As Biden, Xi prepare for Tuesday’s virtual meet, top diplomats from both countries spar over Taiwan

The lead-up to Tuesday morning’s virtual summit between United States President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping has seen the two countries exchange sharp remarks on Taiwan, one of many thorny issues on which both sides are unlikely to make much headway.

In a telephone call between top U.S. and Chinese diplomats, both sides expressed concerns over the other’s position on Taiwan, with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi attacking “the U.S.’s wrong words and deeds” and saying that “any connivance of and support for the ‘Taiwan independence’ forces...would only boomerang in the end.”

China last also week hit out at a visit by a U.S. congressional delegation to Taiwan, while the People’s Liberation Army carried out more drills that have followed recent record aerial intrusions into Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone.

In the phone call, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken “expressed concern regarding the PRC’s [People’s Republic of China’s] continued military, diplomatic, and economic pressure against Taiwan” and “urged Beijing to engage in meaningful dialogue to resolve cross-Strait issues peacefully and in a manner consistent with the wishes and best interests of the people on Taiwan.”

‘Red Lines’

Mr. Xi however is expected to reinforce China’s “red lines” on the Taiwan issue in Tuesday’s virtual summit, one of many points of difference on which the two sides are unlikely to reach a meeting of minds.

The measured expectation ahead of the summit is a lowering of temperatures and an improvement in tone after years of a rancorous relationship marked by a trade war during the term of the Trump administration and tensions that have continued this year under the Biden administration, a reflection of an increasingly bipartisan consensus in Washington on the approach to China.

One point of difference with the new administration appears to be its keenness to find common ground with China on some issues such as climate change, on which the two countries recently announced a new cooperation agreement, even though officials have made clear they still viewed China as the primary strategic challenge. On the other hand, the Biden administration has said it would seek to work more effectively with U.S. allies and partners, including with the Quad grouping, in coming up with a more coherent approach to China, while also speaking out more on human rights issues.

Common Ground

Underlining the state of relations, Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi have only had two phone calls this year, the first shortly after the inauguration. In the second call in September, the U.S. President told his counterpart that both sides needed “to ensure competition does not veer into conflict” as they deal with a growing list of differences.

Two months before that call, the Chinese side had presented the U.S. in talks in Tianjin with two “lists” of demands, named a “List of U.S. Wrongdoings that Must Stop” and a “List of Key Individual Cases that China Has Concerns With.” Among those demands were unconditionally removal of visa restrictions on Communist Party members and withdrawal of an extradition request for Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of tech firm Huawei who was arrested in Canada for violating U.S. sanctions on Iran. The latter demand was met, with Ms. Meng allowed to return to China in October.

Tuesday’s summit may pave the way for other limited agreements, including on reopening consulates that were closed down during the time of the Trump administration and on visas. Fundamental differences, however, remain, with Mr. Biden likely to repeat U.S. concerns on Taiwan, Xinjiang and Hong Kong and Mr. Xi expected to rebuff them.