US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) talked on the telephone on Thursday last week, the first time the two leaders have done so since Biden assumed the presidency.
While each side sought to put their own gloss on the content of the conversation, some common ground did emerge.
Biden reportedly said that both sides have a joint responsibility to ensure that competition between the US and China does not spiral into conflict and that there is no reason that the two nations are destined to fall into this trap.
The day after the phone call, the Financial Times reported that Washington was considering a request from Taiwan to rename the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office to the “Taiwan representative office.”
It will be interesting to see how the US-China and Taiwan-US relationships develop, whether they operate as parallel strands or frequently intertwine with one another.
The timing of the Biden-Xi phone call is noteworthy, occurring one week after a visit to China by US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, the second time Kerry has visited the country this year, the first trip taking place in April.
Aside from a change of location — with talks on the first visit in Shanghai and on the second in Tianjin — the two itineraries were almost identical.
As with the first visit, Kerry’s interlocutor was Chinese Special Envoy on Climate Change Xie Zhenhua (解振華) and, just as before, the talks were followed up with a dialogue with Chinese Vice Premier Han Zheng (韓正), conducted via video link.
However, this time an additional virtual dialogue with Chinese Central Foreign Affairs Commission Director Yang Jiechi (楊潔篪) was added to the itinerary.
During the dialogue with Yang, Kerry reportedly received an ear bashing similar to the anti-US diatribe Yang meted out to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken during US-China talks in Anchorage, Alaska, in March.
However, in contrast with Blinken, who is prepared to fight back, Kerry — who had Blinken’s job during the second term of former US president Barack Obama’s administration — was as passive as a punching bag.
Some have speculated that Kerry might have been instructed to take a message back to Biden, the content of which prompted Biden to pick up the phone and talk to Xi.
However, it is not known what actually transpired.
The White House is focused on avoiding conflict with China, yet all we hear from Xi is tub-thumping speeches to “struggle” against this and “struggle” against that, and multiple instructions to China’s military to prepare for war.
Given that the two nations are following fundamentally different trajectories, one peaceful, the other expansionist, it is questionable whether Biden’s proffering of an olive branch to Xi will have any meaningful effect.
Consequently, Washington should stop continually marking out red lines and talking tough without following through. This only emboldens the thugs in Beijing. Give someone an inch and they will take a mile.
However, given Biden’s extensive foreign policy experience, one cannot rule out the possibility that he is toying with Xi, including by the Biden administration last month partially lifting restrictions on Chinese tech giant Huawei, granting export licenses for the sale of US silicon chips limited to automotive sector applications.
At about the same time, as reported by the Financial Times, Financial Supervisory Commission Chairman Wellington Koo (顧立雄) and Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) were engaged in talks with Washington over the renaming of Taiwan’s diplomatic mission to the US.
Ten years ago, when President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) was still a presidential candidate and was visiting the US, officials from then Obama’s administration used the same publication to leak that they did not trust Tsai.
It can therefore be assumed that this latest leak also came from the US side.
However, aside from the discussions over renaming Taiwan’s representative office in the US, the report did not disclose what else was discussed.
Some observers have concluded that the leak was deliberate — a testing of the waters by Washington to gauge Beijing’s reaction.
However, all-too predictably, China voiced its resolute opposition to the idea.
This raises a question: Did the Biden administration march its soldiers up a hill only to march back down again, or was it simply acting as it sees fit without regard to Beijing’s reaction?
If the latter is true, why bother leaking the information to the press?
The renaming issue could be interpreted as a touchstone as to whether the Taiwan-US relationship is still subservient to the US-China relationship.
The Taiwan-US relationship is most likely rock solid. Washington cannot afford to lose Taiwan.
Aside from departing from former US president Donald Trump’s policy of “strategic clarity” over Taiwan, the Biden administration is doing everything it can to support Taiwan.
In reality, though, it will be difficult to entirely decouple the Taiwan-US relationship from the US-China relationship. If Biden wishes to make peace with China, and is petrified of conflict and seeks to deter Beijing through foreign policy artifice, issuing a series of vague promises and hollow threats, China will eventually grind the rock into dust, or, as the Chinese idiom says: “Dripping water penetrates the stone.”
If Xi wants the Biden administration to pipe down over Taiwan, he needs to acknowledge the corrosive effect on the US-China relationship that his pack of rabid “wolf warrior” diplomats has had.
Has Xi misjudged Biden or is it the other way around? History will be the judge. The interplay between the leaders of the two largest economies on the planet will have a profound impact, not just on the US and China, but on the future of the entire world.
Paul Lin is a political commentator.
Translated by Edward Jones
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