WASHINGTON — When President Biden gets on a call with President Xi Jinping of China on Thursday to try to tamp down tension over Taiwan, the two will have a laundry list of mutual grievances to address. But one source of recent friction may be something not on the list: China’s domestic troubles.
The United States and China have been at odds lately over the Russian invasion of Ukraine, aggressive Chinese action in the Pacific, continuing American tariffs and a possible trip to Taiwan by Speaker Nancy Pelosi over Beijing’s strenuous objections. Any of those could provide the spark for a more dangerous confrontation.
But some American officials suspect that what is really driving Mr. Xi to lash out recently is a desire to divert attention from his own economic and pandemic problems at home or at least a need to demonstrate strength internationally. His “zero Covid” policy has resulted in drastic lockdowns, but cases are rising again and China still has no mRNA vaccine. His economy has slowed almost to a halt even as unemployment among young people soars and many parts of China are experiencing mortgage and debt crises.
Provoking a foreign crisis to take attention away from such issues is a tried-and-true technique of leaders everywhere, but it will make it harder for Mr. Biden to lower the temperature on Thursday. White House officials played down the likelihood of any breakthroughs, saying the purpose of the call, the leaders’ fifth since Mr. Biden took office, was simply to keep talking.
“This is the kind of relationship-tending that President Biden believes strongly in doing even with nations with which you might have significant differences,” John F. Kirby, a National Security Council spokesman, told reporters on Wednesday. “There’s importance and value in keeping the lines of communication open.”
Read More on the Relations Between Asia and the U.S.
- Trade Policy: The new trade deal announced by President Biden during a trip to Asia is based on two big ideas: containing China and moving away from a focus on markets and tariffs.
- Taiwan: The Biden administration has grown increasingly anxious that China might try to move against this self-governing island over the next year and a half — perhaps by trying to close off the Taiwan Strait.
- China: At a Group of 20 meeting in Indonesia, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken sought to cool tensions with Beijing in an effort to further isolate Russia. He met resistance.
- South Pacific: As Beijing seeks a sweeping regional deal with Pacific Island nations, the United States is left playing catch-up in an increasingly vital arena of its global competition with China.
Mr. Kirby would not disclose the timing of the call, but another American official confirmed that it was scheduled for Thursday. It will be the first time Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi have spoken since March, shortly after Russia attacked Ukraine and Beijing rebuffed American efforts to isolate Moscow politically and economically.
Ms. Pelosi’s reported plans to visit have provided the flash point in recent days, with China loudly calling any trip a provocation and hinting darkly at some form of retaliation. In recent months, Chinese aircraft have engaged in close encounters with American, Canadian and Australian planes in the region, and Beijing has made expansive claims about its control over the Taiwan Strait.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry on Wednesday repeated its warnings against the speaker’s visit. “If the U.S. insists on going its own way and challenging China’s bottom line, it will surely be met with forceful responses,” Zhao Lijian, the ministry’s spokesman, told reporters at a briefing. “All ensuing consequences shall be borne by the U.S.”
Ms. Pelosi’s office has declined to confirm plans to stop in Taiwan as part of an official trip to Asia during the upcoming congressional recess, but a Republican congressman told NBC News that she had invited him and others to join her.
“Any member that wants to go should. It shows political deterrence to President Xi,” said Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who had to decline because of a scheduling conflict. “But she should also pay attention to the military if it’s going to cause a blowback and escalate things.”
Mr. Biden, who has riled China multiple times since taking office by saying he would use force to defend Taiwan, said last week that the military thought it was the wrong time for Ms. Pelosi to go. There has been talk of possible danger, even speculation that China would send warplanes to shadow her plane. Some on Capitol Hill see this as a ham-handed effort by the White House to pressure Ms. Pelosi to cancel any such trip, the first by a speaker in 25 years, but Republicans and some Democrats have urged her to follow through rather than let Beijing dictate American actions.
Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters traveling with him in Australia on Wednesday that he would provide security for any trip the speaker makes, as the armed forces traditionally do. “If there’s a decision made that Speaker Pelosi or anyone else is going to travel and they asked for military support, we will do what is necessary to ensure a safe conduct of their visit,” he said.
The conflict comes as the United States is seeking to compete more vigorously with China economically and politically. The Senate on Wednesday passed a measure investing in semiconductor production to revive American industry and reduce reliance on Chinese products. Representative Adam B. Schiff, a senior Democrat from California, introduced separate legislation on Wednesday authorizing the Biden administration to impose sanctions on Chinese officials or entities aiding Russia’s war in Ukraine.
These actions have fueled resentment in Beijing, analysts said. “The Chinese see Washington as intentionally provoking a crisis,” said Susan A. Thornton, a senior fellow at the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School and a longtime career diplomat who worked on Asia policy. “I’m not sure what Biden could say that would convince them otherwise.”
But China has responded more aggressively than in the past. Ms. Pelosi first announced a plan to go to Taiwan in April only to postpone after testing positive for the coronavirus, and Beijing took little notice at the time. Moreover, a succession of other high-level Americans have visited lately, including senior members of Congress and two former defense secretaries, Jim Mattis and Mark T. Esper, without provoking a crisis.
One difference now is the economic slowdown that threatens Mr. Xi’s standing at home just as he heads to the all-important party congress in November where he will seek a third term. China reported just 0.4 percent economic growth in the second quarter, a far cry from its 5.5 percent annual target, and some experts skeptical of the official numbers believe the economy may have even shrunk, a crisis in a country that needs robust growth just to keep up with its population.
Michael J. Green, an Asia expert at Georgetown University and a former adviser to President George W. Bush, said he did not think Mr. Xi was looking to cause trouble but needed to demonstrate that he could force the United States to back down before the November party congress.
“He’s being tough going into the party congress, and he does have domestic problems, big ones,” Mr. Green said. “Zero Covid is unpopular and hurting the economy, and the real estate debt is mounting. There are signs of quiet dissent in China. Xi is going to get his third term, but he’s not in the strongest domestic position, that’s true. It doesn’t mean he’s trying to wag the dog and create a crisis, but it means he has no flexibility.”