Ever since US President Joe Biden entered the White House in January 2021, US-Chinese relations have been on a rollercoaster.
The Biden administration, not unlike the former Trump White House, has made China its main competitor – I would prefer the word “adversary” – on the international scene. Throughout the last 18 months, the US has been engaged in attempts to expand US-led alliances and partnerships of all sorts to contain the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
For the first time since its establishment in April 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) included China by name in its New Strategic Concept adopted at its Madrid Summit in June. This New Strategic Concept will guide the policies of the alliance for the next decade.
The outbreak of the war in Ukraine in February complicated US-Chinese relations, introducing a high level of tension in an already tense atmosphere. The US and its allies have pressured Beijing to condemn the Russian war, something which the Chinese have refused to do. In the meantime, the US-led West has been warning the Chinese not to lend any kind of support, whether military, economic, or financial, to Moscow.
In other words, the West, carrying out US strategy, has been putting China on the defensive.
Things came to a head when the UK Financial Times reported in mid-July that Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the US House of Representatives, planned to visit Taiwan in the context of an Asian trip that would include Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and Malaysia. Her office neither confirmed nor denied the press reports about a visit to Taiwan for security reasons.
Any outside and objective observer of US-Chinese relations would undoubtedly consider such a visit to be highly provocative, very untimely, and running against established US diplomacy in the framework of the Taiwan Relations Act and the One China Policy that have been the pillars of US-Chinese relations over the last three decades and of security and stability in the Taiwan Strait and the Western Pacific region.
It is difficult to say whether the reported trip to Taiwan by the speaker of the House was cleared beforehand by the White House. Those who are familiar with Washington politics and with relations between the White House and Congress will hesitate to believe that it was not, particularly when the president and the speaker both hail from the same political party. Both Biden and Pelosi are Democrats.
Against this background, Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping held their fifth virtual summit meeting on 28 July. The conversation lasted two hours and 17 minutes, according to official sources in Washington.
The conversation covered a range of issues, but it is worth noting that the official read-outs of the call on the part of both the White House and the Chinese Foreign Ministry did not mention the reported visit by Pelosi to Taiwan, a strong indication that both sides prefer not to escalate the matter at present. The Chinese will be waiting to see whether Pelosi proceeds with her visit to Taiwan or not. She has already started her Asian tour.
Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, spoke on 27 July, one day before the virtual summit meeting between the US and Chinese presidents, of China’s “firm opposition” to Pelosi’s potential trip to Taipei, the capital of Taiwan. He made clear that if the “US side insists on making the visit and challenges China’s red line, it will be met with resolute countermeasures.” He warned that the “US must assume full responsibility for any serious consequences.”
However, the two presidents did discuss Taiwan in their conversation even if they did not mention a possible visit to the island by Pelosi. Biden reiterated the US commitment to the One China Policy and US opposition to any unilateral measures that could affect the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. Xi Jinping reaffirmed the standard Chinese policy concerning Taiwan and China’s opposition to any moves that could favour Taiwan’s independence from the mainland.
One US official said that the discussion concerning Taiwan was “in depth,” “direct,” and “honest.”
One encouraging sign that stood out after the call between the two leaders was the fact that the two men expressed an interest in meeting face-to-face. A US official told reporters that the two presidents had instructed their teams to find a mutually agreeable time to do so.
If Pelosi visits Taipei on her Asian tour, it is doubtful that any such summit meeting will take place anytime soon.
* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.