US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) ended their first face-to-face meeting — at the G20 summit in London this week — with barely a mention of the “elephant in the room”: Taiwan.
Analysts said later it demonstrated, more than anything else, that both sides were determined to make progress on other issues and put their biggest “sticking point” on the back burner.
One US insider told the Taipei Times that when Taiwan came up as an item on the agenda, Hu simply recited the “one China” policy and Obama made almost no comment as the conversation moved on to the next issue.
Both sides agreed to hold a two to three-day annual meeting — called the Strategic and Economic Dialogue — this summer, which would include a detailed discussion on Taiwan.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner will head the US team at this meeting, while Vice Premier Wang Qishan (王岐山) and State Councilor Dai Bingguo (戴秉國) will represent China.
A well-placed US source said that both sides agreed in advance of the London meeting that because they were unlikely to make any progress on the Taiwan question, it was best to put it aside rather than allow it to dominate discussions and become an obstacle to progress on other issues.
The source said this may indicate that Taiwan has slipped as a subject of great interest and importance to the White House and that it is regarded as just one contentious issue among many in a thorny Beijing relationship that Obama is determined to improve.
In a background briefing for US reporters, a senior Obama administration official said following the London meeting that the two presidents discussed “a range of international issues — notably North Korea, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Sudan. They also discussed human rights in Tibet and Taiwan.”
Pressed for details about what was said on Tibet and Taiwan, the official answered: “The president made clear that we're going to not only talk about things on which we agree, but also things on which we disagree, that we care deeply about human rights. And he made clear our concerns about human rights in Tibet and our hopes that China will make progress.”
At the end of the briefing when it was pointed out that the official seemed to have gone out of his way to avoid any comment on Taiwan, another senior source said: “Not at all, we also hope to make progress on Taiwan.”
“President Obama's approach on China is marked by pragmatism, by a non-ideological approach, a belief that this is a critical relationship for addressing and resolving global issues, starting with the international economic and financial crisis, but also things like North Korea, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan and climate change,” the official said.
Asked about the Strategic and Economic Dialogue this summer at which Taiwan will be discussed, the official said: “The goal will be to build a common approach on the major issues in the relationship. It's about communication at a high level. It's not a short-term problem-solving mechanism.”
“It's more about trying to have more in-depth discussions on both the political and economic side so we understand each other's way of thinking better and build over the long-term serious solutions to problems,” the official said.
The overall approach appears to be a striking departure from that adopted by the former administration of US president George W Bush.