "sensitive" Taiwan Strait, the Chinese official said he was "not aware of the specific situation" but offered is insight anyway.

"I'm sure the aircraft carrier has routine training arrangement," Zhao said. "One shouldn't link this with the communication between the Chinese and U.S. heads of state. Perhaps you are being sensitive, not the Taiwan Strait."