Analysts: Taiwan Won’t Feature Prominently in Biden-Xi Meeting


As the U.S. and China prepare for the meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the APEC Leaders Summit in San Francisco, some analysts say Beijing and Washington will try to dissolve the mutual distrust they have over Taiwan.

However, given their fundamental differences over the issue, China and the U.S. will likely try to limit the amount of time they spend on the issue.

“Both sides will have to say something about Taiwan, but this is not the kind of environment in which they can sit down and have a frank conversation about what each side’s approach is going to be,” Kharis Templeman, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, told VOA in a video interview.

He thinks Beijing and Washington will try to talk about Taiwan “as little as possible.”

“There is an election in Taiwan in January that could shake things up, so neither side has the incentive to try to be bold and reach out to the other side or deviate from the path that they have taken over the last couple of years in the trilateral relationship [between the U.S., China, and Taiwan,]” Templeman added.

China views Taiwan as part of its territory and vows to reunite with the self-ruled democracy one day, through force if necessary. In recent years, Beijing has increased its military intimidation campaign around Taiwan, repeatedly sending military aircraft into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone and staging blockade-style military exercises around the island.

Despite the lack of formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, the U.S. has long upheld a policy of ensuring it can defend itself, and has done so through regular sales of military equipment. U.S. military sales to Taiwan have become more frequent in recent years.

Washington’s support for Taiwan

While Beijing and Washington have taken steps in recent months to resume high-level exchanges and stabilize bilateral relations, tensions around the issue of Taiwan remain high.

According to CGTN, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi told U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan during their meeting in Washington D.C. last month that “Taiwan independence,” as the Chinese state-run TV channel put it, is “the most severe threat to peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, which must be resolutely opposed and reflected in concrete policies and actions.”

Apart from the stern warning from Wang, a top Chinese military official also reiterated Beijing’s determination to quash any attempt to separate Taiwan from China.

General Zhang Youxia,vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, said late last month during China’s biggest annual military diplomacy event — the 10th Xiangshan Forum in Beijing — that “no matter who wants to separate Taiwan from China in any form, the Chinese military will never agree and will show no mercy.”

In addition to warning against attempts to separate Taiwan from China, Zhang also issued a veiled criticism of the U.S. and its allies, accusing “some countries” of trying to undermine the Chinese government.

Some experts say the Chinese government’s main concern is Washington’s increased support and involvement in Taiwan.

“It raises questions about whether the U.S. remains committed to what has been their One China Policy, which is essentially that the process by which the two sides [of the Taiwan Strait] figure out their differences has to be peaceful,” Amanda Hsiao, a senior China analyst for the International Crisis Group (ICG), told VOA in a phone interview.

She said Washington’s continuous political and military support for Taiwan increases Beijing’s concern that the U.S. may try to “keep Taiwan permanently separated” from China.

While China has repeatedly cited Taiwan independence as its red line, the Hoover Institution’s Templeman said Beijing’s latest comments are in line with what it has stated in the past.

“I haven’t seen anything that suggests there is a new tone or rhetoric,” he told VOA, adding that this means there is no sign of significant escalation in Beijing’s level of concern.

“Nobody is talking about a deadline for unification or China is going to resolve the Taiwan question sooner rather than later. Those would be a significant escalation from what they have said in the past,” Templeman said.

Tilting the status quo

Compared to stern warnings from Beijing, the U.S. has repeated the importance of maintaining the status quo across the Taiwan Strait during meetings between high-level officials from the two sides.

According to the White House’s readout of Sullivan’s meeting with Wang, Sullivan “discussed concerns over China’s dangerous and unlawful actions in the South China Sea” and “raised the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

Some analysts say the U.S. is trying to maintain the status quo across the Taiwan Strait while “implicitly signaling” that it is China, not Taiwan, that is shifting the status quo.

“Comments from the U.S. certainly repeat the type of rhetoric we have seen before,” Timothy Rich, a professor of political science at Western Kentucky University, told VOA in a written response.

Despite efforts to ease tensions, the U.S. and China remain critical of each other’s military activities near Taiwan. On November 1, the U.S. 7th Fleet announced that a U.S. guided-missile destroyer, the USS Rafael Peralta, and a Canadian frigate, HMCS Ottawa, “conducted a routine Taiwan Strait transit.”

Beijing accused Washington of hyping the transit, and it deployed warships and aircraft to follow the American and Canadian vessels. Senior Colonel Shi Yi, the spokesperson for the People’s Liberation Army’s Eastern Theater Command, said the Chinese military’s actions were in accordance with laws and regulations.

Western Kentucky University’s Rich said he doesn’t expect the tensions between the U.S. and China over Taiwan, or the two sides’ military actions, “to dissipate in the near future.”

“I would expect Chinese officials to continue to place the blame on the U.S. and to frame their own actions in the Taiwan Strait as a domestic issue,” he told VOA.

Since their fundamental differences over Taiwan currently seem unresolvable, and given that both sides have many issues they want to prioritize, Templeman thinks the U.S. and China may not give Taiwan a significant focus during the Biden-Xi meeting at APEC.

“Both sides will need to talk about Taiwan at some point during the meeting, but I would expect it to be pretty formulaic,” he told VOA.

In Templeman’s view, if Taiwan is only a small part of the Biden-Xi meeting, that could serve both Biden’s and Xi’s interests.


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