G20 sets stage for first Xi and Biden meeting since pandemic
Presidents Biden and Xi will meet on Monday at the G20 summit in Bali in their first bilateral face-to-face since the pandemic. This is welcome news, as speculation has turned to seeming certainty in recent months that the two countries will come to blows over Taiwan in the near future, egged on by domestic politics in both.
Based on 20 years of running crisis dialogues and simulations between former U.S. and Chinese officials and scholars, we believe that any such a conflict would be disastrous for the people of Taiwan and would wreak havoc on the world economy. In the worst case it could spiral to nuclear war.
The two sides need to show some real leadership and courage to break out of this cycle – think Gorbachev and Reagan in Reykjavik – before it’s too late. The two presidents should use their upcoming meeting to discuss concretely what steps each side might take to stop the spiral.
For both China and the United States, “credibility” regarding Taiwan is central to their interests. The Chinese Communist Party’s nationalist credentials are predicated on defending China’s territorial integrity, which it has steadfastly said includes Taiwan. In 1972, when the United States government established formal relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), it agreed to a “One China” formulation that recognized the PRC as the sole legitimate government of China, did not challenge the Chinese view that Taiwan is a part of China, and pledged to have only unofficial contacts with the government on Taiwan.
In the Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. also characterized any attempt to employ non-peaceful means to determine the future of Taiwan as “…a threat to the peace and security of the Western area and of grave concern to the United States.” For its part, Beijing stated that it would pursue peaceful unification with Taiwan as a first priority, without, however, relinquishing its sovereign right to employ force over what it regards as its national territory. So U.S. credibility is tied up in preventing China from taking Taiwan by force, as Chinese credibility is linked to seeking peaceful unification if at all possible.
Establishment voices in the United States — from both parties — now routinely claim, without conclusive evidence, that China has abandoned its past preference and is planning to coerce or attack Taiwan. They push for ever greater shows of support for the island, leading their counterparts in China to say that the United States has eviscerated the One China policy by encouraging Taiwanese sovereignty and independence. Both sides believe that the other is preventing or refusing to take actions that would stabilize the Taiwan situation, and neither admits that its own actions are contributing to the crisis.
Clear and authoritative steps are needed to walk back from a path toward a severe crisis or worse. Here are some of the actions that Xi and Biden can explore on Monday to test the goodwill and openness of the other side on this volatile issue.
President Biden should unambiguously reaffirm the original elements of the US One China policy regarding Taiwan to President Xi, as well as the long-held U.S. view that Washington will accept any peaceful, un-coerced resolution of the Taiwan issue that is acceptable to both sides. President Xi should unambiguously recommit to pursuing peaceful unification as a first priority and explicitly reject the notion of any timeline for unification.
Both leaders should also make clear and reassuring declarations about the role that Taiwan plays or does not play in their security posture. Earlier this year, a senior U.S. defense official said before Congress that Taiwan is a critical strategic node in its overall defense of the Pacific. This was reckless, as it clearly implied that Taiwan should be kept separate from China, and thus gives ammunition to those Chinese who argue for using force to resolve the Taiwan issue. President Biden should clearly repudiate this idea to President Xi. At the same time, Xi should make clear that Beijing does not regard reincorporation of Taiwan as a strategic necessity.
As a further reassurance, both sides should dial down their displays of provocative power projection. Beijing could pledge to reduce its military forays and exercises within or near the Taiwan Strait, and Washington could pledge to reduce its extensive “freedom of navigation” naval runs along China’s coast.
Taking these steps is going to be very hard for both sides, but the alternative is worse. Only Biden and Xi can break the current downward, interactive spiral over the Taiwan issue, and the G20 meeting gives them the opportunity to begin the de-escalation process. Absent their sober recognition of the vital need for trust-building through credible step by step assurances, the United States, China, and the people of Taiwan appear to be on the path toward a major diplomatic crisis or war.