Analysts differ in their approach: some describe the phone call as an ice-breaking event, while others foresee Beijing taking a more aggressive stance in the near future.

The call comes at a time when some experts worry House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s potential Taiwan visit could spur a major crisis even as others downplay the idea.
The call comes at a time when some experts worry House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s potential Taiwan visit could spur a major crisis even as others downplay the idea. (AFP)

US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping have managed largely to steer clear of escalatory rhetoric on Taiwan in a call at a time when the two leaders are beset by economic challenges on the home front, according to experts.

Xi's warning to Biden against "playing with fire" over Taiwan on Thursday, though vivid, largely mirrored his remarks from the two leaders' video meeting in November.

"The portion of the conversation on Taiwan was extremely similar to the last conversation. Xi's warnings did not escalate," said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, referring to Beijing's readout of the call.

Taiwan comprised a key part of the more than two-hour discussion, according to a senior US official, who declined to say if Biden and Xi directly broached the topic of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's yet-to-be-confirmed visit to the island amid spiralling tensions.

Instead, the official highlighted that Biden had conveyed that Washington maintained its long-standing "one-China policy" under which it recognises Beijing, not Taipei, diplomatically.

"My sense is the two leaders talking directly probably lowered the temperature somewhat relative to what it would have been without the meeting," said Jacob Stokes, an Indo-Pacific security fellow at the Centre for a New American Security.

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A visit by the House speaker, as soon as August according to some reports, would be a dramatic, though not unprecedented, show of US support for the island. Republican Newt Gingrich was the last House speaker to visit Taiwan in 1997.

Some analysts say there was no tangible progress during the phone call, with the focus now shifting to a planned in-person summit between the US and Chinese leaders. Some also say the military risks are real, but unlikely to rise to the level of war.

“The intense speculation from everyone is indicative of the way that Taiwan is being tossed around like a political football, and quite unhelpful," said Natasha Kassam, director of the public opinion and foreign policy programme at the Lowy Institute in Australia.

Arthur Zhin-Sheng Wang, a defence studies expert at Taiwan’s Central Police University, said the real focus should be on how the US and China manage their differences so the risks of confrontation don't spiral out of control.

“The main point is not in Pelosi coming to Taiwan, but it’s to look at how the US and China effectively control the risks that may arise,” Wang said.

Wang added that Thursday’s call was an example of how the two sides can manage their differences through dialogue. The fact that it occurred amid the debate over Pelosi visiting Taiwan was a sign of at least a “basic level of mutual understanding,” he said.

Craig Singleton, senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defence of Democracies' China Program, said in a note to media that as Biden and Xi confront serious economic headwinds, they will face intensifying domestic pressure to stabilise the their relationship.

"So far, there are few indications in Chinese official statements, nor online or domestic media, which would suggest that China is considering more serious military action at this time, although that could change," he said.

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Source: TRTWorld and agencies