Overtones in Biden-Xi Phone Call
By Chao Chun-shan
United Daily News, September 11 ,2021
President Joe Biden of the United States made a phone call to Chinese President Xi Jinping on September 10, the second phone call since February.
The last call coincided with Chinese New Year. Hence, apart from reciprocating courtesy and greeting happy Lunar New Year, Biden directly talked into those issues of core importance to China like Hong Kong, Xin Kiang and Taiwan. While Xi stressed that cooperation is beneficial to U.S.-China relations, and confrontation would only bring disaster to the world.
In the past seven months, U.S.-China relations were deteriorating, the competition of both countries in trade, economy, diplomacy, military, culture, education, as well as pandemic was escalating into a confrontational platform. Any misfire in sensitive issues such as Taiwan and South China Sea would possibly lead to the peril of a conflict.
The initiative that President Biden took to make a second call to Xi was to safeguard maintaining a dynamic competition with China without “jeopardizing any scenarios of accident conflict in the future”. As declared by the White House, the United States intended to engage in “crisis management” of U.S.-China competition. Therefore, compared with last phone call, this time the call was with less “gunpowder smell”.
The timing President Biden chose to call Xi on the eve of 20th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks was quite thought-provoking. The United States had approached China for cooperation against terrorists, then tried to contain China against the rise of China. But the political change of Afghanistan forced the Biden administration to adjust its China policy. Polls revealed that the withdrawal of American troops didn’t make American people feel safe. President Biden faced not only strong criticisms from his political opponents but also a slump of American credibility among its allies.
In my view, Mr. Biden this time broke the ice, resumed dialogue with China, and decided to adopt a tactic of negotiation in place of confrontation because he senses that Xi is discarding illusion and preparing for confrontation and attrition with the United States. The current priority for Xi is to deal with pressing social problems behind China's inequitable distribution of wealth. In contrast, policy against the United States is not his priority. Against Mr. Biden who faces the ree-lection pressure, China takes a passive policy by drawing the bottom line, then just “wait and see”. When President Biden dispatched John Kerry, special envoy on climate change, to China the other day, he should be able to smell the unusual air permeating all around then.
In the same token, Taiwan policy is currently not a priority to Xi either. Therefore, both China and the United States are pleased to see bilateral relations improved to have a positive effect in easing the tension across the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan should also take this opportunity to proactively seek the possibility of a détente with China. After all, Taiwan does not have to take a one-sidedly choice when U.S.-China relations exacerbate.
Of course, we cannot draw an optimistic conclusion for U.S.-China relations out of two phone calls. U.S.-China relations, just like cross straits relations, are treading along a tortuous and windy road. With a different political system, China can adopt a foreign policy with more continuity than that of the United States. Both the ruling and opposition parties in Taiwan should judge the situation correctly, and not overvalue the promise of United States to defend Taiwan, neither undervalue the warning of China’s using force to restrain Taiwan independence.
Soon Taiwan will enter into a high season of elections. The change of political picture might mean differently to the United States but to China, it is simply “a storm in a teacup”. Xi has his own “bottom line thinking” in Taiwan policy, not putting hope on the Kuomintang (KMT) or the ruling authorities in Taiwan but will handle everything by standard procedure.
In this perspective, the KMT chairmanship election focused on cross straits issue would not have any significant “marginal utility”. The mainland always treats those with strength as negotiating opponents, those without strength will be treated as objects of united front. Not to mention, Xi is currently undertaking a task of fundamental modernization, hoping that Taiwan’s election would not put the unification issue on the table ahead of time. Unification is a huge political project. At the present time, its foundation is not yet secured, therefore not opportune time to deal with this issue.
The author is professor emeritus at the Graduate Institute of China Studies, Tamkang University.