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Don't 'play with fire' over Taiwan, China's Xi warns in call with Biden

FILE - This combination image shows U.S. President Joe Biden in Washington, Nov. 6, 2021, and China's President Xi Jinping in Brasília, Brazil, Nov. 1...

FILE - This combination image shows U.S. President Joe Biden in Washington, Nov. 6, 2021, and China's President Xi Jinping in Brasília, Brazil, Nov. 1... (AP photo)

WASHINGTON/BEIJING, July 28 (Reuters) - Chinese leader Xi Jinping warned against playing with fire over Taiwan in a call with U.S. President Joe Biden on Thursday, highlighting Beijing's concerns about a possible visit to the Chinese-claimed island by U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

"Those who play with fire will perish by it," China's foreign ministry quoted Xi as telling Biden in their fifth call as leaders. "It is hoped that the U.S. will be cleared eyed about this."

Xi said the United States should abide by the "one-China principle" and stressed that China firmly opposes Taiwanese independence and interference of external forces.

Biden told Xi U.S. policy on Taiwan had not changed and that Washington strongly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, the White House said, referring to the 100-mile-wide body of water separating the island from the mainland.

A senior U.S. official who briefed media on the meeting said Biden and Xi had discussed the possibility of holding a first face-to-face meeting as leaders and directed their teams to look into this.

Biden had stressed the importance of maintaining open lines of communication on Taiwan and the two also discussed areas of cooperation, including climate change, health security and counter-narcotics, the official said.

While highlighting Taiwan, Xi also stressed that the two countries, which are the world's two largest economies, needed to maintain communication on macroeconomic policies, global supply chains, and safeguarding global food and energy security, China's readout said.

The senior U.S. official also stressed the importance of macroeconomic coordination between the countries.

Beijing has issued escalating warnings about repercussions should Pelosi - a Democrat like Biden - visit Taiwan, which says it is facing increasing Chinese military and economic threats.

A visit by the House speaker would be a dramatic, though not unprecedented, show of U.S. support for the island, and some analysts worry such a move at a time of fraught ties could spur a major crisis and even unintended clashes.

China has given few clues to specific responses it might make if Pelosi, a long-time critic of Beijing, particularly on human rights issues, makes the trip, which she has yet to confirm.

The U.S. official briefing on the call told reporters Xi had used similar language about Taiwan before and said the two sides acknowledged differing views that have existed for 40 years. "The conversation between the two about Taiwan, it direct and it was honest," the official said, declining to offer more specific details about Biden’s message to Xi.

The presidents' call lasted over two hours. U.S. officials had said it would have a broad agenda, including Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which China has yet to condemn.

At its core though, they saw it as another chance to manage competition and ties that have been increasingly clouded by tensions over Taiwan, which Xi has vowed to reunite with the mainland, by force if necessary.

The call was part of the administration’s efforts to deepen lines of communication and “responsibly manage our differences,” the White House said.

Washington follows a "one-China policy" that recognizes Beijing, not Taipei, diplomatically. But it is obliged by U.S. law to provide the democratically governed island with the means to defend itself, and pressure has mounted in Congress for more explicit support.

The Biden administration believes leader-to-leader engagement is the best way to lower tensions over Taiwan.

Some analysts think Xi also has an interest in avoiding escalation as he seeks an unprecedented third term in office this year. However, others say playing up the Taiwan issue could serve Xi as a domestic distraction from China's slowing economy.

Both countries have been facing economic difficulties. China’s $18 trillion economy has been battered by its strict domestic COVID regulations and full lockdowns of cities like Shanghai, while the United States is battling surging inflation amid concerns of a recession.

China's state media said on Thursday the country will try hard to achieve the best possible results for the economy this year, dropping previous calls that it will strive to meet its 2022 growth target. This followed a high-level Communist Party meeting chaired by Xi.

"Attempts at decoupling or severing supply chains in defiance of underlying patterns would not help boost the U.S. economy. They would only make the world economy more vulnerable," Xi said, referring to U.S. efforts to end reliance on China for strategic goods.

The Biden administration has been debating whether to lift some tariffs on Chinese goods as a way to ease soaring inflation, but Biden did not discuss potential steps with Xi, the senior U.S. official said.

When Biden last spoke to Xi in March, he warned of "consequences" if Beijing gave material support for Russia's war, and the U.S. government believes that that red line has not been crossed in the months since.

However, Taiwan has complained of stepped-up Chinese military maneuvers over the past two years to try and force it to accept Beijing's sovereignty. Just ahead of Thursday's call, Taiwan's military said it fired flares to warn away a drone that "glanced by" a strategically located and heavily fortified island close to the Chinese coast that was possibly probing its defenses.

The last time a speaker of the U.S. House visited Taiwan was in 1997, and as a co-equal branch of government, the U.S. executive has little control over congressional travel.

China has grown far more powerful militarily and economically since then and the White House says the administration has been in touch with Pelosi's office to make sure she has "all the context" she needs to make decisions about her travel.