Hong Kong (CNN) – The mere fact that US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping are now speaking is in itself a major advance.
Relations between the United States and China, which had been in near complete collapse during President Donald Trump’s final year in office, descended into outright hostility during recent high-level bilateral meetings, including the infamous Alaska summit in March, during which diplomats on both sides exchanged shots.
And while Monday’s virtual summit between the two leaders saw no substantive policy on key issues such as climate, trade, pandemic or arms control, it did establish a dialogue that could be built, which could ease tensions and allow for more to come back. A constructive and stable relationship.
There are already signs that this is paying off, with it reported late Tuesday that China and the United States agreed to ease visa restrictions for journalists from the other side.
China has said the Taiwan issue is the “center” of the Biden-Xi summit
But while the background music from both countries is undoubtedly positive, closer examination suggests that Beijing has more reason to rejoice.
And he declared, “Biden once again does not support Taiwan independence!” Related hashtag It quickly became the main topic of Weibo, the heavily censored version of Twitter in China, which has attracted more than 200 million views.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) sees “reunification” with Taiwan – a self-administering democracy that has never ruled – as a major unresolved issue on China’s path to its “Great Rejuvenation”.
Thus, the fact that a US president agrees with China’s view on the issue is a great propaganda victory. But, based on a reading of the White House meeting, that’s not exactly what Biden said; In fact, the American reading did not mention independence at all.
What does Biden say?
Regarding Taiwan, President Biden emphasized that the United States remains committed to the “one China” policy, guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, the Three Joint Communiques and the Six Safeguards, and that the United States firmly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo. or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”
Biden provided further clarification on the matter Tuesday evening. “I said they should decide … Taiwan, not us. We do not encourage independence,” Biden said. The president clarified his position early Tuesday, saying, “We’ve made it clear that we support the Taiwan law, and that’s it,” adding that Taiwan “makes its own decisions.”
In what is known as the US “one China” policy, Washington acknowledges Beijing’s position that Taiwan is part of China, but has never endorsed the Chinese Communist Party’s claim to sovereignty over Taiwan. It maintains close informal relations with Taipei, and is obligated to support the island with the means to defend itself under the Taiwan Relations Act.
A detailed 3,900-character reading published by China’s Foreign Ministry again quoted Biden as saying the United States does not support Taiwan independence, but did not mention Washington’s firm stance against “unilateral efforts to change the status quo.”
Instead, he showed that Xi launched a direct attack – and a veiled threat – in Washington.
According to the Chinese reading, Xi blamed the escalating tensions in the Taiwan Strait on what he called Taipei’s attempt to “lean on the United States to seek independence,” as well as “the intention of some Americans to use Taiwan to contain China.”
A warning to Biden
“Such moves are very dangerous, like playing with fire. Whoever plays with fire will be burned,” Xi told Biden, according to the Chinese reading.
“We are patient and will strive for the prospects of peaceful reunification with utmost sincerity and effort. However, if the ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces provoke, coerce or even cross the red line, we will have to take drastic measures.” Shi added.
Such strong rhetoric is likely to resonate in domestic public opinion in China, many of whom are staunchly supportive of union with Taiwan.
Xi secured his power at an important meeting of the Communist Party last week, paving the way for securing a third term and more. And now, nationally, he is presented as though he, too, had emerged victorious from meeting Biden.
“Of course, in China they have to claim victory. That’s why they emphasized that the Biden administration reiterated its opposition to Taiwan independence,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, an expert on Chinese politics at Hong Kong Baptist University.
Two modes, two appearances
For Beijing, the meeting’s point of view is just as important as its content.
In the Chinese capital, the virtual summit was held in a gold-plated and red-carpeted room of the Great Hall of the People. The faces of Xi and Biden appeared side by side on a huge screen broadcasting the meeting live, while Chinese leaders, including Xi himself, sat consecutive meters across the room, a strikingly different setup from what American officials had in the Roosevelt Room. White House.
According to the Chinese reading, Xi compared China and the United States with two giant ships at sea, each of which must be firmly steered to avoid collision.
“In a sense, it gives China great prestige, great power status,” Cabestan said. “Biden agreed to speak with China on an equal footing, noting the major issues the two countries must address together, from climate change and North Korea to Afghanistan.”
Xi is looking for a stable relationship with Biden
For Xi, building bridges with Biden and trying to normalize bilateral relations also helps with his domestic political agenda.
“President Xi, of course, is entering a very political year,” said Paul Heinley, director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Politics, citing Xi’s attempt to secure an unprecedented third term in power at the 20th Party Congress this fall.
“So (it will be) an important year, and I think President Xi will be very focused on removing those risks and uncertainties in the US-China relationship so that he can really focus on domestic policy in preparation for Congress,” Hanley said.
It is clear that Xi is interested in reducing risks before Congress and establishing a stable relationship between the United States and China, and putting in place protective barriers to prevent unexpected incidents leading to conflict.”
Internal factors are likely to play a role for both leaders in the coming year, said Ryan Haas, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“Neither leader wants to appear to be softening their approach to the other, but at the same time, neither leader will see the benefit of allowing the relationship to escalate significantly beyond the current levels of tension,” he said.
“So the relationship will likely transition between a fairly stable floor and ceiling over the next year.”
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