But hopes for improved relations with Beijing are dim. Instead, Biden aides hope that maintaining a personal relationship with Xi can, at most, avoid the miscalculation that could lead to confrontation.
“This is the kind of relationship that President Biden strongly believes in doing, even with countries with which you may have significant disagreements,” National Security Council Communications Coordinator John Kirby said this week.
Planning for Biden’s phone call with Xi predated outrage over Pelosi’s proposed visit to Taipei, after it had been under discussion for weeks. Biden is also currently considering whether to raise some Trump-era tariffs on China in an effort to ease inflation, though White House officials said he had not made a decision yet and suggested the topic would not significantly affect his conversation with Xi. .
Instead, China’s escalating aggression in the region – including in Taiwan and the South China Sea – is at the heart of current tensions. In the absence of open lines of communication, US officials fear that misunderstandings could turn into unintended conflict.
This includes how Beijing responds to Pelosi’s possible visit to Taiwan.
Pelosi has not made any statements about her plans for the trip, which has yet to be finalized.
“I have never talked about my travel. It is dangerous for me,” she said Wednesday.
However, even the unofficial word that the third man in the line of the US presidency was considering a visit to Taiwan elicited a huge response from Beijing, which views the visits of senior US officials as a sign of diplomatic relations with the island.
“If the United States insists on taking its own course, the Chinese military will not stand idly by, and will certainly take strong measures to thwart any outside power’s interference and separatist schemes for ‘Taiwan independence’, and resolutely defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Defense Ministry spokesman Tan Kefee said on Tuesday in response to questions about Pelosi’s visit to Taipei.
The White House called those comments “unnecessary” and “unhelpful,” saying the speech only heightened tensions “in an entirely unnecessary way.”
They also revealed what US officials said was a misunderstanding by Chinese officials about the significance of Pelosi’s possible visit. The officials said China may confuse Pelosi’s visit with an official visit to the administration since it and Biden are Democrats. Administration officials worry that China is not separating Pelosi and Biden very much, if at all.
This adds pressure to Biden’s call with Xi. Officials have been cautious about whether Pelosi’s visit will arise, or how much it will affect the conversation. But China’s apparent confusion over differences between the White House and Congress may inject a level of personal animosity into the talks.
Administration officials’ concerns about Pelosi’s trip are due in part to its timing. It will come at a particularly tense moment, with the upcoming Chinese Communist Party congress at which Xi is expected to seek an unprecedented third term to pressure the leadership in Beijing to show strength. Chinese party officials are expected to start laying the groundwork for that congress in the coming weeks.
With China recently reporting its worst economic performance in two years, Xi found himself in a politically sensitive position ahead of the important meeting.
Biden and Xi spent several hours in each other’s company when both were vice presidents, traveling through China and the United States to build a bond. However, they have yet to meet face-to-face with their presidential counterparts, as Xi mostly avoids travel during the Covid-19 pandemic.
That could change in November, when a series of summits in Asia – including the G-20 in Bali and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation in Bangkok – will provide the opportunity for an in-person meeting. People familiar with the matter said that US officials are looking forward to arranging such a meeting on the sidelines of a summit.
Biden last spoke with Xi in March when he worked to persuade the Chinese leader not to support Russia amid its invasion of Ukraine. Officials have been closely watching how Beijing responds to the invasion, hoping that a mostly consolidated Western response — including an exorbitant array of economic sanctions and billions of dollars in arms shipments — demonstrates that China is weighing its actions toward Taiwan.
US officials believe there is a small risk that China might miscalculate in response to Pelosi’s possible visit. A US official told CNN that Biden administration officials are concerned that China may seek to declare a no-fly zone over Taiwan ahead of a potential visit in an effort to reverse the flight, which could heighten tensions in the region.
Officials said this is still a remote possibility. More likely, the US official added, is the possibility that China will intensify its flights to Taiwan’s unilaterally declared air defense zone, which could lead to renewed discussions about possible responses from Taiwan and the United States. They did not detail what those potential responses would entail.
CNN’s Arlette Sainz and Betsy Klein contributed to this report.
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