Has Joe Biden just solved the China vs Taiwan problem?

AP Photo/Los Angeles Times, Jay L. Clendenin, Pool

It’s been rather obvious for a while now that America’s relationship with China is currently about as bad as anyone has seen it in decades. Some might argue that this really isn’t such a bad thing because the Chinese Communist Party isn’t exactly a positive force on the world stage and their recent actions in a number of areas have been both aggressive and disruptive. But some of the most alarming moves the Chinese have been making have come in the form of significantly increased incursions into Taiwan’s airspace by Chinese warplanes. Since no sane person is cheering for a possible war with China, diplomacy is clearly called for, and President Joe Biden claims to have stepped into the role successfully. But has he? He certainly sounds like an agreement has been reached in very short order. (The Hill)

President Biden said on Tuesday that he and Chinese leader Xi Jinping have agreed to abide by the Taiwan agreement in light of recent military provocations carried out by China against the self-governing island.

“I’ve spoken with Xi about Taiwan. We agree we will abide by the Taiwan agreement. That’s where we are and I made it clear that I don’t think he should be doing anything other than abiding by the agreement,” Biden told reporters.

The Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), the agreement Biden was presumably referring to, was passed by Congress in 1979 in order to “maintain peace, security, and stability in the Western Pacific” by maintaining “friendly commercial, cultural, and other relations” between the U.S., Taiwan and China.

If Biden has indeed come to some sort of agreement with Xi Jinping and it results in China curtailing their aggressive air force maneuvers, I will certainly tip my hat to him, but there are several questions he should address for the public. First of all, this announcement is definitely lacking in specificity and is missing a few key elements. There was no mention in Biden’s remarks about China ceasing those flights into Taiwan’s airspace. All he said was that he and Xi had agreed to “abide by the Taiwan agreement.”

That agreement was created in 1979 and it was intentionally written in the vaguest possible terms. All we really agreed to at the time was to “maintain friendly commercial, cultural, and other relations” between America, Taiwan, and China. That could mean nearly anything you want it to short of open warfare. For his part, as long as he’s not dropping bombs or launching an actual invasion, Xi Jinping might say that flying his jets close to the island is just normal since China still considers Taiwan to be its own property.

If Xi Jinping is seriously considering curtailing the incursions, it would also come as a remarkably rapid turnaround from his recent statements and actions. It was only a couple of days ago when Chinese state media described Taiwan as “an evil force the mainland must crush.” Granted, the quote wasn’t directly attributed to Xi himself, but nothing shows up on the country’s state media outlets without his approval. (Or if it does, some broadcaster is packing their bags for a reeducation camp visit right about now.)

In that article I just linked, John was speculating that the aggressive moves toward Taiwan might simply be a distraction intended to draw domestic attention away from problems Xi is having on the home front. One of the latest examples is the series of rolling power blackouts that China is experiencing. I agree that authoritarian regimes frequently create an external threat to try to create more domestic cohesion, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t serious about retaking Taiwan.

If we go a few days without any more action over the Strait of Taiwan and things calm down, I’ll happily give Joe Biden credit for calming the waters. But if that’s the case, was there an offer of some sort of concession made to China in exchange for more civil behavior? Xi Jinping rarely just gives anything away for free. If a deal was made, the public deserves to know the details.