With representatives of 21 member economies to gather at the APEC summit in San Francisco next week, an anticipated summit between US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) is garnering much attention because of the Taiwan Strait issue and other situations.
Decoupling has been the dominant motif of bilateral relations since former US president Donald Trump launched the trade war against China in 2018. Today, the US and China have good reason to hold talks, given that the crisis in Gaza has worsened the international fault lines already deepened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year.
The first reason is geopolitical. For years China has used the BRICS and the Belt and Road Initiative to counter the US alliance system, while allowing some strategic developing nations to access China’s vast resources and networks.
However, Russia’s military setbacks in Ukraine have revealed cracks in the Sino-Russian strategic partnership. “As Russian power wanes, it fears becoming a junior partner that supplies natural resources to, and bandwagons with, China,” global security expert Liselotte Odgaard wrote in her 2012 book, China and Coexistence: Beijing’s National Security Strategy for the Twenty-First Century.
The war in Ukraine demonstrates Russia’s disregard of international law and its strategy to entrap China in perpetual conflicts against the West. This has exacerbated China’s relative isolation, leaving it in a disadvantageous position to the US. Beijing’s struggle to find reliable allies for support in a crisis has jeopardized its ability to instrumentalize the BRICS and other multilateral organizations into a Sinocentric order.
Second, China lacks a transparent mechanism for outsiders to evaluate the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) management of domestic governance. The question of how to articulate a holistic strategy that incorporates the pursuit of development and security with the aspiration to restore China’s glory and its perceived rightful place in the world remains unanswered.
Beijing’s tendency to infuse nationalistic sentiments into its foreign policy risks antagonizing its neighbors. This problem becomes more pressing when the Indo-Pacific region is coming to grips with China’s adventurism over Taiwan, the South China Sea and disputed territories along its border with India. While calling for a ceasefire in Ukraine and Gaza, China’s military has frequently intercepted US warships and aircraft traveling freely near Taiwan.
When the CCP leadership regards these sovereignty claims as vital to its self-perceived legitimacy as the guardian of the Chinese homeland, its obsession with power consolidation trumps other concerns. Whether the ruling elites would opt to escalate their coercion of Taiwan to achieve these claims has yet to be seen.
This nationalistic agenda makes it difficult for neighbors to envision themselves benefiting from Beijing’s leadership. Regional states have followed in China’s footsteps by mobilizing patriotic sentiments among their citizens to support their territorial claims over the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) and the Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台列嶼). Domestic opinions in the Philippines, Japan and South Korea have been pushing for closer defense alliances with the US to keep China at bay.
Against this backdrop of mounting tensions, Taiwan matters in the Biden-Xi meeting. The US and China want more friendly actions rather than just words from each other. China is expected to urge the US to denounce “Taiwan independence” in order to weaken the appeal of Vice President William Lai (賴清德) as the Democratic Progressive Party’s presidential nominee for the January election. Weaker US involvement in Taiwan would be of great relief, as Beijing is convinced that without Washington’s backing, Taipei would be compelled to accept the “one country, two systems” arrangement. Even though this scenario is not remotely possible, China continues to put pressure on the US through military drills around Taiwan.
Nonetheless, China’s sovereignty claim over Taiwan and the US’ involvement in Taiwan are separate yet interrelated matters. The former is considered internal, and the latter, international and geopolitical. The key lies in Beijing’s rhetorical reference to the use of peaceful and coercive means to resolve the Taiwan question.
So far, the US security arrangement with Taiwan entails the dispatch of military advisers and technologies, regular patrols of the Strait and other defense services. These gestures only affirm the US’ commitment to the island’s defense.
Whatever political remarks Biden and Xi are going to make about Taiwan at APEC, Taiwanese voters are eventually to decide, in January, how to set the course of cross-strait relations and uphold Taiwan’s integrity as a democratic, self-governing entity.
Joseph Tse-hei Lee is a professor of history at Pace University in New York City.
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