Joe Biden To Make Most Important Call of Presidency to China's Xi Jinping

Joe Biden will hold one of the most important summits of his presidency on Thursday when he calls Chinese leader Xi Jinping to iron out old and new tensions in the bilateral relationship. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's rumored visit to Taiwan, the democratically ruled island claimed by China, has given rise to a fresh challenge as Biden tries to stabilize ties with the world's second-largest economy.

The competitive nature of the contemporary relationship has left many fearing a mishap in Asia, one that could spark a wider conflict with global consequences. Crisis management between the two militaries therefore will be high on the agenda for the talks, their fifth in the last 18 months and the latest since March.

Multiple reports citing U.S. officials said the meeting, likely via video link, would take place on July 28. National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby didn't confirm an exact date and time when quizzed by reporters at the White House on Wednesday, saying only that the talks would happen "very soon, in the coming days."

Joe Biden, Xi Jinping Hold Crunch Talks
This combination of photographs shows President Joe Biden, left, and President Xi Jinping of China. Biden and Xi are set for their fifth call as leaders of their respective nations on July 28, 2022, according to reports. MANDEL NGAN/Feng Li/Pool/AFP via Getty Images/Getty Images

On the same day, China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told a regular press briefing in Beijing that he had "no information to offer" about the upcoming Biden-Xi summit. Meanwhile, Taiwan's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Joanne Ou said in Taipei on Thursday that the U.S. side had already briefed the Taiwanese government on the talks. It would be customary for the White House to brief Taipei after the meeting, too.

Taiwan, Russia, and "China's aggressive and coercive behavior in the Indo-Pacific" would be raised during Biden's call with his Chinese counterpart, Kirby said. "I would fully expect that, as part of the president's conversation, that tensions in the South China Sea will come up, as they have routinely with respect to China's excessive maritime claims that aren't backed up by international law," he said.

The U.S.-China rivalry now spans multiple domains, from global leadership and trade to military competition in high technology. But there necessarily will be room for coordination, if not cooperation, on issues including North Korea, strategic oil reserves and—crucially for Biden's domestic agenda—the easing of Trump-era tariffs to address the inflation crisis at home.

Next Taiwan Strait Crisis?

Taiwan, a hot-button issue between Beijing and Washington, will no doubt top the list of talking points from both leaders this week. China views increasing U.S. support for the island as encouraging pro-independence sentiments among its public and elected officials. The U.S. sees China's stepped-up military pressure against Taipei as undermining the decades-long status quo and risking a serious miscalculation in the Taiwan Strait, a spark that, if lit, could lead to a global crisis.

Reports of Pelosi's plans to visit Taiwan in August as part of her bipartisan congressional delegation's wider trip across Asia is a rare area of agreement between Biden and Xi—both oppose the idea. Last week, Biden said the Pentagon thought the speaker's travel was "not a good idea."

The Chinese leadership's starting position is easier to comprehend: Beijing opposes all official U.S.-Taiwan interactions. But there's more. Pelosi is second in the presidential line of succession. The California Democrat would be the most senior American lawmaker to set foot on the island since Republican Newt Gingrich visited in 1997, during very different times.

August marks the 95th anniversary of the Chinese military. Later in the month, the Chinese Communist Party will host its annual leadership gathering in Beidaihe ahead of the party's twice-a-decade national congress in Beijing. Biden's experienced China hands will be well aware of the importance of avoiding the perception that the White House has endorsed a slight to Xi as he seeks to further consolidate his leadership within the CCP through an unprecedented third term. At a time when neither leader can afford to look weak, Pelosi's symbolic show of solidarity with Taiwan creates many uncertainties.

Kirby said Biden "wants to make sure that the lines of communication with President Xi remain open, because they need to." Communication for communication's sake, in this instance, may help avert the next Taiwan Strait crisis between two nuclear-armed powers whose mutual trust is at an all-time low.

Joe Biden, Xi Jinping Hold Crunch Talks
President Joe Biden meets with President Xi Jinping of China during a virtual summit from the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., November 15, 2021. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

After the leaders last spoke in March, Beijing said it valued Biden's commitment to a policy of "four noes and one no intention," referring to the president's pledge not to seek a new Cold War with China, not to change China's political system, not to target China with revitalized U.S. alliances and not to support Taiwan independence. Biden said the U.S. had no intention of seeking conflict with China, according to Beijing's readout.

In the talks, Xi told Biden that, despite his commitments, some in the U.S. continued to defy them. "This is very dangerous. Mishandling of the Taiwan question will have a disruptive impact on bilateral ties. China hopes that the U.S. will give due attention to this issue," he said.

"The direct cause for the current situation in the China-U.S. relationship is 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," Xi said.

Biden's challenge will be to reaffirm his commitments and convince Xi that he not only has no authority to block a visit to Taiwan by a House speaker from his own party, but he also doesn't endorse Taiwan independence. At the same time, however, he also will have to explain his recent pledge to defend the island from a Chinese attack, comments that broke with decades of formal U.S. policy.

Washington's veteran China experts, including the Brookings Institution's Ryan Hass, have suggested the speaker should complete her visit to Taiwan but do so later in the year, effectively avoiding the timing of the Biden-Xi summit as well as the CCP's sensitive August events. Beyond Hass, there are also China watchers who believe Pelosi shouldn't be going at all.

For Pelosi, her visit to Taiwan would cap a 30-year career in Congress that began with her unfurling a pro-democracy banner in 1991 in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, one of the sites of China's brutal suppression of student-led demonstrations in 1989.

According to reports, she'd planned to travel to Taipei in April but postponed it because of a positive COVID test. With Congress coming into recess in August, the speaker may feel there's no better time to make good on her commitment to support the island in the most symbolic manner possible—by standing on the ground next to the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen. With the Democrats uncertain to retain control of the House after the midterms, a post-election trip might very well see Pelosi travel as a lame-duck speaker before her term is up.