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US-China tensions

Biden-Xi summit offers brief respite for Taiwan tensions

Beijing likely reassured that U.S. president said he doesn't support independence

Experts say that this week's summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping may temporarily help ease tensions over Taiwan, which is led by Tsai Ing-wen. (Source photos by AP and Reuters) 

TAIPEI -- With relations between Beijing and Washington at their frostiest in decades, expectations were low for any deliverables from Xi Jinping and Joe Biden's summit this week. At the center of the discussion was Taiwan, and while the two leaders agreed to disagree, the short-term effect may be one of reduced tensions.

Biden told Xi the U.S. "strongly opposes" moves by China to alter the cross-strait status quo. Xi said tensions were a result of "repeated attempts by the Taiwan authorities to look for U.S. support for their independence agenda," despite China regularly making threatening statements toward Taiwan and sending military aircraft near its airspace.

The fact that the talks took place at all and that both leaders were able to restate their positions on Taiwan, although not in person, could lessen the likelihood of a miscalculation in the Taiwan Strait.

Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, said both Biden and Xi made remarks that could help reduce regional tensions, at least in the short term.

"I think the Chinese will welcome and be reassured by President Biden's statement that the U.S. doesn't support Taiwan independence," Glaser said.

"Taiwan independence" does not refer to declaring independence from the People's Republic of China, which has never ruled Taiwan. Rather, it refers to the dismantling of the refugee Republic of China government -- which fled to Taiwan to escape Mao Zedong's communist revolution in 1949 -- and the establishment of a Taiwanese state.

Glaser described Xi's statements on Taiwan as "tough, but not bellicose."

"My interpretation is that the situation in the Taiwan Strait can be managed, tensions can be dialed back, and the Biden-Xi meeting may help to do just that," she said. "However, I don't expect the Chinese to stop conducting military exercises around Taiwan."

In Taipei, foreign ministry spokeswoman Joanne Ou thanked Biden for speaking up in support of Taiwan during his call with Xi.

"Since President Biden took office, the United States has publicly emphasized many times that its support for Taiwan is rock-solid," Ou said, adding that China should "shoulder the shared responsibility to uphold peace in the Taiwan Strait and use dialogue to resolve differences of opinion."

That is unlikely to happen anytime soon. China stopped speaking with Taiwan shortly after President Tsai Ing-wen took office in 2016. Tsai has repeatedly called for dialogue with Beijing, but without preconditions. China says talks are only possible if Taiwan's government accepts the Chinese stance that Taiwan is part of China -- a non-starter with Tsai and most Taiwanese.

China's approach has had the effect of improving communication channels between Taipei and Washington. American officials briefed their Taiwanese counterparts before and after Biden spoke with Xi, and Taiwanese media is reporting that annual U.S.-Taiwan political and military talks will be combined into one meeting this week.

Meanwhile, the Tsai administration will continue working to bring Taiwan out of the international isolation imposed on it by China. Former Vice President Chen Chien-jen, who served during Tsai's first term, will attend a democracy forum in Vilnius, Lithuania this week. Lithuania is one of several former Soviet states in central and eastern Europe that have warmed up to Taiwan in recent months.

Speculation is high that Taiwan will be invited to Biden's Summit for Democracy next month. Such a move would be a diplomatic boost for Taiwan, which is effectively blocked by China from membership or even observer status in the United Nations and its associated organizations such as the World Health Organization. Given its success in handling COVID-19, the exclusion of Taiwan from the WHO's World Health Assembly, in particular, has been criticized by the U.S. and other countries.

"I fully expect that the Tsai administration and the Biden administration will seek ways to enhance Taiwan participation in the international community," Glaser said. "Beijing misreads U.S. intentions as promoting Taiwan independence, when in fact it is only seeking to find avenues for Taiwan to share its expertise with the international community and protect the 24 million Taiwanese people."

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