Biden-Xi Meeting Unlikely to Halt U.S.-Chinese Slide

Compromise is becoming increasingly difficult—especially over Taiwan.

Crabtree-James-foreign-policy-columnist5
Crabtree-James-foreign-policy-columnist5
James Crabtree
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-Asia.
Biden, Xi hold virtual summit
Biden, Xi hold virtual summit
U.S. President Joe Biden gestures as he speaks with Chinese President Xi Jinping from the White House in Washington, on Nov. 15, 2021. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping have their work cut out. Sino-U.S. bilateral ties are the worst they’ve been in decades following U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and China’s subsequent military reaction. Biden and Xi now look likely to meet in person at the G-20 summit in Indonesia in November. If they will indeed sit down together in just three months, their respective teams will already be thinking of ways to repair the damage. For that to happen, however, both sides need a clear analysis of why the situation in Taiwan is so unstable—and need to recognize that it is likely to get worse without intervention from the top.

Since the start of his presidency, Biden has talked to Xi four times by phone or video. Despite the steady downward trajectory of Sino-U.S. ties, their calls have actually been reasonably productive. Biden talks often about the need to establish “guardrails” for a new period of superpower competition. For his part, Xi harbors long-term aims to upturn the existing regional order in Asia. He also warns consistently about China’s red lines over Taiwan. “Those who play with fire will perish by it,” China’s foreign ministry quoted Xi as saying in their last call in July 2022, referring to China’s worries about Taiwanese independence. Yet, in the short term at least, Xi also appears to favor stability and continuity in ties with the United States.

Biden and Xi’s record of apparently cordial relations hints at the possibility that the two leaders could halt the downward slide—at least temporarily. But any such hopes must be heavily qualified for two reasons.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping have their work cut out. Sino-U.S. bilateral ties are the worst they’ve been in decades following U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and China’s subsequent military reaction. Biden and Xi now look likely to meet in person at the G-20 summit in Indonesia in November. If they will indeed sit down together in just three months, their respective teams will already be thinking of ways to repair the damage. For that to happen, however, both sides need a clear analysis of why the situation in Taiwan is so unstable—and need to recognize that it is likely to get worse without intervention from the top.

Since the start of his presidency, Biden has talked to Xi four times by phone or video. Despite the steady downward trajectory of Sino-U.S. ties, their calls have actually been reasonably productive. Biden talks often about the need to establish “guardrails” for a new period of superpower competition. For his part, Xi harbors long-term aims to upturn the existing regional order in Asia. He also warns consistently about China’s red lines over Taiwan. “Those who play with fire will perish by it,” China’s foreign ministry quoted Xi as saying in their last call in July 2022, referring to China’s worries about Taiwanese independence. Yet, in the short term at least, Xi also appears to favor stability and continuity in ties with the United States.

Biden and Xi’s record of apparently cordial relations hints at the possibility that the two leaders could halt the downward slide—at least temporarily. But any such hopes must be heavily qualified for two reasons.

The first reason to be skeptical are the lessons each side has drawn from the recent crisis. Put simply, both Beijing and Washington likely feel they have emerged reasonably well from Pelosi’s visit. This creates little incentive to compromise or avoid a repeat in the future.

China, for one, has reasons to be happy. Fundamentally, Beijing aims to retake Taiwan over time with measures short of war. But it fears a drift toward formal Taiwanese independence, egged on by what it views as reckless U.S. interference. Given its own well-communicated red lines, such a step might force it to fight a war it would rather avoid—at least for now. It is partly to avoid this scenario that Beijing feels it needs to signal extreme displeasure over moves like Pelosi’s visit. In truth, all three sides—China, the United States, and Taiwan—are undermining the status quo in one way or another.

Over recent weeks, Beijing has achieved other important objectives, however, including firing ballistic missiles directly over the island—not just over its waters—for the first time. China’s exercises also provided a rare opportunity to practice joint operations among different branches of the People’s Liberation Army—in effect, a dry run of a future blockade. The result is a likely permanent change in the military status quo across the Taiwan Strait in Beijing’s favor.

Crucially, China managed to do all this while keeping much of the region onside. Around the time the crisis blew up, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong issued a statement suggesting that reasonable nations should not support settling international disputes with missile barrages. “Australia is deeply concerned about the launch of ballistic missiles by China into waters around Taiwan’s coastline,” she said. “These exercises are disproportionate and destabilizing.” In private, however, much of Southeast Asia at least views Washington, not Beijing, as being mostly to blame for the crisis, seeing Pelosi’s visit as a needless provocation.

The United States at least seems to be aware that it risks losing the public relations war in Asia over Pelosi’s trip. Kurt Campbell, Indo-Pacific coordinator for the U.S. National Security Council, gave an unusual on-the-record Friday afternoon press briefing on Aug. 12, in effect echoing Wong’s criticisms. “China’s actions are fundamentally at odds with the goal of peace and stability,” he suggested. “The goal of this campaign is clear: to intimidate and coerce Taiwan and undermine its resilience.”

Even so, the United States has other reasons to be content with recent events. By all accounts, Biden did not want Pelosi to take the trip. But when it became clear she was going to go anyway, Washington did not back down in the face of Beijing’s pressure. In doing so, the United States reestablished its policy that a U.S. House speaker should be allowed to visit the island, as then-U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich had done in 1997. More generally, the events of recent weeks will have helped the United States impress upon its regional partners—such as Australia, Japan, and India—the necessity of seriously planning for a potential Taiwan contingency.

Overcoming this perception of relative success on both sides will be the first barrier faced by Biden and Xi if they are to seek some kind of stability when they meet in November. The second barrier is, if anything, more complex. Both China and the United States say they support the status quo over Taiwan. But in truth, all three sides—China, the United States, and Taiwan—are undermining that status quo in one way or another.

China is self-evidently trying to change facts on the ground. It has conducted a decadeslong military buildup to create a military force capable of retaking the island by force if needed. China pressures Taiwan relentlessly with gray zone military tactics and economic coercion. Beijing’s recently published white paper on “The Taiwan Question and China’s Reunification in the New Era” also removed previous reassurances offered to Taiwan about its future position in a united China, such as not stationing Chinese troops on the island.

Taiwanese domestic politics are developing in a direction that makes the status quo less tenable too. Opinion polls suggest Taiwan’s national elections on Nov. 26—just after the prospective Biden-Xi meeting—will deliver a victory for Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s Democratic Progressive Party and hand the opposition Kuomintang party, which favors closer ties with Beijing, another defeat. The Taiwanese public appears increasingly willing to support independence, with a survey taken after China’s recent military drills showing 50 percent of the population in favor. This kind of data will likely cause extreme alarm in Beijing.

Biden, meanwhile, is at pains to stress he is not changing Washington’s “One China” policy despite accusations of “salami-slicing” from Beijing. Biden’s team is likely sincere on this point. Nonetheless, it is clear enough that the foundations on which the status quo rests are indeed shifting, as elite and congressional opinion in the United States moves in the direction of a much tougher line against Beijing—including over Taiwan.

To complicate matters, various looming flash points are likely to undermine the status quo even further. More high-level U.S. visitors are likely in Taipei. It’s even easy to imagine a visit by another U.S. House speaker if the Republicans retake the House of Representatives in the November midterm elections, as polls suggest they will. The United States could also soon pass a new Taiwan Policy Act, a bipartisan bill that would elevate Taiwan into the category of “major non-NATO ally” and increase arms sales to the island. Then there is the run-up to the 2024 U.S. presidential election, where various Republican candidates are likely to stake out a hard-line position on Taiwan.

Taken together, all these factors make it hard for either Biden or Xi to compromise. Neither leader can afford to look weak. The G-20 meeting in mid-November will take place just after what’s likely to be a chastening midterm defeat for Biden, who will be looking for ways to rebuild domestic support. For his part, Xi is unlikely to row back from the kind of tough language put out by his team in recent months. “The wheels of history roll on, and no one can stop China’s path towards reunification,” Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe said at the recent Shangri-La Dialogue summit in Singapore in June. “If you want confrontation, we will fight to the end.”

Avoiding that prospect will require trust and compromise, both of which are in perilously short supply. Any long-term stability over Taiwan also realistically requires Biden and Xi not just to shore up the crumbling status quo but to rebuild it—a prospect that presently looks all but impossible. More realistically, the question is whether the two leaders have the political will and authority to instruct more hard-line voices on their respective sides to dampen down tensions, at least temporarily. If not, the slide toward more significant conflict—of which the crisis over Pelosi’s visit is just a preview—looks set to continue.

James Crabtree is a columnist at Foreign Policy, the executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-Asia, and the author of The Billionaire  Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age. Twitter: @jamescrabtree

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