November 16, 2022
JAKARTA – The meeting between President Xi Jinping of China and President Joe Biden of the United States in Bali on Monday, their first face-to-face as leaders of the superpowers, inevitably attracted much global media attention. While they found common ground on many global issues, both men stood firm on the most contentious issue that divides them: Taiwan.
This makes the smiles of the two men during the photo op seem disingenuous. Any hopes of rapprochement from this encounter must be tempered by the fact that Taiwan remains a potential flashpoint that could impact the Indo-Pacific region and beyond if it turns into a full-scale war. Pundits are not wrong in describing the Sino-American ties as the most important bilateral relations in the world today. If Xi and Biden fail to manage them, the world will be in trouble.
Still, the meeting helped to ease the tension that has been building between the two countries. Putting Taiwan aside, there was plenty for the two leaders to discuss and find common ground, on issues such as North Korea, the Russian-Ukrainian war, the global economy and climate change. When the two most powerful countries on earth collaborate, the rest of the world can take comfort and even profit from the peace and stability that this generates.
One only wished that the two men had come to an agreement on Taiwan, or at least gave signs of possible common ground. Instead, each reiterated their respective positions.
Xi still talked about China’s right to unify Taiwan, which it considers a renegade province, indicating the likelihood of exercising this during his presidency. In October, he extended his term at the helm for five more years. Biden stuck to his declared policy that the US military will defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion. This is a departure from the long-held Washington policy of strategic ambiguity when it comes to Taiwan.
The two powers are now on a collision course. We had a foretaste of things to come when China launched the largest military exercises around Taiwan in an angry response to the visit of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taipei in August. Thankfully common sense prevailed in Beijing and Washington, and tension has since eased. This is no guarantee that they will show restraint next time. It also serves as a warning to both sides not to be reckless and avoid antagonizing one another.
What counts most now is what the two leaders plan to do beyond Bali. During their meeting Xi asked Biden to send Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to Beijing to follow up on some of the issues they discussed. We hope they will also discuss Taiwan, but this time with the genuine intention of deescalating the tension.
Indonesia can take a mediating role beyond facilitating the Xi-Biden meeting, which took place ahead of this week’s G20 Summit in Bali. Indonesia is well positioned to play this role as it is not aligned with either China or the United States in this emerging contest between the two powers. The few countries that are also taking a neutral position such as India should also step in. The US-China rivalry has intensified so much that maybe it is time to call for a referee.
Everyone concerned should work to give diplomacy a chance to work. The alternative, if they stop talking, is World War III, which is not an option.