The upcoming Biden-Xi summit, set against the backdrop of recent efforts to stabilize U.S.-China relations, will cover a wide range of topics. However, the issue of Taiwan threatens to overshadow all other potential areas. If both sides are serious about warming relations, this may require ignoring the Taiwan issue in favor of areas, such as climate and trade policies, where more room for compromise exists. It also requires realistic beliefs on what tangible outcomes are likely to materialize from the summit.
The Taiwan Question
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and General Zhang Youxia, assert that "Taiwan independence" poses the most significant challenge to U.S.-China relations, and that China will “show no mercy” to deter this outcome.
Meanwhile, the U.S. emphasizes the maintenance of the status quo in cross-strait relations, despite Chinese military advancements potentially convincing Beijing that time is on their side.
To support this status quo, the recent announcement of U.S. assistance to Taiwan beyond traditional arms sales is a strong signal from the Biden administration of its resolve against Chinese aggression, even at a time in which the Taiwanese public itself is split on whether the U.S. will actually defend them.
No Easy Issue
As both the U.S. and China trade barbs regarding the other’s intentions in the Taiwan Strait, the fact remains that there is little area for negotiation regarding Taiwan. China’s unification rhetoric and military posturing are unlikely to subside, especially leading up to Taiwan’s elections in January, while the Biden administration, despite the difficulties in assisting Taiwan, wishes to avoid appearing to cave into Chinese pressures.
Both Presidents Biden and President Xi face substantial challenges with this summit in an environment of mistrust and where domestic pressures do little to encourage constructive dialogue. Instead of doubling down on well-known positions, both should attempt to compartmentalize the Taiwan issue to shift focus elsewhere.
For example, recent climate agreements at COP28 suggest areas of mutual concern where both countries can play a pivotal role in coordinating broader climate policy. President Biden, while maintaining technology transfer restrictions, may also seek to focus on ways to relax other trade barriers.
Both sides may also find mutual interests in limiting the expansion of the Israel-Hamas war or preventing North Korean escalation. More broadly, both sides should manage expectations and, instead of expecting significant breakthroughs, view the summit as a means to ensure an open dialogue that can lead to an incremental thawing of relations.
Timothy S. Rich is a Professor of Political Science and Director of the International Public Opinion Lab at Western Kentucky University. His research focuses on public opinion and electoral politics in East Asia.
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