As U.S. Tries to Sway China Against Russia, Beijing Sees Taiwan as Priority

As President Joe Biden's administration put Russia's war in Ukraine front and center after talks between White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Chinese Central Foreign Affairs Commission Director Yang Jiechi, Beijing regarded Taiwan as a priority in China's own account of the high-level discussions.

In an initial readout of the talks shared Monday with Newsweek by China's embassy in Washington, Taiwan is featured more prominently than any other issue, and is described as a key factor in the bilateral relationship between the two leading powers.

"Yang Jiechi stressed that the Taiwan issue concerns China's sovereignty and territorial integrity," the Chinese readout said. "In the three Sino-U.S. joint communiques, the U.S. side clearly recognized that there is only one China, and the one-China principle is the premise of establishing diplomatic relations between China and the United States, and it is also the political foundation of Sino-U.S. relations."

And while the readout noted that the Biden administration has pledged to adhere to these formative understandings that constitute the basis of Washington's ties with Beijing forged more than half a century ago, China has accused the U.S. of not living up to its word.

"On the Taiwan issue, the current U.S. administration has made a commitment to adhere to the one-China policy and not support 'Taiwan independence,' but its actions are obviously inconsistent with its statements," the readout stated. "China expresses serious concern and firm opposition to the recent series of wrong words and deeds by the U.S. on Taiwan-related issues."

While Washington has for decades maintained informal ties with Taipei based on the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, these contacts have expanded in recent years, especially under the administration of former President Donald Trump, and have continued to broaden under Biden.

"Any attempt to condone and support the 'Taiwan independence' separatist forces and to play the 'Taiwan card' to 'use Taiwan to contain China' will never succeed," the readout said. "The Chinese side requires the U.S. side to recognize the high sensitivity of the Taiwan issue, abide by the one-China principle, the provisions of the three Sino-US joint communiques and the commitments made by the US side, and not to go further and further down the very dangerous road."

The White House released only a brief readout of what was later described to reporters by a senior administration official as "an intense seven-hour discussion" that had been planned since December, following Biden's virtual summit with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.

"Mr. Sullivan raised a range of issues in U.S.-China relations, with substantial discussion of Russia's war against Ukraine," the White House said. "They also underscored the importance of maintaining open lines of communication between the United States and China."

The senior administration official made a brief reference to Taiwan during Monday's call, saying Sullivan "reiterated our One China policy based on the Taiwan Relations Act, Three Communiqués, and Six Assurances. And he underscored concerns about Beijing's courses and provocative actions across the Taiwan Strait."

Much of the call focused on China's position on the conflict in Ukraine, along with recent media reports citing U.S. officials alleging that Moscow had asked Beijing for economic and military assistance as the war dragged into its third week.

The senior administration official declined to discuss press reports, saying only that U.S. officials "are communicating directly and privately with China about our concerns, about the kinds of support that other countries might be providing to Russia."

But the senior administration official also expressed broader concerns about the growing relationship between Beijing and Moscow, warning specific unnamed actions on the part of China vis-à-vis Russia would have implications.

"We do have deep concerns about China's alignment with Russia at this time, and the national security adviser was direct about those concerns and the potential implications and consequences of certain actions," the senior administration official said.

The Chinese readout only made very brief mention of the situation in Ukraine, roping it in with other issues on the agenda, including Taliban-led Afghanistan, nuclear-armed North Korea, officially known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), and the nearly yearlong negotiations aimed at securing U.S. and Iranian compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

"The two sides also exchanged views on international and regional issues such as Ukraine, the DPRK nuclear issue, the Iranian nuclear issue, and Afghanistan," the Chinese readout said.

A follow-up readout issued by the Chinese Foreign Ministry went into more detail on Ukraine.

China, Yang, US, Sullivan, talks, Rome
Chinese Central Foreign Affairs Commission Director Yang Jiechi (L) and White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan (R) meet alongside their respective delegations for talks in Rome, Italy, on Monday. Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs

The second readout, issued hours later, Yang Jiechi "pointed out that China does not want to see the situation in Ukraine to become what it is today."

"The Chinese side always maintains that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries must be respected and the purposes and principles of the UN Charter must be observed," this second readout said. "China is committed to facilitating dialogue for peace, and believes that the international community should jointly support the peace talks between Russia and Ukraine for early substantive outcomes, so as to deescalate the situation as soon as possible."

"All parties should exercise maximum restraint, protect civilians and prevent a massive humanitarian crisis," it added. "China has provided emergency humanitarian assistance to Ukraine and will continue to make its efforts to that end."

The second readout went on to cite Yang as saying "that it is important to straighten out the history of the Ukraine issue, address the problem at the root, and respond to the legitimate concerns of all parties."

"He also stressed the need to take a long-term perspective, actively follow the vision of common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security, and encourage the parties concerned to engage in equal-footed dialogue and seek to put in place a balanced, effective and sustainable European security architecture in line with the principle of indivisibility of security, so as to safeguard peace in Europe and the world at large," the readout continued."

And, finally, he "stressed that China firmly opposes any words and deeds that spread disinformation and distort and smear China's position."

The senior Biden administration official also mentioned discussion of North Korea, telling reporters that "the two sides discussed DPRK because that is also an escalating situation that demands our attention." The ssions came as U.S. officials alleged that North Korea's recent satellite launches used platforms capable of launching intercontinental ballistic missiles.

"We agreed that officials with responsibility for this issue from the two sides will deepen their conversations in the near future," the senior administration official said.

Asked about further details regarding the discussions surrounding North Korea, the official said that "we have serious concerns about the recent escalatory actions that we have seen from the DPRK."

"The National Security Advisor was clear with Director Yang not only about those concerns, but also about the steps that we believe are necessary in this moment and the work that we hope to be able to engage with China on," the senior administration official said. "We do think there is a history of the United States and China being able to work together on this issue, in addition to, obviously, the United States continuing our close work with our allies in Seoul and Tokyo."

And both the Chinese readout and the senior Biden administration official did, however, discuss the state of relations between Washington and Beijing and efforts to maintain ties at some length.

The official said that the two men "covered the whole range of issues in the U.S.-China relationship," including "crisis management and ways to manage strategic risk, following up on the discussion in November between President Biden and President Xi on the importance of doing so, toward the goal of managing the competition between our two countries to ensure that it does not veer into conflict."

The Chinese side also emphasized the necessity of steering clear of a clash between the two top powers.

"Under the current international situation, China and the United States should strengthen dialogue and cooperation, properly manage differences, and avoid conflict and confrontation," the Chinese readout said, "which is in the interests of the people of China and the United States, the expectations of the international community and the interests of the people of the world."

Chinese readout also touched upon other sensitive issues with Yang cited as having "expounded on China's solemn position on issues related to Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong, pointing out that these issues concern China's core interests and are China's internal affairs that allow no foreign interference."

"Any attempt to use these issues to suppress China will fail," the Chinese readout said.

But here too, Yang was said to have emphasized opportunities for Washington and Beijing to work together.

"Yang noted that seeking common ground while shelving differences and building a bridge of cooperation on top of proper settlement of differences is the right way for China and the United States to get along with each other, which has been tested by practice since the Shanghai Communique was issued 50 years ago," the Chinese readout said.

"The two sides should learn from history, grasp the premise of mutual respect, hold the bottom line of peaceful coexistence and seize the key of win-win cooperation," it added.

So far, however, little progress is evident on bringing ties between the nations back on track, as the U.S. and some of its partners, including ally Australia, sought to double down on support for Taiwan.

After Chinese officials were quoted over the weekend as warning any country supporting Taiwan militarily would face "the worst consequences," U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland suggested Sunday on Fox News that Washington would try to seek to rally the international community against Beijing as it has done Moscow in the event of a military confrontation over Taiwan.

"I hope that China is looking very carefully at what's happening," Nuland said. "We have a united world with very grave and very consequential sanctions on Russia. We understand and support a 'one China' policy, but we don't believe that China, PRC, ought to take Taiwan by force, and we will do everything we can to deter that effort by the PRC."

She said she believed that China was "watching very closely" and likely issued the remark "because they've seen what's happened and they're trying to go on the offense, knowing that they ought to be on the defense."

Taiwan, reservists, train, Taoyuan, March, 2022
Taiwans reservists take part in a military training at a military base in Taoyuan on March 12. As top U.S. and Chinese officials prepared to sit down in wide-ranging talks in the Italian capital of Rome, the Taiwan Defense Ministry reported that 13 warplanes of the People's Liberation Army entered the islands self-declared Air Defense Identification Zone. SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian also issued strong words earlier Monday in response to reports in Taiwan that a $250 million U.S. deal to provide the Field Information Communications System to the island had been finalized.

Such an arms sales, Zhao argued, "severely violates the one-China principle and the three China-US joint communiqués, especially the August 17 Communiqué, interferes in China's internal affairs, and harms China-US relations as well as peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait."

"The U.S. should earnestly abide by the one-China principle and the three China-US joint communiqués and stop arms sales to and military ties with Taiwan," he added.

Zhao also hit out at Congress' passing of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2022, which effectively bans U.S. government entities from using maps that show Taiwan as part of Chinese territory.

"There is only one China in the world. Taiwan is an inalienable part of the Chinese territory. This is a historical and legal fact and an international consensus. Any accurate map should be based on these facts," Zhao said. "The U.S.' move grossly interferes in China's internal affairs, pursues political manipulation with the map of the Taiwan region, and attempts to create the false impression of 'two Chinas' and 'one China, one Taiwan.' China deplores this and firmly opposes this."

He issued a stark warning as well.

"A stern warning to the U.S. side: playing the 'Taiwan card' is like playing with fire," Zhao said. "It will not only push Taiwan to a precarious situation, but also bring unbearable consequences for the U.S."

"The U.S. should stop hollowing out the one-China principle and stop condoning or abetting 'Taiwan independence' moves," he added. "It should return to the original and true meaning of the one-China principle, honor its political commitments to the Chinese side, earnestly safeguard peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, and safeguard the overall China-U.S. relations."

And on Russia and Ukraine, Zhao reacted also reacted harshly to the media reports suggesting Beijing had asked Moscow for help in the conflict.

"Recently, the U.S. has been maliciously spreading disinformation targeting China. China's position on the Ukraine issue is consistent and clear," Zhao asserted. "We have been playing a constructive part in promoting peace talks. The top priority at the moment is for all parties to exercise restraint, cool the situation down instead of adding fuel to the fire, and work for diplomatic settlement rather than further escalate the situation."

While Beijing has backed Moscow's concerns over NATO's eastward expansion and U.S. military activities in Eastern Europe, China has remained officially neutral in the conflict and has emphasized the need for a diplomatic resolution. This position was voiced by Xi himself during a phone call with Putin, after which the Russian leader announced his openness for direct Russian-Ukrainian talks.

Four rounds of negotiations have since been held in the Belarusian city of Gomel and both sides have indicated progress substantial progress over the past week, though violence continues to escalate as Russian troops face fierce resistance in their attempt to encircle major Ukrainian cities, including the capital Kyiv.

This article has been updated to include a second readout shared by the Chinese Foreign Ministry.