Senior diplomats from the United States and China began a meeting on Friday with tensions high after a visit to Taiwan by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and an explicit pledge by U.S. President Joe Biden to defend the Chinese-claimed island.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi shook hands in New York on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly, but did not respond to shouted questions from the media as they sat down for talks.
The State Department had said earlier the meeting was part of Washington’s ongoing efforts to “maintain open lines of communication and manage competition responsibly.”
It comes days after Biden said U.S forces would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion, drawing an angry response from China that said it sent the wrong signal to those seeking an independent Taiwan.
Biden’s statement is the latest instance of his appearing to go beyond a long-standing U.S. policy of “strategic ambiguity” which does not make it clear whether Washington would respond militarily to an attack on Taiwan.
His comments were also the most explicit to date about committing U.S. troops to the defend the island, although the White House insisted its Taiwan policy had not changed.
In a phone call with Biden in July, China’s leader Xi Jinping warned about Taiwan, saying “those who play with fire will perish by it.”
After Pelosi’s solidarity visit to Taipei early last month, China deployed scores of planes and fired live missiles near the island.
In a speech to the Asia Society think tank in New York on Thursday, Wang said the Taiwan question was growing into the biggest risk in China-U.S. relations.
“Should it be mishandled, it is most likely to devastate our bilateral ties,” Wang said, according to a transcript from China’s Embassy in Washington.
Likewise, the decades old U.S. law outlining Washington’s unofficial relations with Taiwan – which Beijing considers null – makes clear that Washington’s decision to establish diplomatic relations with China in 1979 “rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means.”
China sees democratically governed Taiwan as one of its provinces. Beijing has long-vowed to bring Taiwan under its control and has not ruled out the use of force to do so.
Taiwan’s government strongly objects to China’s sovereignty claims and says only the island’s 23 million people can decide its future.
Earlier in the week, Wang met with former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the architect of U.S. relations with communist China, and said a “peaceful reunification” with Taiwan was China’s aspiration.
However, he said the possibility of a peaceful resolution was diminished by ever more “rampant” Taiwanese independence sentiment and he invoked a Chinese proverb: “It is better to lose a thousand soldiers than an inch of territory.”