Biden Faces Fresh Showdown With Xi Despite Talk of Summit

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(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden and Xi Jinping ended their call Thursday with plans to hold their first face-to-face summit, but the US and China are unlikely to halt their bickering in the months before the two leaders finally meet.

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The world’s two largest economies risk a fresh showdown as US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi kicks off an Asian tour Friday that could include a stop in Taiwan. China has warned of a “firm and strong” response to any such trip, raising the specter of a military show of force.

If Pelosi doesn’t land in Taipei, Biden will face domestic political pressure to undo the impression that the US caved to China’s demands.

Abrupt shifts from talks to threats have become a feature of the US-China relationship since former President Donald Trump followed up a triumphant state visit to Beijing in 2017 with his first tariffs against the country weeks later. Ties have only deteriorated since, as officials from both sides grow increasingly comfortable trading barbs while audiences at home cheer them on.

Biden and Xi’s latest call further solidifies the cycle of talking while fighting, with leaders agreeing to more meetings and working-level negotiations while exchanging jabs on strategic disputes. China pointedly declined to label the call as “constructive” -- a term it had used on previous occasions -- and Xi reaffirmed the threat of a military confrontation over Taiwan, telling Biden “whoever plays with fire, will get burned.”

The pressure on both men to show strength is increasing as their respective economies falter under two-and-a-half years of pandemic strains. Biden is seeking to preserve a slim Democratic congressional majority in November elections, and Xi is approaching a crucial Communist Party congress that will determine whether he secures a third, precedent-breaking term in power as widely predicted.

The Pelosi trip comes during a week that Xi is expected to huddle with party elders at the seaside resort of Beidaihe ahead of the looming leadership reshuffle.

Most analysts expect China to signal its displeasure with any Taiwan trip by the California Democrat -- the first by a sitting speaker in a quarter century -- with warplane incursions or naval patrols near the island. A US aircraft carrier strike group is sailing toward the area, putting the American side in position to respond.

“The next few months will be especially strained because each country seeks to display resolve vis-à-vis the other ahead of a critical domestic event: midterm elections in the United States and the 20th Party Congress in China,” said Ali Wyne, a senior analyst at the Eurasia Group. “But that mutual desire transcends particular flash points, with efforts to gain competitive advantage increasingly overtaking those to cultivate durable coexistence.”

A senior Biden administration official told reporters after Thursday’s call that it was important for the two sides to talk when tensions were high. The countries have areas of shared interest to cooperate on, including climate change, health threats and fighting drug trafficking, the official said.

US State Department spokesman Ned Price said Thursday that the talks were “keeping open the lines of communication, ensuring that we’re doing everything we can to ensure that the competition that defines the relationship between the United States and China -- the most consequential bilateral relationship we have -- does not veer from competition into conflict.”

What ostensibly began as Trump’s effort to narrow the US trade deficit has morphed into an era-defining geopolitical struggle, with each side jockeying for the moral high ground on issues ranging from human rights to global security.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February has pushed global powers further into opposing camps, with the US backing its traditional allies in Europe and Asia and Xi affirming his “no limits” relationship with Vladimir Putin and courting authoritarian-leaning regimes around the world.

‘Bad Move’

Biden, whose approval ratings have hit record lows amid voter discontent over the economy, has found it difficult to make a clear break from even some of Trump’s most controversial tough-on-China policies.

The administration official, for instance, told reporters that the president didn’t use the call to discuss removing tit-for-tat tariffs levied during Trump’s trade war, a topic of intense White House debate in recent weeks.

Pelosi’s trip has highlighted the broad US support for confronting China. The country was viewed unfavorably by an all-time-high of 82% of Americans in a Pew Research Center survey released in April. Lawmakers from both parties have urged the House speaker to follow through on a visit to Taiwan, after a Covid infection forced her to scrap an earlier trip earlier this year.

Henry Huiyao Wang, founder of the Center for China and Globalization, told Bloomberg Television on Friday that Taiwan was a “really serious issue” and a Pelosi visit would be a “very, very bad move.”

Beijing has long viewed Washington’s promise to cut formal ties with Taipei in 1979 as vital to the relationship, and China argues high-level American visits represent a violation of that deal.

The stakes are even higher for Xi, who has vowed to defend Chinese territory from foreign encroachment and will likely still be ruling the country later this decade when its military is expected to achieve the capacity to mount a successful invasion.

The run-up to Thursday’s call did show some signs of being less dysfunctional, including Xi sending Biden well wishes last week for a speedy recovery from Covid-19. Besides the agreement to work toward an in-person summit -- perhaps as soon as November, when both leaders may attend international summits in Southeast Asia -- they also committed to continue working-level talks.

“There’s suspicion and a lot of uncertainty, but at the same time, there is still some underlying need for corporation on issues of trade and climate change,” said Ja Ian Chong, an associate political science professor at the National University of Singapore who specializes in Chinese foreign policy. “However, just because there are commonalities doesn’t necessarily mean that actors will get along or find a better solution.”

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