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.”
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.