United States President Joe Biden has made one of his occasional calls to Chinese leader Xi Jinping, ostensibly to calm tensions over Taiwan.

Tensions have been whipped up by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s plans to visit the island Beijing regards as its own territory.

Both men will find it difficult to talk peace, however, when domestic considerations mean they need to talk tough.

Chinese state media quoted Xi as telling Biden: “Those who play with fire will only get burnt,” regarding events in Taiwan.

Xi Jinping, in particular, has reason to find overseas culprits for China’s problems to distract the Chinese public’s attention away from a growing list of economic woes.

His dogged insistence on a “zero Covid” policy has brought draconian lockdowns and economic paint, but failed to stop outbreaks of the current, highly contagious strains of coronavirus.

This week, the virus has re-emerged in its probable place of origin, the city of Wuhan. And worse, China has no easy access to effective mRNA vaccines.

Chinese economic growth is slowing almost to a halt and unemployment among young people is rising.

Sources quoted in the U.S. media suggested that  Biden thinks one-on-one engagement with Xi is the best way to lower tensions over Taiwan.

“This is about keeping the lines of communication open with the president of China, one of the most consequential bilateral relationships that we have, not just in that region, but around the world, because it touches so much,” according to White House national security spokesman John Kirby.

But Washington’s activity in the past 48 hours will hardly have soothed diplomatic ties.