Xi Jinping is sending ominous signals on Taiwan

Protesters hold Taiwanese flags as they confront supporters of Chinese President Xi Jinping outside the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco on Nov. 15. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)
Protesters hold Taiwanese flags as they confront supporters of Chinese President Xi Jinping outside the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco on Nov. 15. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

Many in Washington are pointing to last week’s meeting between President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping as a sign that the two great powers are growing closer. But on the most important issue in the relationship — Taiwan — Washington and Beijing are moving further apart. Xi’s rhetoric indicates he’s getting impatient with the status quo — and his actions are even more worrisome.

During the two leaders’ private meeting in the San Francisco Bay Area, Xi struck some ominous notes on Taiwan. Regarding Beijing’s long-standing desire to bring the island under its control, Xi said his “preference was for peaceful reunification”, a senior U.S. official told reporters — but then Xi outlined several scenarios under which he might use force. Biden reiterated to Xi that the United States supports the status quo and is determined to maintain peace.

But Xi’s reaction to Biden’s simple restatement of existing U.S. policy was to tell the U.S. president that China would not be satisfied with the status quo forever.

“Xi responded, ‘Look, peace is all well and good, but at some point we need to move toward resolution more generally,’” according to the official.

Some current and former officials highlighted this quote as evidence Xi is getting increasingly impatient, suggesting that he intends to ramp up efforts to coerce Taiwan into unifying with the People’s Republic. Matthew Pottinger, deputy national security adviser to President Donald Trump, noted that the Chinese foreign ministry’s readout of the meeting said Xi told Biden that the United States should actually “support China’s peaceful reunification” — a particularly bad sign, Pottinger said.

“This is a significant moving of the goal posts, because [Beijing] is now saying that the relationship with China is predicated on the U.S. supporting the Chinese takeover of Taiwan”, said Pottinger. “Xi is saying, ‘I’m not going to stand for the Taiwan status quo much longer, and you, America, are in our way.’”

Not everybody agrees on how to read the tea leaves. Two other senior administration officials I spoke with after the summit said they saw Xi’s comments on reunification as consistent with past statements from Beijing. But they did believe Xi had become more assertive on two other aspects of the Taiwan issue. Xi aggressively warned Biden against arming Taiwan and also urged him not to support Taiwanese Vice President Lai Ching-te in his presidential bid ahead of elections in January, they said.

Beijing sees Lai and his Democratic Progressive Party as “pro-independence”. Lai and President Tsai Ing-wen have repeatedly explained that they do not seek formal independence for Taiwan, but they’re under attack by Beijing nonetheless. Tsai has refused to affirm what’s called the “1992 Consensus”, which essentially asserts that Taiwan is a part of China. And Beijing sees the opposition Nationalist Party as more friendly.

In his post-summit news conference, Biden said he had explicitly warned Xi against interfering in Taiwan’s upcoming presidential election. Of course, Beijing is already working to undermine Lai’s candidacy in a number of ways, using military intimidation, economic coercion and information warfare.

“Right now, we are seeing a very sophisticated campaign focused on three major tenets: disinformation, disinformation and disinformation”, Vincent Chao, spokesman for the DPP, told me during a panel at this weekend’s Halifax International Security Forum.

To drive home the threat that the DPP will lead Taiwan into war, the Chinese military has menaced the island with record numbers of warplanes and naval vessels in recent months. China sent 21 military aircraft and seven ships into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone just days after the Biden-Xi meeting.

The limited achievements of the Biden-Xi meetings, such as restoring U.S.-China military communications (which Beijing cut off last year to protest then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit), are positive. Yet these hopeful developments mask a grim reality: Xi is telling the world through both words and actions that he intends to take over Taiwan one way or another — and everyone else should either actively help or just accept it.

Chao said the key to dealing with Xi is to make sure “the risk and cost of Xi Jinping taking action must never be lower than the risk and cost of him not taking action”. That means bolstering deterrence by increasing the flow of arms to Taiwan. It also requires helping Taiwan protect its democratic institutions and its information environment, without taking sides in its politics.

Leaders in Washington and Taipei can’t allow optimism about the U. S-China relationship to obscure the fact that Xi is rapidly altering the status quo around Taiwan and interfering in Taiwanese politics more than ever before. Xi has revealed his true intentions. Ignoring his ominous words and actions would be the most dangerous policy of all.

Josh Rogin is a columnist for the Global Opinions section of The Washington Post. He writes about foreign policy and national security. Rogin is also a political analyst for CNN. He is the author of the book Chaos Under Heaven: Trump, Xi, and the Battle for the 21st Century.

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