'Prolonged crisis' in US-China ties set to continue this year

While Xi-Biden summit saw the resumption of some contacts, tensions over Taiwan still dominate the agenda.
By Qiao Qinen for RFA Mandarin
2024.01.02
'Prolonged crisis' in US-China ties set to continue this year U.S. and Chinese flags are seen through broken glass in this illustration taken, January 30, 2023.
(Dado Ruvic/Reuters photo illustration)

U.S.-China ties remained in a prolonged state of crisis at the end of 2023 despite some "candid and constructive" dialogue at the Xi-Biden summit in November, and will likely stay that way throughout 2024 amid ongoing tensions over democratic Taiwan, analysts told Radio Free Asia in recent interviews.

While the Xi-Biden talks at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum did result in in the resumption of military-to-military contacts, along with discussion of measures to stem fentanyl exports from China and scientific and technical cooperation, they didn't make close allies out of the two rivals, President Joe Biden said at the time.

Coming as it did after an alleged Chinese spy balloon derailed Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to Beijing in February, the presidential summit gave some cause for cautious optimism.

Yet Sam Zhao, professor of international relations at the University of Denver and director of the Center for U.S.-China Cooperation, described the bilateral relationship as being in a state of "prolonged crisis." 

"It's not a cold war like in the past, but a bilateral relationship that has periods of detente, then further retreat," Zhao said. "But they remain in a state of crisis."

China's threat to force "unification" on democratic Taiwan – referenced in a pledge by Chinese leader Xi Jinping at New Year and rebuffed by Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen this week – along with its military saber-rattling in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait still looms large over bilateral ties, creating ongoing tension, he said.

"Neither side has room for concessions," Zhao said. "There is no possibility of compromise."

He said moves to cooperate on climate change, transnational crime including fentanyl exports, artificial intelligence and disease control and prevention were ways for Beijing and Washington to "help stabilize bilateral ties and rescue them from a linear decline."

‘Surely be reunified’

Xi said in his New Year message to the nation that the merger of Taiwan and China was a sure thing, ignoring years of opinion polls showing that Taiwan's 23 million people have no wish to be ruled by the Chinese Communist Party.

"China will surely be reunified, and all Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait should be bound by a common sense of purpose and share in the glory of the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation," Xi Jinping said in his Dec. 31 address published in English by state news agency Xinhua.

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U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, in Woodside, Calif., Nov. 15, 2023. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen said on Monday that the island's future should be decided by its people, democratically.

"This is taking the joint will of Taiwan's people to make a decision,” she said. “After all, we are a democratic country.”

Much depends on the outcome of the Taiwan presidential and parliamentary elections on Jan. 13, seen as a battle between ruling Democratic Progressive Party’s Lai Ching-te and Hou Yu-ih for the Kuomintang.

"If Lai does win in three weeks or so, I imagine that [China], regardless of the state of US-China relations, is going to increase its pressure on Taiwan," said David Sacks of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.

"It will increase its military activities in the Taiwan Strait, and economic sanctions on Taiwan, political and diplomatic pressure and the like," he said.

"And so the question then is what the United States would do to respond to try to alleviate pressure on Taiwan and to show that it showed support for Taiwan as well."

Possible outcomes

Lu Yeh-Chung, assistant professor of diplomacy at Taiwan's National Chengchi University, agreed, adding that the U.S. presidential election in November 2024 would also play a role in deciding the direction of future ties.

"The most stable outcome will be a victory for the [opposition] in Taiwan, the re-election of Biden in the U.S.," Lu said. "If Trump won, that would require careful management by all three governments."

"The worst-case scenario would be a Lai Ching-te victory followed by a Trump victory in the U.S., which would be the most unstable outcome," he said.

ENG_CHN_YEARENDERUSChina_01022024.3.jpg
Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen [center, left] and Vice President William Lai [center, right] stand with officials at a flag-raising ceremony in Taipei, Taiwan, Monday, Jan. 1, 2024. Tsai says the island's future should be decided by its people, democratically. (Taiwan Presidential Office via AP)

Zhao said no Taiwanese leader – even the opposition Kuomintang – will dare to get too close to Beijing, however, for fear of losing voters at home.

Meanwhile, a growing bipartisan consensus in Washington over the growing threat to democracies posed by Beijing's overseas activities will likely see more political pressure on the relationship coming from Capitol Hill, Lu said.

"Even if Xi and Biden hold a second face-to-face summit in November 2024, the window of opportunity for improving bilateral ties will actually be very small," he said.

And bipartisan pressure is only likely to get worse as campaigning starts for the U.S. presidential race.

"It's a question of whether Beijing can recognize the difference between campaign trail talk and actual U.S. policy," Lily McElwee, deputy director and fellow in the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told RFA Mandarin.

"I'm not confident that they're making that distinction right now."

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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