July 15, 2024

Candid exchanges on Taiwan could help to avoid miscalculations when the US and Chinese heads of state meet on the Apec sidelines this week, former US ambassador to China Max Baucus said.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to be “very firm” on the Taiwan issue when he meets US counterpart Joe Biden in San Francisco on Wednesday, Baucus said, adding the summit would be helpful for the US to better understand China’s positions on different matters of contention.

“China’s non-negotiable position [on Taiwan] is not well understood in America. And it’s important for him, President Xi, to make that clear to President Biden,” he told the Post in an interview on the sidelines of the Hong Kong Forum on US-China relations on Friday.

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“The more [Beijing] makes it clear, and clear enough in a non-confrontational way … That’s going to help President Biden realise that some of the actions taken by his administration, arms sales, for example, or proposed legislation by other members of Congress, may not be a good idea,” said Baucus, ambassador to China under president Barack Obama from 2014-17 and a former senator.

Tensions between Beijing and Washington over Taiwan have continued to rise in recent years.

While the US maintains that it abides by its “one China” policy and does not recognise the self-ruled island as a separate state, it has increased arms sales and stepped up government-to-government contacts with Taipei, triggering some of Beijing’s most intense live-fire drills around Taiwan.

US warships also continue to make what Washington calls “freedom of navigation” sailings through the Taiwan Strait.

In August, Biden for the first time approved arms sales to Taiwan under a programme usually reserved for sovereign states, and signed a Congress-backed bill to boost economic ties with Taiwan into law, sparking strong protests from Beijing.

Beijing has stressed that it will never compromise on Taiwan or renounce the use of force to defend its sovereignty over the island, which it considers a breakaway province awaiting unification with the mainland.

Addressing the Hong Kong Forum on Thursday via video link, Chinese ambassador to the US Xie Feng urged Washington to stop “playing with fire” on Taiwan and take “concrete actions” to manage differences with Beijing.

Baucus said that a lack of American understanding of China had made many bilateral issues difficult to resolve.

However, ‘ignorance is bliss sometimes”, he said. “Many members of Congress are new. They have no knowledge of Chinese history. None … If you don’t know something, then you can do something.”

He also noted that few US lawmakers had anything constructive to say about China. The political climate in Washington over China was “so toxic” because of concerns over China’s rise, that it might threaten the US-established post World War II order, Baucus said.

Such a climate could lead to many misunderstandings and uncertainties in bilateral relations, but may also be able to explain many of the US approaches towards China, he said, citing restrictions against Chinese telecoms giant Huawei as an example.

“When the Huawei issue first arrived, Americans, especially American politicians, we’re just scared at home that Huawei wants to build backbone technology, communications backbone technology that means they can spy [on us],” he said.

“And where’s the evidence? Where is the evidence of Huawei actually spying?”

“And the answer I got … we don’t have to provide the evidence. All we have to say is China, [that] is all we have to do.”

Technology has become the centre of the bilateral rivalry as the US ramps up control measures targeting China’s hi-tech sector, citing national security concerns. This has included a ban on Huawei, restricting chip exports to China and checks on investment. New restrictions are also expected to target fields such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing.

Baucus said he expected more restrictions down the road, but “trust” and “communication” could help the two sides tackle contentious issues.

He also expressed hope that China and the US might have a better chance to cooperate on fighting the international trafficking of fentanyl.

Washington hopes to announce a new commitment from China and potentially set up a working group on stemming “the flow of fentanyl into the US” when Biden meets Xi at Apec, NBC News reported last week, citing people familiar with the matter.

Chinese companies have been accused of being involved in producing chemicals used to make fentanyl that has contributed to a deadly “synthetic opioid epidemic” in the US – a charge that Beijing has consistently denied.

Baucus said the real question following the Xi-Biden meeting in San Francisco would be whether both sides can fulfil the “promises” they make to each other.

“Both countries want to protect their own interests,” he said. “And we draw lines. Sometimes we draw the line closer to our own individual preference. Sometimes you draw the line closer to cooperation.

“Both countries are now starting to draw the line that looks a little more toward cooperation.”

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP’s Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2023 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2023. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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