US-China talks: Xi draws red line on Taiwan in first virtual meeting with Biden

US President Joe Biden meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping virtually from the White House on Nov 15, 2021.
US President Joe Biden meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping virtually from the White House on Nov 15, 2021.PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING/WASHINGTON - Chinese President Xi Jinping issued a warning to his US counterpart during their first virtual meeting since Mr Joe Biden took office early this year: do not cross the red line that is Taiwan.

The two leaders spoke for nearly four hours on Tuesday (Nov 16) morning (Beijing time), with the primary aim of establishing ground rules for their growing rivalry, preventing it from degenerating into conflict.

Readouts were provided by both the White House and China’s official Xinhua news agency at almost the same time, with the Chinese statement six times as long as the US one.

President Xi appeared careful not to point the finger directly at the US, blaming heightened tensions in the Taiwan Strait on the Taiwan authorities’ repeated attempts to “rely on the United States for independence”, while saying that some in the US had tried to play the Taiwan card to curb China.

Describing this trend as “very dangerous” and akin to “playing with fire”, Mr Xi reminded Mr Biden of the "one China" policy and three US-China joint communiques that formed the political foundation of US-China ties. He noted that successive US administrations had upheld their commitments to these.

“We are patient and willing to do our utmost to strive for the prospect of peaceful reunification with the utmost sincerity, but if separatist forces provoke and force the issue, or even break through the red line, we will have to take decisive measures,” Mr Xi was quoted as saying.

In the White House readout, Mr Biden stressed his continued commitment to the policy, which recognises the People’s Republic of China as the sole legitimate government of China.

The three joint communiques, issued in 1972, 1979 and 1982, essentially reinforce that point.

But the White House statement added that the US commitment to the "one China" policy was also guided by the Taiwan Relations Act and the Six Assurances – which commit the US to help Taiwan to defend itself  – and that the US “strongly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait”.

The two leaders, who have known each other for years, started their meeting at 8.45am, greeting each other with a wave over a video link.

Senior officials from both sides attended the meeting,  including top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Vice-Premier Liu He, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.

Besides Taiwan, the two leaders also touched on a host of other issues, with Mr Biden raising concerns over China’s governance of Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong, as well as its trade practices that Washington has charged were unfair.

In turn, Mr Xi asked Mr Biden not to suppress Chinese enterprises in the name of national security, and said he was willing to discuss human rights issues but stressed that these should not be used to interfere in the domestic affairs of other countries.

The Chinese President called for mutual respect and “peaceful co-existence”, saying he was willing to work with Mr Biden to take the bilateral relationship forward.

“All global initiatives proposed by China are open to the United States, and we hope the US will do the same,” said Mr Xi, who also called for greater dialogue on multiple fronts from security to trade to finance.

Both leaders agreed that they should establish “guardrails” to manage their differences and prevent them from spiralling out of control, and spoke of cooperation in areas like climate change.

While the meeting did not produce any significant concrete outcomes, its objective was to kick-start a process of safely managing the intensifying competition between the US and China, said Associate Professor Hoo Tiang Boon of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

“For the Chinese, I think they would probably see this as a relative win for two reasons. First and foremost, they will see that they have extracted some form of a formal assurance from Biden himself that the US does not support Taiwan independence,” said Prof Hoo, who studies US-China relations.

“Second, this is an opportunity for them to get across their key points and concerns without making any concessions at all. And, of course, likewise, for the Americans.”

Shortly after the meeting ended, the Communist Party of China released the withheld third historical resolution that was adopted by the party central committee at last week’s Sixth Plenum political meeting.

The resolution, only the third in the party’s 100-year history, cements Mr Xi’s supremacy and paves the way for his continued leadership.