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  • Writer's pictureGeopolitics.Λsia

Superpowers Thaw?

As China grapples with economic challenges, particularly in its northeastern region, and the complexities of normalizing relations with the United States, President Xi Jinping appears to be strategically buying time. This approach is notably evident in China's handling of the situation in Taiwan. The island's political dynamics, especially regarding the stance of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) on Taiwanese independence and the upcoming 2024 presidential election, add layers to this intricate scenario.

The DPP, known for advocating Taiwanese independence, now treads a fine line between its foundational principles and the pragmatic need to appeal to a diverse electorate. William Lai, the DPP's candidate, embodies this balance, championing Taiwan's sovereignty and self-determination while maintaining a moderate stance in cross-Strait relations. The party's emphasis on domestic economic issues, defense, and diversifying international ties reflects a strategic approach to counter China's influence and bolster Taiwan's resilience.

Amid this backdrop, Xi's decision to focus on internal economic stabilization and cautiously engage with the U.S. suggests a deliberate postponement of any aggressive moves towards Taiwan. This stance allows China to address its immediate economic concerns while keeping a watchful eye on Taiwan's evolving political landscape, which continues to be a critical factor in the broader U.S.-China geopolitical equation.

Xi-Biden Showdown in APEC 2023 Summit

Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to California for the APEC 2023 summit, his first in six years, represented a significant juncture in the complex tapestry of U.S.-China relations. Echoing the historical significance of the Kissinger-Zhou meetings, which paved the way for Mao and Nixon, Xi's visit carried both symbolic and strategic weight. This event seemed to hint at a potential easing of tensions between the two global superpowers, a relationship that has, in recent years, been marked by increasing frostiness.

Xi's arrival in the United States and the subsequent meeting with President Joe Biden, held at an undisclosed location in the San Francisco Bay Area, garnered considerable global attention. This summit, the first face-to-face engagement between the two leaders in over a year, presented an opportunity to address a myriad of pressing issues that sit at the heart of the world's two largest economies. It held the potential to soften the edges of what is often described as the world’s most perilous rivalry. The geopolitical context surrounding this meeting was fraught with heightened tensions, including concerns over fragile global supply chains and the escalating climate crisis. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in his address to the APEC ministers, underscored the vision of a region where economies are free to chart their own courses, a statement indirectly critiquing China’s growing regional influence. For his part, President Biden was keen on restoring normalcy in communications with China, signaling an earnest desire to mend the strained ties, an effort that included the resumption of military-to-military contacts.

The summit concluded with a series of key agreements that could potentially reshape the contours of the bilateral relationship. A significant outcome was the agreement to resume military contacts, which China had previously severed in the wake of Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan. This move was widely regarded as critical in avoiding dangerous miscalculations that could potentially escalate into conflicts. Moreover, the two leaders reached an understanding on controlling the flow of fentanyl, a matter of grave concern in the U.S., with China agreeing to clamp down on the export of related chemicals. The discussions also ventured into the realm of artificial intelligence, acknowledging the need for cooperation in this burgeoning field. Additionally, Xi's engagement with the U.S. business community, a key component of China's economic strategy, especially given its domestic economic challenges, was noteworthy. The Biden-Xi agreement, emphasizing open lines of communication, marked a significant development, facilitating direct communication between the two presidents and reflecting a mutual understanding of the need for ongoing dialogue.

The Underlying Reasons: Economy

The recent interactions of Chinese President Xi Jinping, particularly during the APEC summit, reveal an intricate interplay between China's internal economic challenges and the dynamics of its international relations, especially with the United States. The current state of affairs in Northeastern China underscores these complexities, illustrating the broader context of Xi's presidency, which, despite its assertive global posture, is confronted with economic realities that are not entirely in harmony with its ambitions. China's economy is grappling with substantial pressures: a collapsed real estate market, high youth unemployment, and dwindling consumer confidence have culminated in China's first quarterly deficit in foreign direct investment. This situation reflects the broader challenges faced by the Chinese Communist Party, including political intrigues and uncertainties about Xi's decision-making process.

The economic relationship between the U.S. and China, which has deteriorated over recent years, is a significant backdrop to this narrative. Initiated under the Trump administration, a trade war centered around intellectual property theft and market access has led to heightened tariffs and strained relations. While the Biden administration has maintained a somewhat confrontational stance, albeit with some nuances, U.S. tariffs on Chinese imports have escalated, now exceeding 19%, a marked increase from pre-trade war levels. This economic tug-of-war has framed much of the interactions between the two nations, leading to a complex web of interdependencies and conflicts.

The APEC summit, therefore, emerged as a pivotal moment, signaling a potential thawing in relations. High-level discussions between Presidents Xi and Biden culminated in agreements on various issues, such as fentanyl control, military communications, and artificial intelligence. This meeting was particularly crucial given the combined economic might of the U.S. and China and their significant influence on global economic health. In a world still reeling from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the conflict in Ukraine, a softening of U.S.-China tensions could bode well for the global economy. Moreover, Xi's apparent shift towards restoring economic cooperation with the U.S. appears to be a strategic move, driven by the imperative to stabilize China's internal economic situation. This recalibration of stance could also serve as a reassurance to foreign investors and businesses about China's economic environment. However, it's important to note that the tensions between Washington and Beijing extend beyond the economic sphere. Under Xi, China has faced international criticism for its actions in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and the South China Sea, as well as for its stance on Taiwan, which remains a particularly sensitive security concern. With upcoming presidential elections in both Taiwan and the United States, these issues could potentially intensify.

The 2024 Taiwanese Presidential Election: A Crucial Democratic Exercise

As we pivot from the broader geopolitical dynamics of U.S.-China relations and Xi Jinping’s focus on internal economic stabilization, we find ourselves at the threshold of another significant event in the Asia-Pacific region: the 2024 Taiwanese presidential election. This election is not just a domestic political contest; it serves as a critical intersection where Taiwan’s internal dynamics converge with broader international geopolitical concerns. The election takes on added significance in the shadow of the recent APEC summit and the ongoing complexities of cross-Strait relations, further complicated by Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan last year. While Xi Jinping may prioritize China's internal economic issues, the situation in Taiwan cannot be viewed in isolation. The election's outcome will undoubtedly have ripple effects, influencing Taiwan's future policies, its stance on independence, and its interactions with both China and the U.S.

As Taiwan gears up for its 2024 presidential election, scheduled for January 13, the island nation stands at a critical juncture. This election is characterized by the involvement of four main candidates, each representing different facets of Taiwan's political spectrum. Lai Ching-te, the DPP nominee and current Vice President, is a key figure and frontrunner. His main challengers include Hou Yu-ih from the KMT, Ko Wen-je of the TPP, and independent candidate Terry Gou, a business magnate. The election landscape was further complicated by the failed attempt of the KMT and TPP to form a joint ticket, a move that could have consolidated the opposition. This failure to unite has left the field more open, with a divided opposition potentially benefiting Lai and the DPP.

Polling data suggests Lai Ching-te is leading, with his position further strengthened by the splintered opposition. The emergence of Gou as an independent candidate has particularly fragmented the opposition's vote share. In this highly competitive electoral environment, the outcome will be pivotal, not just for Taiwan’s domestic policies but also for its international positioning. The key issues at play include energy policy, national defense, and economic development, all of which are intertwined with Taiwan's complex relationships with China and the United States.

The DPP's approach to the sensitive topic of Taiwanese independence within this election cycle is particularly noteworthy. Historically advocating for a strong Taiwanese identity and leaning towards independence, the party, under Lai's candidacy, has adopted a more cautious tone. Acknowledging the need for self-determination and national sovereignty, Lai’s campaign is focused on maintaining Taiwan’s democratic system and resisting threats to its sovereignty. However, the DPP is also acutely aware of the international implications of a pro-independence stance, especially in its relations with the U.S. and other global partners. Consequently, the party’s campaign has concentrated on domestic economic improvements, social welfare expansion, and defense strategies, aiming to rally its voter base while navigating the complex waters of cross-Strait and international relations.

In conclusion, the evolving dynamics of U.S.-China relations, epitomized by the recent interactions between Xi Jinping and Joe Biden at the APEC summit, can be contrasted with the historic Nixon-Mao meetings of the 1970s. While Nixon's groundbreaking visit to China marked the beginning of a strategic rapprochement between the two nations, the Xi-Biden engagement signals a cautious navigation of a more complex, multipolar world. Unlike the Nixon-Mao era, which laid the foundation for opening diplomatic relations in a largely bipolar world order, the current Xi-Biden era unfolds in a global landscape marked by deep economic interdependencies, technological rivalries, and a web of security concerns. This complexity is further amplified by internal challenges within both nations. In China, Xi faces economic headwinds and domestic pressures, while in the U.S., the approaching 2024 elections add an element of uncertainty. The outcome of these elections could potentially see the return of a more hawkish, confrontational approach towards China, reminiscent of the Trump administration. Such a shift in U.S. leadership could dramatically alter the current trajectory of U.S.-China relations, underscoring the fragility and fluidity of international diplomacy in the modern era. Thus, the future of U.S.-China relations remains delicately poised, influenced not only by the actions and decisions of current leaders but also by the political winds that will shape leadership in both Washington and Beijing in the near future.

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