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Taiwan May Top Biden - Xi Call, But Experts Say Not to Expect Much

FILE - A CH-47 Chinook helicopter carries a Taiwan flag during national day celebrations in Taipei on Oct. 10, 2021.
FILE - A CH-47 Chinook helicopter carries a Taiwan flag during national day celebrations in Taipei on Oct. 10, 2021.

Taiwan is expected to top the agenda when U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet virtually late Monday in Washington to discuss how both countries can “responsibly manage” their ongoing competition, experts say.

White House officials announced the meeting Friday following a surprise agreement on climate change made between China and the U.S. on the sidelines of the U.N. Summit on Climate Change, known as COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland.

After finding common ground at COP26, the president’s call is expected to touch on some sensitive topics, such as China’s nuclear buildup and a potential trade agreement that could end a long-standing dispute that began under former U.S. President Donald Trump. It could also touch on Taiwan. And while experts do not expect much change in dialogue on the topic, the island could find itself higher on the agenda than years past.

“Xi Jinping will be trying to suss out the Biden administration’s overarching approach to China, which remains unclear, and may seek out a clearer picture of what, if anything, the administration has planned for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics,” said Michael Mazza, a nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think tank. “The leaders are likely to reaffirm the recent joint climate declaration, discuss North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, and address energy security concerns.”

“I wouldn’t expect to see new language on Taiwan in the readout or joint statement, if there is one. I think what will be notable is that, in whatever release follows the meeting, the Taiwan concerns will be front and center, rather than a lesser included issue, as has been the case in the past,” Mazza added.

Biden and Xi last spoke in early September, but shortly afterwards China escalated air sorties into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) to record levels in October, around the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party, prompting warnings from top U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

The virtual meeting is the result of a six-hour dialogue between Chinese diplomat and Politburo member Yang Jiechi and U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan held in Switzerland in October.

Thursday, Blinken said the U.S. would “take action" if Taiwan were attacked, one of the strongest commitments yet from the Biden administration toward the self-ruled democracy. The U.S. formally maintains a policy of “strategic ambiguity” toward Taiwan, but under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act it has pledged to “make available” weapons and services to allow Taiwan to maintain a “sufficient self-defense capability.”

Unification with Taiwan, whose formal name is the Republic of China, is a long-term goal of China’s Communist Party. Earlier this month, the Pentagon released a report about China’s defense capability and said the People’s Liberation Army may be capable of “more credible military operations” toward Taiwan by 2027.

The report also disclosed that China’s nuclear arsenal is growing faster than the Department of Defense had predicted it would in 2020. China is expected to have acquired up to 700 nuclear warheads by 2027 and 1,000 by 2030.

Austin Wang, an assistant professor in political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said despite the build-up of tension in the Taiwan Strait, he does not expect much substantive change in U.S.-China dialogue from previous calls.

“I expect that Xi will say something like ‘not to intervene in China's domestic affairs’ and ‘both should obey the One China principle,’ while Biden would likely to ‘address the concern’ about human rights, which includes the Taiwan issue,” Wang said.

Wang said he expects Chinese state media will use the call to show the U.S. abides by the “One China” principle – the Communist Party’s official view that there is single sovereign state of China that includes Taiwan.

In Taiwan, he said, response will likely follow political lines. Opposition members supporting Taiwan’s Nationalist Party may take Chinese reporting as a sign the U.S. is not serious about its promises of support to Taiwan. Supporters of the ruling Democratic People’s Party and Taiwan independence, meanwhile, would watch for whether discussion of the island is framed as a domestic human rights issue or as part of China’s foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific.

Lev Nachman, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University, said expectations for the call should be in line with the fact that it is a largely symbolic discussion between two leaders with many disagreements.

“Issues like climate change and trade are topics both sides can hopefully find grounds for cooperation on. The challenge will be how to navigate more contentious topics like the Olympics or Taiwan in a way that still allows for some substantive progress to be made without leading to a stalemate,” Nachman said. “Ultimately, this is about finding starting points for dialogue and won't ease tensions all at once, but hopefully it leads to some sort of cooperative understanding.”