NIAS China Reader

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NIAS China Reader
The Biden-Xi phone call and the underlying tensions in bilateral relations

  Avishka Ashok

President Biden and Xi try to overcome obstacles in bilateral ties but the Taiwan issue continues to obstruct the existence of peaceful US-China relations.

The telephonic conversation between Xi and Biden 
On 28 July, Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden discussed and exchanged their views and concerns on bilateral ties and other issues of mutual interest during a two-hour-long telephonic conversation. 

Xi highlighted the current situation of the international order and stressed the economic superpowers to take the lead in upholding world peace and security. The Chinese Head of State expressed his concerns regarding the China policy of the US and the country’s perception of China as a strategic competition and a primary rival. Xi suggested working together with the US on macroeconomic policies, global industrial and supply chains, energy and food security.

On the Taiwan issue, President Xi reiterated China’s objection to any support extended towards the independence movement and interference in the country’s internal affairs. Xi urged the US to abide by the one-China principle and the joint communiques. He said: “The three China-U.S. joint communiques embody the political commitments made by the two sides, and the one-China principle is the political foundation for China-U.S. relations. China firmly opposes secession aimed at "Taiwan independence" and external interference, and never allows any room for "Taiwan independence" forces in whatever form.” Biden reassured Xi that the US adherence to the one-China principle had not changed and that the country did not support the independence movement in Taiwan.

The conversation and its timing
The discussion took place at a time of increased tensions between the two countries. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has repeatedly urged the US to refrain from interfering in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan, which it considers its internal affairs. Additionally, the decision of the US government to ban goods and products produced in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region through the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act has further heightened tensions between the countries. More recently, speculations of US Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan have engendered strong reactions and promises of serious consequences from China. Beijing has also urged the international community and other international organisations to set up an investigation into the US violation of the human rights of indigenous and other minorities in the country. 

China’s renewed assertion on Taiwan
In recent years, China’s narrative on Taiwan has become increasingly aggressive and assertive. Beijing vehemently opposed the inauguration of the Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania, downgraded diplomatic relations and economically coerced the European country to repeal its actions. China's relations with Australia further worsened when the latter expressed concerns over a Chinese invasion of Taiwan in October 2021. China also made modifications to its laws, enabling more control over the strait. In January 2021, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee ratified the National Coastguard Law, authorising the officials to open fire on foreign vessels in the contested waters. In September 2021, China made it necessary for vessels to request permission to enter the South China Sea. 

Biden’s objectives vis-a-vis China
The US is at a crucial juncture as China’s fast rise as an economic power in the last few decades threatens to change the status of the US as a sole hegemonic power. China has become increasingly influential in international organizations such as the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and the World Trade Organization, amongst many others. In the present scenario, the US recognizes the need to challenge China’s rise but also does not want to engage in any more trade wars. Domestically, the primary aim of the US is to protect its interests and repair its economy by controlling the inflation rates. Externally, the US attempts to find a middle ground to continue working with China and move beyond their principal differences; meanwhile also countering China’s influence in the rest of the world by investing and establishing new initiatives and cooperative projects. For the US, the phone call was an attempt to pacify Xi and prevent an escalation of tensions between the two economic powers. 

The US Congress’ growing assertiveness on Taiwan
The Congress has acted independently while asserting its views on Taiwan. Regardless of President Biden’s reassurance over the US not supporting the independence movements in Taiwan, the actions of Congress presents a different narrative. If Pelosi lands in Taiwan, it will be marked as the highest-level US politician meet since US House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich’s meeting with the then Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui in April 1997. Other than Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, in November 2021, a delegation of 13 Congressmen visited Taiwan and discussed its defence security with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and other officials. Prior to that visit, a delegation of US Senators visited the country in June 2021 and announced the donation of 7,50,000 COVID-19 vaccines. 

Forecasts for the Sino-US relations and the Taiwan Straits 
The phone call between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping comes at a time of high tensions in relations between the US and China. The call attempted to understand the other country’s perspective on issues of common interest and also aimed to carry forward the bilateral relations and cooperation. Both, the US and China, acknowledge the disagreements between the countries but will aim to continue working towards a civil relationship. 

For China, the call was an opportunity to express its course of action against Taiwan. China will act aggressively and will not shy away from using its military in case it feels threatened about its sovereignty over Taiwan. Towards this aim, the country will increase its military presence in the Taiwan Straits and engage in drills and operations near Taiwan. 

For Taiwan, a visit from the US would be beneficial to its national defence and its status as a sovereign country. Taiwan has pursued greater cooperation with the US and other major powers for a long time. However, increased involvement of the US could significantly destabilize the existing peace in the region and may also push China to take action aggressively.  

About the author
Avishka Ashok is a Research Associate in the School of Conflict and Security Studies at the National Institute of Advanced Studies. Her areas of interests are China, East Asia and the Indo-Pacific region.

(Note: The note was previously published as a part of the weekly The World This Week.)

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