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Beijing Warns Biden Not To “Play With Fire”

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Watching a chess game and contemplating the various alternative moves before they’re made (or ruminating on the ones that never materialized) can be a strenuous mental exercise. But imagine adding yet another layer of interpretation on top of each gesture, one that’s to be understood on a strictly symbolic or rhetorical level, and one that may even contradict what you see on the game board. This analogy seems to describe the game of political strategy and rhetoric, particularly as it applies to the latest call between President Biden and China’s President Xi. At the center of the gameboard lay Taiwan. At the periphery lay the US-China sanctions, the war in Ukraine, and ultimately, two incompatible visions of a world order currently playing out on an economic battleground that, hopefully, will not spill onto geographical terrain (as Russia had done with Ukraine). China’s latest maneuver, announcing an alternative world reserve currency comprised of a BRICS basket, was very skilfully and subtly played. Despite its potentially devastating impact on the US dollar, the world seemed hardly to take notice. America’s latest gesture in Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan (what China describes as “playing with fire”) seems more symbolic than pragmatic; one that China can easily spin as an offensive gesture against its extended sovereignty. Whatever the outcome, the next move will likely have global ramifications in the years to come. And the skill (or lack thereof) of each player is slowly becoming evident.

President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping had a contentious exchange on Taiwan in a two-hour and 17-minute call on Thursday, their fifth call since Biden became president.

The latest: Beijing's statement on the call warned in reference to Taiwan that "those who play with fire will perish by it." A senior U.S. official briefing reporters on the call wouldn't confirm whether Xi used that exact language, but confirmed the leaders discussed their "differences" over Taiwan.

Between the lines: It's no surprise that Taiwan was top of the agenda, with Beijing threatening "serious consequences" if House Speaker Nancy Pelosi follows through on a planned visit to the self-governing island.

  • The Chinese government has repeatedly vowed to take control of the island, by force if necessary, and it reacts furiously to any gesture that seems to treat Taiwan as an independent state.
  • The senior administration official declined to say whether and how Pelosi's potential visit was discussed on the call. But the official did say that Beijing and Washington had "managed" their differences over Taiwan for over 40 years.
  • The official confirmed that Biden told Xi the U.S. maintains its "One China Policy," while stressing that "the United States strongly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait."

Flashback: Biden has previously said three separate times that the U.S. has committed to defend Taiwan, despite the fact that the White House insists there has been no change to the "strategic ambiguity" policy, under which the U.S. takes no explicit position on that issue.

Zoom out: Xi told Biden it was wrong to view the U.S.-China relationship in terms of "strategic competition" — phrasing often used by the White House — because the world's two biggest economies needed to work together on key issues.

  • "Attempts at decoupling or severing supply chains in defiance of underlying laws would not help boost the U.S. economy," Beijing's readout contended, a possible reference to the CHIPS Act, which passed the House on Thursday and aims to ensure U.S. independence from China on critical technologies like semiconductors.
  • The Chinese readout also noted that the leaders discussed "the Ukraine crisis."

The other side: The White House noted the importance of open lines of communication between Washington and Beijing, and said Biden and Xi "tasked their teams to continue following up on today’s conversation, in particular to address climate change and health security."

  • One thing the leaders did not discuss, according to the U.S. official, is any potential action Biden might take on easing sanctions on China.

What's next: The U.S. official said Biden and Xi "agreed to have their team's follow up to find mutually agreeable time" to meet face-to-face for the first time since Biden became president.

  • One possible venue for such a meeting would be the G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, in November.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional details throughout.

Originally published on Axios.

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