U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping are set to meet in person in a few days, about a year after their last meeting in Bali, Indonesia. Many have begun to speculate what this meeting could bring for Sino-U.S. relations and, especially, cross-Strait relations. Realistically, the meeting will do little to change the current trajectory of competition between the two major powers on the Taiwan issue. However, the meeting will provide much-needed signals of reassurance for the region. Here is why:
The competition between the U.S. and China is structural, meaning that their differences originate from both sides’ deep-seated beliefs and values of political system, trade, intellectual property rights, human rights, and democracy – things that an in-person meeting could not change. If anything, interactions with their Chinese counterparts these past several years have made it clear to Washington policymakers that the differences are ideological and room for cooperation is scarce. The ideological differences are reflected in how both countries approach issues in the international society.
The Taiwan Issue in Focus
The Taiwan issue is a good example. For decades, Washington has strived to maintain the status quo on cross-Strait relations and believed that citizens in Taiwan would decide their political future with China by themselves. Beijing’s position is rather straightforward: it vows to take the island back (though it does not own nor control it) and will use force when necessary.
As China becomes emboldened with its economic success and military prowess, they have double-downed on the use of threatening and infiltrating tactics in areas such as diplomacy, trade, and military to coerce Taiwan. Recent efforts by the Taiwanese government and the U.S. to raise awareness of the Taiwan issue in international society and support the country’s military have been perceived as provocative by Beijing. An endless spiral thus begins.
Taiwan and the Summit
We believe that if Taiwan is raised in the meeting, aside from reiterating the policy proclamations both sides maintain, Washington might need to be prepared to face a more assertive Beijing on this issue. Two developments in Taiwan are working in China’s favor. First, U.S. decisions to not send ground troops to Ukraine and recent military assistance to Israel have led more citizens in Taiwan to doubt U.S. security commitment to Taiwan. Beijing knows that it is the beneficiary of U.S. overextension.
The second development concerns the island’s upcoming presidential election next January. Based on the candidates’ attitudes toward China, the election is shaping up to be a choice between pro-Taiwan/U.S. and pro-China candidates. Currently, the pro-Taiwan/U.S. candidates do not have a decisive margin to win the election, and there exist possibilities for pro-China candidates to cooperate. If the pro-China candidates increase their lead in the polls, it will only make Beijing more audacious in their interactions with the U.S. on the Taiwan issue.
In a nutshell, Biden needs to be prepared to meet a more confident Xi on the Taiwan issue, knowing the U.S. does not have enough bandwidth now to spend on Taiwan.
Under this backdrop, Biden needs to reassure citizens in Taiwan of the unwavering support of the U.S. Our research has shown that U.S. reassurances such as high-level visits and verbal commitments could restore public confidence in the United States. This meeting and the press conferences afterward will be ideal venues to send those messages, and citizens in Taiwan will be paying the needed attention to them.
More broadly, while the meeting might not be able to result in tangible policy changes on the Taiwan issue, it will still provide much-needed reassurance for countries in the region. To the international society, the meeting tells the observers that even with all the pressing issues both countries face, they are still willing to maintain lines of communication and will manage to prevent a risky escalation.
About the Authors
Charles K. S. Wu is assistant professor of political science at the University of South Alabama. Find him on Twitter @wupolisciusa
Fang-Yu Chen is assistant professor of political science at Soochow University, Taiwan. Find him on Twitter @FangYu_80168
Yao-Yuan Yeh is Fayez Sarofim – Cullen Trust for Higher Education Endowed Chair and professor of international studies, chair of the International Studies & Modern Languages Department, and chair of the Political Science Department at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. Find him on Twitter @yeh2sctw
Austin Horng-En Wang is assistant professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Find him on Twitter @wearytolove
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