Calling America’s Bluff: Xi-Biden Talks Confirmed True Extent of US ‘Ambiguity’ on Taiwan - Analyst
18:39 GMT 17.11.2021 (Updated: 06:35 GMT 19.11.2021)
© MANDEL NGANUS President Joe Biden meets with China's President Xi Jinping during a virtual summit from the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC, November 15, 2021.
© MANDEL NGAN
Chinese President Xi Jinping and his US counterpart Joe Biden spoke by video uplink on Monday in their first ‘face-to-face’ talks since Biden’s inauguration in January. The two men spoke by telephone twice before then. The leaders were said to have covered an extensive range of issues, with the meeting lasting about three-and-a-half hours.
Monday’s virtual talks between Presidents Xi and Biden were “successful” in the sense that they allowed China and the US to signal to one another that they did not want tensions to spill into open conflict, but did not, and could not, resolve the root causes of the competition between the superpowers, political observers, academics and think tank fellows queried by Sputnik suggest.
“I do think it is a successful meeting in that both sides can at least use the occasion to signal to the other party that it wants to stabilize the relationship,” says Dr. Zhang Baohui, director of the Centre for Asian Pacific Studies at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University.
Characterizing the talks as an exercise in “benign signaling,” Zhang said that they have the potential to ease tensions after years of escalation.
“In international relations, especially for countries trapped in competition, benign signaling can moderate rivalry and make cooperation more likely. In that context, the meeting was a success. However, it must be mentioned that the root cause of Sino-US strategic competition is not resolved by this meeting and nobody expected that,” the academic explains.
John Renie Short, a political analyst and professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, says Beijing and Washington have very different viewpoints on what these “root causes” are, with the US establishment fearing that China is challenging America’s global hegemony, while the People’s Republic fears that Washington is flexing its military might to try to hem Beijing in.
“The two countries have a shared agenda of a peaceful prosperous world. They both however have concerns with the other. The US is concerned that China is trying to upend the existing world order as in the South China Sea. China on the other hand fears being boxed in by US military power. So we have both mutual interests and growing superpower rivalry. The fate of the world hangs on the two countries reaching some form of shared global responsibility,” Short stresses.
Ralph Cossa, president emeritus of the Pacific Forum think tank in Hawaii, also believes that Monday’s meeting, could be characterized as “successful,” “in that it demonstrated to the world and [Xi and Biden’s] respective publics that the two leaders were committed to managing the relationship to ensure tensions did not spill over into conflict.”
17 November 2021, 00:16 GMT
Xi and Biden discussed a broad range of topics during their meeting. In a press release, the White House said the two sides brought up the need to “manage strategic risks” to prevent tensions from spilling out into open conflict, as well as the “existential nature of the climate crisis,” energy, trade, and “regional challenges” including Afghanistan, North Korea and Iran. Biden also also brought up Washington’s “concerns” about the “human rights” situation in China, its “unfair trade practices,” and the US commitment to a “free and open Indo-Pacific” region, according to the readout.
“On Taiwan, President Biden underscored that the United States remains committed to the ‘one China’ policy, guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, the three Joint Communiques, and the Six Assurances, and that the United States strongly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” the press release indicated.
China’s Xinhua news agency quoted Xi’s message to Biden directly on the Taiwan issue, with the president reportedly warning the US not to cross China’s “red lines.”
“We have patience and will strive for the prospect of peaceful reunification with utmost sincerity and efforts. [But if] the separatist forces for ‘Taiwan independence’ provoke us, force our hands or even cross the red line, we will be compelled to take resolute measures,” Xi warned. He added that any attempt by the US to use the island to try to “contain” China was “just like playing with fire,” and that “whoever plays with fire will get burnt.”
The sharp comments prompted Biden to stress Tuesday to reporters that the US was “not going to change our policy [on Taiwan] at all,” and that “they have to decide – they, Taiwan, not us – and we are not encouraging independence.”
Xi's remarks come in the wake of recent revelations that US troops have secretly been stationed on Taiwan as far back as 2008, in violation of diplomatic agreements between Washington and Beijing. Last week, Taiwan's defence ministry confirmed that over 600 US troops visited the island since 2019 alone.
9 November 2021, 15:10 GMT
Calling America's Bluff?
“China has a clear policy goal towards Taiwan,” Dr. Short says, commenting on the uncharacteristically sharp remarks by Xi. “It sees it as an integral part of the PRC. What has changed is the strategies and tactics to achieve this unification,” the professor suggests.
“For years China was content to play the long game and wait for reunification without forcing the issue in the short to medium term with military threats. Under president Xi, however, China has adopted a more muscular attitude towards the island with talk in Chinese elite circles of military intervention. The US has long held an ambiguous policy towards Taiwan neither confirming nor denying its support for Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion…The US does not want to say outright whether it will defend Taiwan. On the other hand China has adopted a more aggressive policy moving from the comfort of ambiguity towards a starker confrontational position that highlights US ambiguity,” Short stresses.
CSIS’s Cossa has a different view, accusing Xi of “saber-rattling” with his comments and suggesting that “Taiwan has done nothing to provoke Beijing, and has certainly not crossed any red lines.”
“The US supports the peaceful resolution of the cross-Strait issue and has a commitment ‘to help Taiwan defend itself.’ As Beijing acts more aggressively toward Taiwan, the need to increase US support to help improve Taiwan’s defenses increases and the US is responding accordingly,” Cossa believes.
Dr. Zhang disagrees, pointing to the “major upgrade” in US-Taiwan defence ties observed in recent years, starting with the Trump administration and continuing under Biden, and its impact on China’s calculations.
The heightened level of cooperation “has become a major concern for China, which fears it could embolden Taiwan to pursue more provocative policies. President Xi thereby wants to make it clear to Biden that China would resolutely respond to any attempts by Taipei to move toward de jure independence,” according to the professor.
Fortunately, Zhang believes, Monday’s talks may have helped to bring about “a new consensus” in China-US relations, which might ease tensions over the long term.
“Jake Sullivan, the national security advisor, just recently said that it will be a mistake for the US to try to change China’s political system. The US just wants a ‘stiff competition’ with China. This could relieve Beijing’s concerns and sooth their relations,” Zhang summed up.