Since the relationships between USA Y China are possibly in their worst state in 50 years and the renewed state of tensions over Taiwan, Thursday’s call between the president Joe Biden and its counterpart Xi Jinping appears to have been as productive as anyone could have hoped.
Neither side described the talks as “constructive”, although that should not be cause for excessive alarm. Both Biden and Xi have internal political pressures that made it imperative to avoid seeing any signs of weakness. It would not have been good if their meeting had been characterized as too friendly. Suffice it, then, to see that both parties described the call as “Frank” Y “deep”and agreed to develop more lines of communication, including planning a first face-to-face meeting between the two presidents.
The impression conveyed was one of a desire to manage differences rather than allow them to escalate. China’s post-call statement, which was by far longer than the US-issued document, addressed the burning issue of Taiwan only after a long paragraph on economic relations. Xi, the Foreign Ministry said, stressed the need for China and the US to maintain communication on important issues such as “coordinate macroeconomic policies” Y “keeping global supply chains stable”. He warned against decoupling or breaking supply chains, saying this would not help the US economy.
That signals Beijing’s anxiety about the state of the Chinese economy, which has been weakening under the pressure of Covid restrictions and growing financial difficulty, another reason Xi might try to avoid, for the moment, a worsening of the confrontation over Taiwan. At the same time, his room for maneuver is limited. Xi will defy precedent and seek a third leadership term at a five-yearly Communist Party congress later this year. A president extolled as a visionary statesman leading his country back to greatness cannot afford the luxury of being seen ceding ground in what China sees as a core interest of national sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Biden has his own pressures at a time when his approval ratings are at record lows and inflation is at its highest point in four decades. Speculation linked Xi’s call for a possible removal of US tariffs on Chinese imports to cool prices, though a senior US government official said it would be wrong to believe such a decision would require talk. Taiwan has overshadowed these other considerations. China’s warning about the consequences “serious” if a planned visit by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi goes through, it inflamed domestic opinion in the US and made it on Biden to show that Washington would not be intimidated into watering down its support for the autonomous island.
In principle, the Taiwan dispute should not be difficult to resolve, if there is a genuine desire and will on both sides. From Beijing’s perspective, the US has engaged in “salami”, allowing ever-higher-level contacts in a gradual process that slowly leads Taiwan (a territory China claims as its own) toward formal independence. From Washington’s point of view, it is China that has been trying to change the status quo: through its military buildup; increasing invasions of Taiwanese airspace; and attempts to redefine the scope of Beijing’s dominance.
Regardless of who is most responsible for the growing discord, if the status quo has preserved the peace for more than 40 years (since the US switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taipei), then it should be easy to get damaged by it again. . The bottom line for China is that Taiwan should not formally become independent. The bottom line for the US is that the 23.5 million people of Taiwan’s democratic society should not be forced against their will to become part of the Chinese communist state. Honor may be satisfied on both sides if the US reiterates its opposition to Taiwan independence and China reaffirms its intention to seek peaceful unification.
Peer through the fiery rhetoric and you will see that these things have already happened. Biden and Xi have done their part. However, the unpredictability of Pelosi’s visit remains. Biden could do without this ill-timed intervention from a senior figure in the Democratic Party, but there’s not much he can do about it. As US president, he will surely have stressed to Xi that the US legislature is a separate branch of government on the same level as the executive branch.
China has arguably made too much of a fuss over Pelosi’s trip. He would not be the first for a speaker of the House of Representatives, and it does not mean that the US now supports Taiwan independence. Officials from other nations have visited the island recently, with less protest: European Parliament Vice President Nicola Beer spent three days in Taipei earlier this month, and a delegation of Japanese lawmakers arrived this week.
But that does not matter. Saber rattling from Beijing has created an optics problem in the US, with Republican voices now insisting that Pelosi visit the country rather than back down from Chinese threats. The Speaker of the House may feel compelled to go to Taiwan, just as China was compelled to respond. There are likely to be more obstacles ahead.