by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr/CC

CHINESE PRESIDENT Xi Jinping spoke with newly inaugurated American president Joe Biden by telephone over the Lunar New Year in the first telephone call between the American and Chinese presidents to take place since the Biden administration came to power.

There were no unexpected curveballs that took place during the telephone call, in the way that telephone calls between Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, with other world leaders were occasions for Trump to break with longstanding diplomatic precedents. Among other incidents, this was the case with the December 2016 Trump-Tsai telephone call, in which Trump broke from precedent by not only receiving a telephone call from Tsai, but referring to her as “president” of Taiwan.

Chinese president Xi Jinping. Photo credit: Kremlin/Public Domain

Although the Trump-Tsai phone call was seen as the start of strengthened US-Taiwan relations under the Trump administration, past conversations between Trump and Xi later resulted in unusual incidents such as Trump adopting China’s framing of the protests that have taken place in Hong Kong since 2019 by referring to protesters as “rioters”. This took place at a time in which rioting was a sensitive political charge that carried up to ten years’ imprisonment. Otherwise, Trump variously referred to Xi as a friend after phone calls with Xi. This took place despite the overall ramping up of tensions between the US and China under the Trump administration and last-minute attempts by the Trump administration to influence the incoming Biden administration’s China policy to prevent it from changing course.

By contrast, the Biden-Xi call was primarily a scripted affair. The Biden administration did surprise, however, by highlighting in its readout of the call that Biden brought up “Beijing’s coercive and unfair economic practices, crackdown in Hong Kong, human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and increasingly assertive actions in the region, including toward Taiwan” during the call.

The Biden administration was likely seeking to reassure that it would not be soft on China through this, with concerns raised that the Biden administration could return to Obama-era policies of engagement. Although Trump supporters in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and elsewhere still engage in conspiratorial fear-mongering about Biden, one notes that there are a number of China hawks in the Biden administration, and that structural factors dictate continued US-China confrontation.

Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Taiwan, then, serve as three crucial wedge issues regarding the US-China relationship at present, and one can expect to see the three issues come up alongside each other in framing by the Biden administration going forward. It is further to be noted that the Biden administration emphasized that one of its priorities was “preserving a free and open Indo-Pacific,” retaining the Indo-Pacific framing used by the Trump administration in a shift away from the “Asia Pacific” framing used by the Obama administration before it. At the same time, the readout by the Biden administration did emphasize continuity with previous policies of engagement under Obama insofar as it referred to being “committed to pursuing practical, results-oriented engagements when it advances the interests of the American people and those of our allies.”

In the meantime, Tsai Ing-wen’s Lunar New Year’s speech primarily referred to domestic political issues. With the DPP coming under increasing scrutiny regarding its plans to obtain COVID-19 vaccines, Tsai stated that the DPP both intends to acquire vaccines from abroad and develop vaccines domestically, and that medical workers would receive priority in terms of vaccine access.

Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen. Photo credit: Tsai Ing-wen/Facebook

Otherwise, Tsai once again thanked Taiwanese for their unity in efforts to fight COVID-19, generally avoiding specifics or revealing any new details regarding Taiwan’s vaccine acquisition strategy. At present, the Tsai administration may prefer releasing information regarding Taiwan’s plans to obtain vaccines through the Ministry of Health and Welfare and Central Epidemic Command Center, with KMT politicians angling to attack the Tsai administration wherever they can on COVID-19 related issues. On Wednesday, Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung stated that Chinese interference was a likely factor for delays in securing the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which Taiwan placed an order for five million doses of in November, though this later led to a response from BioNTech that Taiwan would indeed receive vaccines.

But Tsai raised eyebrows by closing her Lunar New Year’s address by addressing “our Cantonese-speaking friends”, and saying “Hold fast to your beliefs and don’t give up.” The statement has been interpreted as aimed at Hongkongers. That being said, measures to assist Hongkongers in need of political asylum from the Tsai administration have been lacking, and the Tsai administration has frequently referenced the political plight of Hongkongers but been criticized for a lack of concrete measures to assist them. This can be understood as a statement in the same vein though, like Taiwan, Hong Kong stands to be caught in the crossfire of US-China tensions. 

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