Taiwan remains the ‘most sensitive’ issue in US-China relations

Elaine Chan and Lee Jeong-Ho for RFA
Singapore and Seoul
Taiwan remains the ‘most sensitive’ issue in US-China relations A helicopter flies with the Taiwan national flag during National Day celebrations held in front of the Presidential Building in Taipei, Taiwan, Oct. 10, 2023.

The leaders of the world’s two largest economies, the United States and China, emerged from a high-profile summit with a conciliatory tone and commitment to manage their competition in a way that benefits both nations. But one issue remains to be the thorniest: Taiwan.

While pundits would not have expected the meeting between President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping this week to have moved the needle as far as Taiwan is concerned, the issue was tabled and discussed, with both sides posturing as they always have.

Biden reiterated the U.S.’s agreement to a One China policy and its position that Taiwan maintains its sovereignty despite China’s claims to the contrary.

Xi, however, called for the U.S. to take concrete actions to show that it is not supporting “Taiwan’s independence,” stop arming Taiwan and back China’s reunification, according to Xinhua news agency.

“China will realize reunification, and this is unstoppable,” Xi declared at the summit. Despite this assertion, the summit concluded with both sides agreeing to engage in a dialogue on artificial intelligence, establish a working group to tackle fentanyl precursors and resume high-level military communications.

Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks during a bilateral meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Woodside, California, Nov. 15, 2023. [Reuters]

Taiwan, the self-governed democratic island, has been the flashpoint amid the increasingly tense bilateral relationship between China and the U.S.

The two giants have been at loggerheads on the Taiwan issue for years, especially since the previous administration of Donald Trump. Beijing has claimed numerous times that it could resort to using force to reclaim the island if necessary.

The escalated diplomatic stand-off, coupled with China’s apparent increased inward-looking and restricting investment environment for foreign investors and Beijing’s tightened grip on Hong Kong, has triggered an outflow of capital from China.

“Taiwan was really an essential part of the summit,” said Alicia Garcia-Herrero, chief economist for Asia Pacific at Natixis, a French corporate and investment bank.

“The well-crafted speech by Xi during the business summit referring to the fact that China will not engage in any cold war or that China is not looking for a military conflict is very important.

“I think China knows well that the Taiwan issue is top on the agendas of business executives. And that risk is now one of the reasons actually why some people aren’t investing either in Taiwan, for that matter, or the mainland. So I think that is a big statement.”

‘Peaceful coexistence’

The evening after his summit with Biden, Xi addressed a room full of top U.S. business leaders in San Francisco, where he called “peaceful coexistence” a baseline for China and the U.S. to uphold as two major countries.

Xi stressed that China never bets against the U.S. or interferes in its internal affairs. “Likewise, the United States should not bet against China or interfere in China’s internal affairs.”

He added, “aggression and expansion are not in our genes.”

To what extent Xi’s remarks will help de-escalate tensions in the Taiwan Strait, and by extension, the broader South China Sea, will likely be watched closely by analysts, but more importantly by Taiwan’s neighbors, Japan and South Korea, which are key allies of the U.S. in the region. At the same time, it also raises the question of how reassuring it would be for investors to bring fresh capital back to China.

The U.S., Japan and South Korea have expressed their objection to what they saw as threats from Beijing when China conducted military exercises around Taiwan to assert its sovereignty over the island. The Chinese navy has also been engaging in aggressive maneuvers in the South China Sea in a standoff with the Philippines.

A Taiwan Navy Knox-class frigate fires chaff during a navy exercise off Yilan County, Taiwan, April 13, 2018. [AP]

The dispute between the two major powers over the island was amplified when Beijing issued a strong criticism following the visit of the then-Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, to Taiwan in August 2022. Following the event, the Chinese side suspended its military communication channels with the U.S., a critical channel considered a last resort to prevent an unintended military confrontation.

Although the resumption of military communication channels between the U.S. and China will have a limited effect on the Taiwan issue, it is still a stabilizer to the high-risk relations between the two, said Zhang Baohui, professor of government and international affairs at Hong Kong-based Lingnan University,

“The US achieved its goal of reopening military-to-military ties and secured Chinese cooperation, while China achieved the goal of stabilizing the strategic rivalry, preventing it from getting worse,” said Zhang.

“I think the outcome is positive for both countries. Both gained the image that they can work together to enhance global welfare.”

Financial implications

On the financial and business front, investors are taking a wait-and-see approach to the impact of the summit. For one, the U.S. did not lift any export controls on high-end semiconductors, an issue that China raised at the summit, criticizing the Americans for attempting to deny Chinese people “the right to development.”

“The meeting should prove to have little long-term impact on financial markets. Xi did receive a very positive reception from business leaders, but here he was preaching to the choir,” said Brock Silvers, chief investment officer of Kaiyuan Capital.

“Little was said or agreed that would convince recalcitrant investors that China was now prepared to tackle systemic or deflationary pressures, make necessary reforms, or meaningfully address investability concerns.

“For investors, very few minds were likely changed.”

U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping walk in the gardens at the Filoli Estate in Woodside, California, Nov. 15, 2023. [The New York Times/Pool via AP]

Garcia-Herrero is more optimistic.

Overall, she said, the Xi-Biden meeting could prompt the foreign business community to see that “maybe China’s not so uninvestable.”

“I’m expecting inflows into China because of this meeting, even though nothing concrete was decided in terms of lifting export controls or promises of lifting import tariffs.

“But it does show that maybe humbly for once, compared to the past, China is realizing that it’s on the wrong path in terms of attracting investment if it continues to show such an aggressive posture.”

Garcia-Herrero added that it’s too soon to gauge direct foreign investment inflows, but she expects portfolio flows into the stock markets to increase soon.

James Downes, head of the Politics and Public Administration Programme at Hong Kong Metropolitan University, believes the meeting provided a positive economic starting base and foundation to move forward with.

“The [Taiwan] issue is a complex long-term geopolitical problem. It is best for both sides that the issue remains off the table for the time being, with a focus on economic issues, tech and AI instead dominating the agenda going forward.”

The Chinese would have agreed.

After all, even Xi conceded that Taiwan remains “the most important and most sensitive issue” in U.S.-China relations.

Radio Free Asia (RFA), a news service affiliated with BenarNews, produced this report.


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