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The Biden-Xi phone call was a missed opportunity

The leaders spent a lot more time on pointing fingers than discussing substantive issues like Taiwan and climate change.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

We have now seen five meetings between Xi Jinping and Joe Biden, this latest supposedly being the prelude to an actual face-to-face meeting between the two leaders on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in November. Although it is certainly important for the two leaders to communicate frequently, from at least a public vantage point, their past talks have done little to ameliorate (much less resolve) the fundamental problems in the relationship, from Taiwan to trade, climate change, cyber espionage, and global norms. And it seems that this most recent meeting was no exception. 

Beneath the smiles and reassuring gestures that tend to occur during these presidential meetings, the two governments continue to flail away at one another, while occasionally expressing a desire to cooperate and coexist peacefully. In this dialogue of the deaf, each side points the finger at the other in explaining the ongoing impasse in the relationship, with the U.S. claiming that Beijing will not talk substance until Washington meets certain unacceptable demands, and Beijing complaining that the U.S. won’t stop smearing, attacking, and undermining China on virtually every issue. Both sides refuse to acknowledge the back-and-forth nature of their deepening rivalry and hence their shared blame in producing the resulting, increasingly dangerous situation in which each assumes that only aggressive, zero-sum diplomacy and military deterrence will preserve their interests. Restraint and mutual accommodation are nowhere to be seen. And, of course, neither side recognizes the high degree to which domestic politics influences their ability to engage meaningfully, with the upcoming Chinese Communist Party Congress and the U.S. midterm elections placing a premium on each side not showing weakness or flexibility.  

The intense dangers of this environment can be seen most clearly at present in the worsening imbroglio over Taiwan, intensified by the possibility of an upcoming trip to the island by Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi is not just any congressperson. As third in line for the presidency and a long-term, aggressive supporter of Taiwan against China, her visit would constitute a unique provocation and an indication of the further erosion of the U.S. One China policy, which prohibits senior US leaders from visiting Taiwan. The Chinese government has now on several occasions employed an especially ominous warning against the Pelosi visit, stating that if it were to occur, the “PLA (i.e., Chinese military) will not sit idly by.” Beijing has only uttered this phrase once before, over twenty years ago, in a previous crisis over Taiwan that risked conflict. In his meeting with Biden today, Xi Jinping apparently did not repeat this phrase.  But he did assert that “those who play with fire will only get burnt.” Both remarks suggest that any Chinese reaction to the visit will not be limited to diplomatic protests or economic pressure.

Those who ignore such warnings or assert that Pelosi must go forward with the trip in order to show that Washington cannot be intimidated by Beijing overlook the obvious point that Biden’s failure to avert such a standoff by strongly opposing Pelosi’s trip in the first place has produced this all-too-predictable Chinese response.  Although Biden does not have the power to order Pelosi not to visit Taiwan, he could have done much more than simply remark in an off-handed way that the U.S. military thinks “it’s not a good idea right now…” It is unclear what Biden said in response to Xi’s remark regarding Taiwan in this morning’s meeting between the two leaders.   But hopefully he recognized the clear implications of Beijing’s messaging and will act more forthrightly to oppose Pelosi’s trip and avert the impending crisis.

More broadly, at some point (perhaps as a result of the chastening effects of a Taiwan crisis), the two leaders will move to end the mutual blame game in which the two governments are engaged and recognize that reaching meaningful understandings on volatile issues and common threats such as Taiwan and climate change supersedes any effort to “win” a poorly defined and largely unwinnable competition between them. Such a much-needed shift in perspective could make future Xi-Biden meetings into truly meaningful events.

(Shutterstock/ charnsitr
Analysis | Asia-Pacific
Chris Murphy Ben Cardin

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