China's Xi Tells Biden on Taiwan 'Those Who Play With Fire Perish By It'

Chinese President Xi Jinping issued a warning to his U.S. counterpart Joe Biden in their fifth and latest conversation, warning that pushing the envelope on the sensitive issue of Taiwan would have serious consequences.

As reports that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was considering traveling to the disputed island next month stirred an uptick in tensions between Beijing and Washington, Xi "highlighted that the historical ins and outs of the Taiwan question are crystal clear, and so are the fact and status quo that both sides of the Taiwan Strait belong to one and the same China," according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry's readout of his call with Biden.

The Chinese leader called on the U.S. to abide by the commitments that serve as the cornerstone for relations established between China and the U.S. in 1979.

"The three Sino-U.S. joint communiqués embody the political commitments made by the two sides, and the one-China principle is the political foundation for China-U.S. relations," the readout stated. "China firmly opposes separatist moves toward 'Taiwan independence' and interference by external forces, and never allows any room for 'Taiwan independence' forces in whatever form."

While Washington broke off official relations with Taipei nearly half a century ago, the U.S. has since maintained an informal relationship with Taiwan in the form of military support and political engagement that have expanded in recent years as U.S.-China tensions worsened. Beijing still lays claim to the self-governing island and has warned it reserved the right bring Taipei into the Chinese Communist Party's fold through force if diplomacy did not work.

Xi said that the position of China and its population, the largest in the world, "is consistent" and that "resolutely safeguarding China's national sovereignty and territorial integrity is the firm will of the more than 1.4 billion Chinese people."

"The public opinion cannot be defied," the readout said. "Those who play with fire will perish by it."

And to borrow a phrase from the Biden administration's own diplomatic playbook, the readout said Xi "hoped that the U.S. will be clear-eyed about this." He urged that "the U.S. should honor the one-China principle and implement the three joint communiqués both in word and in deed."

Joe, Biden, Xi, Jinping, combination, photo
Chinese President Xi Jinping issued a warning to his U.S. counterpart Joe Biden in their fifth and latest conversation, warning that pushing the envelope on the sensitive issue of Taiwan would have serious consequences. Above, this combination of pictures shows Biden (left) during the COP26 U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, on November 2, 2021, and Xi in Athens on November 11, 2019. PAUL ELLIS/ARIS MESSINIS/Pool/AFP/Getty Images

Xi also discussed a number of other issues and painted the picture of a world in the throes of "turbulence and transformation" as well as "deficits in development and security."

"Faced with a world of change and disorder, the international community and the people around the world expect China and the US to take the lead in upholding world peace and security and in promoting global development and prosperity," the Chinese readout said. "This is the responsibility of China and the US as two major countries."

In this regard, Xi cautioned against any policies in Washington that "approach and define China-US relations in terms of strategic competition and view China as the primary rival and the most serious long-term challenge." Rather, he said that "the two sides need to maintain communication at all levels and make good use of existing channels to promote bilateral cooperation."

Among the areas in which the Chinese leader said cooperation between the two top powers was necessary included coordinating macroeconomic issues and supply chain security as well as de-escalating hotspots and continuing the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Summing up Biden's remarks, the readout stated that the U.S. leader "said that the world is at a critical moment" and that "U.S.-China cooperation benefits not only the two peoples but also people of all countries."

"The U.S. hopes to keep an open line of communication with China to enhance mutual understanding and avoid misperception and miscalculation, and will work with China where the interests of the two countries align and, at the same time, properly manage differences," Biden said, according to the Chinese account. "He reiterated that the one-China policy of the U.S. has not changed and will not change, and that the U.S. does not support 'Taiwan independence.'"

A White House readout released shortly after the Chinese account appeared to echo this summary of what Biden said.

The call was described as "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 two men were said to have "discussed a range of issues important to the bilateral relationship and other regional and global issues, and tasked their teams to continue following up on today's conversation, in particular to address climate change and health security."

And here too Taiwan received a special mention.

"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," the U.S. side said.

A senior Biden administration official later told reporters that the conversation the two leaders had on Taiwan was "in-depth," "direct" and "honest." The two were said to have "discussed the fact that the United States and China have differences when it comes to Taiwan, but that they have managed those for over 40 years and that keeping an open line of communication on this issue is essential to continuing to do so."

"It's important for the United States and China to work together on areas where our interests align, even when we have substantial differences or are engaged in competition in a number of different areas," the official added. "Our view is that this is what responsible nations do. They manage areas where they have differences and they find ways to work together for the good of their own peoples and for the common good of the people in the world."

Among these areas identified by the U.S. side were climate change, health, security and counternarcotics.

The official also said that a "significant part of the conversation" revolved around concrete plans for both leaders and their teams to follow up on their discussions, including arranging a future face-to-face meeting, which would be the first of its kind since Biden took office a year and a half ago.

The question of Taiwan has been always been a sore spot for U.S.-China relations but the feud has been particularly aggravated since former President Donald Trump took a more assertive shift against the rapidly rising power and ties between Washington and Taipei were further expanded under his administration. Biden has also pressed the issue, having declared three times that he would defend Taiwan against a Chinese military attack, even as his administration reiterated each time that there has been no change in the U.S. stance.

Now, with Pelosi considering making what would be the first trip to Taiwan for a House speaker in a quarter of a century, Chinese officials have especially sought to reinforce their position.

Speaking at a monthly press conference Thursday days ahead of the 95th anniversary of the founding of the People's Liberation Army, Chinese Defense Ministry spokesperson Wu Qia told one reporter asking about the inclusion of U.S. commitments to support Taiwan in the event of a Chinese intervention in the recently passed National Defense Authorization Act that "Taiwan is China's Taiwan; the Taiwan issue is purely China's internal affair, and there is no room for U.S. interference."

"For some time now, the U.S. side has been saying one thing and doing another," Wu said. "On the one hand, it says it is committed to the one-China policy and does not support Taiwan independence, while on the other hand strengthening its military and political ties with China's Taiwan region, introducing plans to sell arms to Taiwan."

And he too warned about the blowback of such a policy.

"This playing with fire is very dangerous," Wu said. "It seriously undermines peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and seriously raises the risk of military confrontation between China and the United States."