The presidents of China and the United States discussed Taiwan during a video call last week, prompting suggestions that Beijing may be seeking a trade-off in response to U.S. President Joe Biden’s demand that his counterpart Xi Jinping withhold material support for Russian’s war effort in Ukraine.
The subject of appeared in public summaries of the discussion released by both sides. The U.S. readout mentioned Taiwan once, whereas the Chinese readout brought it up four times.
“To put it together, it somewhat shows that the United States wants to please China in exchange for something – literally [the] Ukraine situation and try to convince China not do anything stupid with Russia,” said Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan.
China has claimed self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s, when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists lost to Mao Zedong’s Communists and rebased their government in Taipei. Beijing has not dropped the threat of force, if needed, to unite the two sides.
Since mid-2020, it has flown military planes over part of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone almost daily. The Chinese Navy has been passing ships through a widening swath of the world’s waterways, especially in Asia and in the strait west of Taiwan.
Biden said the U.S. government “does not support ‘Taiwan independence’” or intend to seek conflict with China, according to Xi’s summary of remarks from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "I take these remarks very seriously,” Xi was quoted as saying.
“What's worth noting in particular is that some people in the U.S. have sent a wrong signal to ‘Taiwan independence’ forces,” Xinhua added. Xi called the signals “very dangerous.”
Former U.S. president Donald Trump had stepped up sales of weapons to Taiwan and increased the frequency of high-level visits to the island as he challenged China on issues from trade to military expansion around Asia.
Any U.S. “mishandling” of Taiwan will “have a disruptive impact on the bilateral ties,” Xi added.
Biden said U.S. policy on Taiwan had not changed and that the United States “continues to oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo,” according to a White House statement.
That statement repeats a standing U.S. policy of supporting Taiwan’s current self-rule without declaring formal independence from China. The policy discourages China from unilaterally forcing its goal of unifying the two sides.
“Their differences are here, and it’s obvious, but the fact that they’re talking — it’s actually good, and I think they can find some common ground despite the differences,” said Eduardo Araral, associate professor at the National University of Singapore's public policy school.
Biden warned Xi on the call not to provide material support to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, after the U.S. president’s top diplomat said Washington believed Beijing was willing to offer support to Moscow.
“Of course, the starting point for America’s interests was hoping that China will not help Russia, but this does constitute Biden’s main rationale,” said Chao Chien-min, dean of social sciences at Chinese Cultural University in Taipei.
Biden may be trying to cement a stronger long-term relationship with old Cold War foe China, Chao said.
The China and U.S. statements both say Biden and Xi asked their teams to follow up after the video call but did not give specifics about how they should do that.
More senior-level dialogue is likely, analysts say, pointing to the call last Friday that followed a Biden-Xi video meeting in November.
While the calls signal stability in Sino-U.S. ties, experts see low odds of the two countries advancing toward any stronger friendship. Both are minding their domestic political landscapes, Huang said, and they lack conditions for further easing of tensions between the two countries.
It’s not clear yet whether China will distance itself from Russia in the month-old war that Moscow launched against Ukraine almost a month ago, some note.
“I do not think [the Friday call] will have any impact on current Sino-U.S. relations,” said Nguyen Thanh Trung, director of the Center for International Studies at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City. He forecast that “China is not willing to sacrifice benefits from possible warm-again Sino-U.S. ties for Russia.”