In an attempt to defuse the rising tension with China in the wake of Nancy Pelosi’s proposed visit to Taiwan, US President Joe Biden has assured his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping that there is no change in America’s policy on Taiwan.
The assurance came after more than a two-hour-long telephone conversation between the two leaders, and Xi’s warning not to play with fire. The Chinese President said, “If you play with fire, you will burn yourself.”
Biden has spoken to Xi five times since he became US president. But the current attempt to lower the temperature on Taiwan is clearly to avoid opening a fresh front with China as an energy and food crisis threatens a worldwide economic recession, affecting the US and several other western countries because of the ongoing Ukraine war.
There are indications that the two leaders could also have a face-to-face meeting in the coming months to normalise their trade relations that have been under severe strain for some years.
Pelosi is scheduled to visit a number of countries in the Indo-Pacific in August, though her Taiwan visit has not yet been confirmed.
China has warned that if she went ahead with her visit, it will “resolutely respond and counteract”.
Biden had earlier told reporters that the US military thought it was not a good time for Pelosi to visit Taiwan. In his telephone conversation, he told the Chinese president that there is no change in the US policy on Taiwan.
The US president’s assurance ends months of ambiguity on the Taiwan issue that has plagued Sino-American relations and caused serious tension across the Taiwan Straits. The situation was aggravated in recent weeks over the proposed visit of Pelosi.
Biden’s comments in May this year that the US will militarily defend Taiwan if it was attacked by China had led to widespread speculation about a shift in America’s decades-old policy on Taiwan.
The US had switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China in 1979 and followed a ‘one-China policy’ that made Taiwan a territory of China, rather than an independent country. But under the Taiwan Relations Act, the US has maintained substantial but non-diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
Over the years, the US developed a “strategic ambiguity” in dealing with both China and Taiwan. This policy allowed the US to supply enough arms to the island to defend itself in the event of a Chinese attack without specifically stating whether America will get militarily involved to defend Taiwan.
This policy of ambiguity pursued by most American presidents helped in preventing China from using force to take over Taiwan, as it was not sure whether this will lead to a military involvement of the US to defend Taiwan. On the other hand, it also checked Taiwanese politicians from declaring independence from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as they were not sure whether they would get the military backing of America if they did so.
During their telephone exchange, Biden told Xi that while the US policy has not changed. Washington was strongly opposed to unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine “peace and stability” across the Taiwan Strait.
The two presidents spoke about their areas of differences as well as issues where they can co-operate for mutual benefit like climate change, global health security, and narco-terrorism.
Xi told Biden in their “candid” and “honest and direct” talk that seeing China as the main rival of the US was misleading. But the US has been critical of China’s aggressive rise in the region that has strained Beijing’s relations with many countries in the area. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, popularly known as the QUAD, and has the US, India, Japan and Australia as its members, was created to deal with the challenges posed by China in the Indo-Pacific region.
The US and the European countries have also been critical of China for its support to Russia on the Ukraine issue. During their conversation, as both Biden and Xi shared their perception of the ongoing war in Ukraine and its global impact, the Chinese President said his position on Ukraine was neutral.
Politically, the coming months are extremely important for both Biden and Xi. A mid-term parliamentary election is due in the US in November. If the Democrats loses the election, its majority in the House of Representatives will go. Since the Senate is dominated by the Republican Party, a loss in the mid-term election will reduce Biden to a lame-duck president for the rest of his term.
The year is also equally important for Xi Jinping who is seeking a record third term, a decision that will be taken by the Chinese Communist Party at its crucial Congress in a few months’ time. As Xi is struggling to put the economy back on track after the COVID lockdown, renewed tension over Taiwan can divert his attention from the crucial task at hand.Due to mutual political compulsions, both Biden and Xi are keen to lower the tensions over Taiwan and iron out the strains that exist in their bilateral relations.