Washington (AFP) -
Chinese President Xi Jinping warned his US counterpart Joe Biden not to 'play with fire' over the self-ruled island of Taiwan during a lengthy phone call Thursday that the White House said aimed to steady the superpowers' rocky relationship.
A statement relayed by Chinese state media said the call, lasting two hours and 17 minutes according to the White House, was 'candid' -- often diplomatic speak for a difficult exchange.
State-run Xinhua agency said Xi delivered harsh words on US policy towards Taiwan, a democratic island with close ties to the United States but which China considers part of its territory.
'Those who play with fire will eventually get burned,' Xi was quoted as telling Biden, repeating language he employed when they spoke last November. 'I hope the US side fully understand that.'
Tensions around Taiwan are steadily escalating amid fears that Xi could ultimately order an invasion to impose Beijing's rule. In the latest flashpoint, Chinese authorities are furious at unconfirmed plans by Biden ally and speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, to visit the island.
Although US officials frequently visit Taiwan, separated by a narrow strip of water from the Chinese mainland, Beijing considers a Pelosi trip as a major provocation. She's second in line to the US presidency and given her position may travel with military transport.
Washington will 'bear the consequences' if the trip goes ahead, China warned Wednesday.
During the call, Xi was quoted as telling Biden 'the position of the Chinese government and people on the Taiwan issue is consistent.'
'It is the firm will of the over 1.4 billion Chinese people to firmly safeguard China's national sovereignty and territorial integrity,' he said.
In response, Biden reassured Xi that US policy, known as 'strategic ambiguity,' was unchanged -- essentially favoring the status quo in Taiwan, with Washington recognizing Chinese sovereignty but opposing any enforcement, allowing the Taiwanese to retain their distinct rule.
'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 White House said in a statement.
- 'Guardrails' -
While this was Biden's fifth talk with Xi since becoming president a year and a half ago, it's getting hard to mask deepening mistrust between the two countries.
Biden prides himself on a close relationship with Xi going back years but -- in large part due to Covid travel restrictions -- the two have yet to meet face-to-face since he took office.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said 'tensions over China's aggressive, coercive behavior in the Indo-Pacific' were high on the agenda for the call -- using the US administration's term for the Asia-Pacific region.
The White House described Biden's outreach as part of 'efforts to maintain and deepen lines of communication' and to 'responsibly manage our differences and work together where our interests align.'
According to the White House, Biden's chief hope is to establish 'guardrails' for the two superpowers.
This is meant to ensure that while they sharply disagree on democracy, and are increasingly rivals on the geopolitical stage, they can avoid open conflict.
Where to place the guardrails, however, is challenging amid so many unresolved disputes, including a simmering trade war begun under Donald Trump's presidency.
Asked whether Biden could lift some of the 25 percent import duties placed on billions of dollars of Chinese products by Trump, Kirby said there was still no decision.
'We do believe... that the tariffs that were put in place by his predecessor were poorly designed. We believe that they've increased costs for American families and small businesses, as well as ranchers. And that's, you know, without actually addressing some of China's harmful trade practices,' Kirby said.
But 'I don't have any decision to speak to with respect to tariffs by the president. He's working this out.'