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Foreign Policy

Reading the Tea Leaves of Biden-Xi Discussion

Aug 02, 2022
  • David Shambaugh

    Gaston Sigur Professor of Asian Studies and Director of the China Policy Program, George Washington University

On July 28 Presidents Biden and Xi Jinping engaged in a two hour and twenty-minute phone call (one assumes that with consecutive interpretation the actual time of discussion was about half this time). It was their fifth such direct interaction since Biden became president and their first discussion in four months. 

Deciphering what the two leaders discussed is dependent on the two governments’ post-call statements. The White House and China’s Foreign Ministry both put out descriptive accounts, while Xinhua News Agency provided a summary interpretation and senior U.S. officials from the National Security Council briefed the media. From these published accounts we can discern the following. 

First, the American and Chinese accounts were not parallel. The only issue that both sides admitted to discussing in common was Taiwan. However, the American briefing claimed that Taiwan was only one of three issues discussed—the Russian/Ukraine crisis and global issues of common concern (climate change, public health, narcotics) being the other two. The Chinese readouts failed to mention these latter two issues areas—instead concentrating on the discussion of Taiwan. In addition, Xinhua noted that President Xi raised the issue of keeping global supply chains stable and “protecting” global energy and food security. 

Interestingly, according to Xinhua, President Xi also “underscored that to approach and define China-U.S. relations in terms of strategic competition and to view China as the primary rival and most serious long-term challenge would be misperceiving China-U.S. relations and misreading China’s development, and would mislead the people of the two countries and the international community.” While this is not at all a new Chinese perspective or language, what was unusual is that the US readout failed to use the term “competition” (which has been the principal and consistent American description in all previous such public statements). While an odd omission, the concept of comprehensive competition with China remains the central organizing strategy for the United States—but China refuses to characterize the relationship in these terms. 

The tone and tenor of the phone call were appropriately serious, given the existing tensions in the relationship. The U.S. side described them as “substantive, in-depth, and candid.” The Chinese side similarly described them as “candid communication and exchange.” Although the two governments have begun to regularize high-level dialogue over recent months in an effort to “manage competition responsibly” (in the U.S. description), the relationship clearly remains highly stressed in a number of areas. 

Rising tensions over Taiwan now clearly head the list. The presidential phone call came as Representative Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, was contemplating a visit to the island as part of a swing through Asia (at the time of this writing a Pelosi stopover had not yet occurred). President Xi reiterated stern warnings to the American side—warnings that had ratcheted up from the Chinese Foreign Ministry in recent weeks. “Those who play with fire will perish by it,” Xi is quoted as warning Biden (in the Foreign Ministry readout). “Playing with fire will set yourself on fire,” similarly claimed the ministry. 

The reason a possible Pelosi visit to Taiwan is potentially so explosive is because of her senior Congressional position and because it fundamentally violates the terms of the normalization of U.S.-China relations in 1979 and the Taiwan Relations Act, both of which proscribed visits by senior American and Taiwan politicians (while holding office) to the other place. This was violated in 1996 when the U.S. side gave a visa to then Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui, causing a military crisis and show of force by the U.S. Navy. A year later in 1997 then Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich visited Taiwan, but it did not trigger a similar military crisis. Since then, the American side has continually “pushed the envelope” by allowing some cabinet-level officials and Members of Congress to visit Taiwan—but a Pelosi visit would be seen in Beijing as a particular affront and violation.  

In their call, President Xi apparently lectured President Biden about these previous commitments—while President Biden repeated the standard mantra that U.S. policy was based on the “One China Policy (not, as the Chinese side asserts, One China Principle), the three joint communiques (1972, 1979, 1982), the Taiwan Relations Act (1979), the Six Assurances to Taiwan (1982), as well as the “commitment to peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, and no changes in the status quo by either side.” 

Thus, the Taiwan issue is once again assuming a central place in the relationship (especially in Beijing) and it is again beginning to overshadow all other issues. There is thus an urgent need to reestablish a functional framework for managing the acute sensitivities and dangers surrounding the Taiwan issue. Such a framework should intrinsically include an American return to the political understandings of 1979 coupled with the Chinese cessation of provocative military actions against the island.

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