Analysis | Biding time
Biden-Xi meeting: addressing great-power competition, transnational threats, and Taiwan.
Last month, the G-20 convened in Bali, with international media coalescing around President Xi and President Biden’s in-person discussion of U.S.-China relations prior to the summit. Biden and Xi’s talking points dovetailed with a number of themes discussed in the 2022 National Security Strategy, namely the duality of the U.S.-China relationship. Xi’s willingness to meet with Biden — especially noteworthy considering his avoidance of travel during the pandemic — underscores both countries’ interest in maintaining a line of communication amidst economic and military tensions. As National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan pointed out in his October address, the United States will prepare for continued Sino-American competition while avoiding “conflict or a new Cold War.” In Bali, Biden followed this line of thought. He emphasized a need for Sino-American cooperation with respect to climate change and other transnational issues, even amidst continued competition with the PRC. Biden walked a fine line between confrontation and collaboration, raising the issue of China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong yet jointly agreeing that the Ukrainian conflict must avoid escalation. Meanwhile, both Chinese and American media have referenced the U.S. and China’s need for “channels of communication,” which could take the form of mutually agreed-upon military regulations or even joint exercises.
The meeting seems to have advanced a number of diplomatic goals amidst a backdrop of growing instability in China. As competition over semiconductors intensifies and Belt and Road infrastructure development continues to flag, China’s zero-COVID policy — currently being rolled back in the aftermath of massive protests — continues to roil the PRC’s domestic economy and disrupt civil society. Nevertheless, as the BBC reports, Xi seems intent on maintaining a course in which both the U.S. and China may pursue their economic and political interests: “China-U.S. relations should not be a zero-sum game in which you rise and I fall… the wide Earth is fully capable of accommodating the development and common prosperity of China and the United States.”
While it does seem that the United States and China remain mutually committed to ongoing communication, the two superpowers maintain certain “red lines” that herald continued tensions. However, even though the Bali meeting has opened a diplomatic line of communication between the U.S. and China, the United States must not grow complacent over China’s grand strategy. Along with economic and transnational concerns, the Bali meeting has thrown cross-strait relations into the international spotlight once more. Analysts continue to speculate over Xi’s intentions over Taiwan. Xi, himself, as well as Chinese media, have referred to Taiwan as a “red line.” Biden does not believe that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan will take place in the near future, however, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken — who is set to visit China in coming months — has suggested that the PRC’s plans for reunifying the island may be intensifying.
As 2022 comes to an end, how should the U.S. continue to evaluate both China’s intentions and Taiwan’s capabilities? For many experts, the question remains not whether China will reunify with Taiwan, but when. According to CSIS ChinaPower, 44% of surveyed experts believe that China maintains a “hard internal deadline” to complete reunification by 2049. Although the United States has historically maintained an ambiguous stance towards military commitment in Taiwan, 100% of experts in the same survey believe that the United States “would deploy forces to defend Taiwan from an invasion.”
It is certainly easy to interpret China’s “salami-slicing” tactics — naval and aerial exercises and provocations that fall just short of outright aggression towards Taiwan — as a sign of impending invasion. This past summer, China’s military exercises around Taiwan garnered special attention in the wake of Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island. Western analysts have long tracked open-source information detailing the progress of these drills, watching for signs of mobilization and generating continued speculation. Fortunately, in spite of this speculation, the United States has reason to believe that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan will not take place in the near future. According to John Culver of the Carnegie Endowment, a number of military, political, and economic signs — sequestration of energy resources and medicine, a freeze on China’s foreign financial assets, restrictions on travel out of the country, the mass production of missiles and rockets, and the construction of field hospitals — would indicate preparation for an attack. As Culver argues, detailed intelligence remains absolutely critical: the American intelligence community proved its mettle warning of the invasion of Ukraine, and may ultimately have to do the same with regard to Taiwan.
In brief, it is clear that the United States must supplement diplomacy with continued awareness of any indicators, both open-source and covert, that could signal war. Regarding Taiwan itself, American military planners committed to Taiwan’s defense must continue to arm and advise Taiwan’s military to ensure that it prepares for the right war. The United States is right to maintain open lines of communication with the PRC: as the most recent great-power competition illustrates, open communication helped to de-escalate some of the tensest moments of the Cold War. However, the Bali meeting should not indicate an easing of tensions over Taiwan, but rather a flashpoint likely to resist great-power compromise.
Alison O’Neil is a graduate student in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University. She studied history and political science at the University of Notre Dame. Her writing, which has also appeared in Realist Review and International Policy Digest, focuses primarily on the geopolitics of China and South Asia.
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