Four years ago, Taiwan, like other smaller states that depend on US security assistance for their survival, was looking on with some degree of apprehension as American voters elected Donald Trump, an outlier from the Republican Party, as president. For many, Trump’s transactional and “America first” style was a source of anxiety, fueling fears that the author of “The Art of the Deal” would have no compunction about abandoning Taiwan if that meant securing a good trade deal with China.
While those fears never completely dissipated, the Trump administration nevertheless turned out to be more supportive of Taiwan than any other before it, Republican or Democratic. From regular arms sales to visits by senior US officials, bipartisan support in Congress to the inclusion of Taiwan in multilateral fora, the administration’s level of engagement won plaudits among the Taiwanese, many of whom were willing to ignore the less savory, populist elements of Trump’s personality and governing style.
The extent to which this policy shift was attributable to President Trump himself or to developing trends in the US approach to China and Taiwan is debatable. What is certain is that during the past four years, Taiwan has benefited from unprecedented and vocal support from the United States. It is therefore no surprise that, following a volatile election earlier this month, news that Trump’s challenger, Joe Biden, had defeated the idiosyncratic firebrand caused some alarm in some Taiwanese circles who seek continuity on US China policy, if not further deepening, in US-Taiwan ties. For many, Biden is seen as part of the “establishment,” a Democrat whose past service had been as part of administrations that had proven both reluctant to engage Taiwan and keen to facilitate—often by putting on their moral blinders—China’s integration into the global system (the “China engagement” crowd). Furthermore, allegations surrounding potentially problematic business deals between Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, and troubling Chinese entities like the China Energy Fund Committee (CEFC, 中國華信), raised alarm about the possibility of undue Chinese influence at the White House (while those may have been overstated, those links must nevertheless be addressed thoroughly).
Given the hardening public opinion toward China (an increasingly global phenomenon) and growing bipartisan agreement that the permissive, if not myopic, US China policy that characterized past administrations has largely failed, it is unlikely that when President Biden enters the Oval Office on January 20 next year, he will overturn the Trump administration’s policy. The composition of the Senate, where the Republicans have retained a higher number of seats and could still obtain a majority, will also serve as a check on appointments who may be seen as being “too soft” on China. China’s assertiveness and deepening authoritarianism under Xi Jinping (習近平), moreover, will make it difficult for a president who vows to recommit the US to the values of liberalism and democracy to ignore the threat that China poses to the international system. Consequently, there is a high likelihood that continuity, rather than a return to the status quo ante, will characterize the Biden administration’s policy toward Taiwan, even if the tone of the incoming administration’s approach to China becomes less confrontational.
Biden’s views on China have undoubtedly hardened. During the election campaign, he described Xi as “a thug,” a leader “who doesn’t have a democratic bone in his body” and who has “a million Uighurs in concentration camps.” Meanwhile, Biden went on the record congratulating President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) on her re-election in January 2020 via Twitter and called for greater engagement with the successful Asian democracy. On Taiwan, the real test for President Biden will be whether the promising rhetoric translates into actual policy by building upon—and in certain areas expanding—the engagement that has occurred under his predecessor.
In an article in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs titled “Why America Must Lead Again: Rescuing US Foreign Policy After Trump,” Biden wrote:
During my first year in office, the United States will organize and host a global Summit for Democracy to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world. It will bring together the world’s democracies to strengthen our democratic institutions, honestly confront nations that are backsliding, and forge a common agenda. Building on the successful model instituted during the Obama-Biden administration with the Nuclear Security Summit, the United States will prioritize results by galvanizing significant new country commitments in three areas: fighting corruption, defending against authoritarianism, and advancing human rights in their own nations and abroad.
No such initiative can afford to ignore Taiwan, and officials in Taipei and Washington must ensure that Taiwan is invited to participate in the Summit. The foundations of US-Taiwan democracy promotion and the fight against corruption and authoritarian influence have already been laid. In fact, under President Trump, the United States has collaborated with Taiwan—both at the official and unofficial level—on several initiatives aimed at strengthening democracy and good governance in the Indo Pacific, promoting media literacy, fighting corruption, and defending religious freedom, among others. Many of those fora, which also addressed issues such as disease control and law enforcement, occurred as part of the Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF), a joint project between Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the US Department of State/American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), the success of which encouraged other states (among them Japan and Sweden) to eventually participate. While GCTF was launched under the Obama administration, it only truly took off after Trump entered office and Tsai had assumed the presidency in Taiwan.
Echoing Biden, his pick for vice president, Kamala Harris, told the Council on Foreign Relations in August 2019 that:
China’s abysmal human rights record must feature prominently in our policy toward the country. We can’t ignore China’s mass detention of more than a million Uighur Muslims in “reeducation camps” in the Xinjiang region, or its widespread abuse of surveillance for political and religious repression. We can’t ignore Beijing’s failure to respect the rights and autonomy of Hong Kong’s people and the Hong Kong government’s excessive use of force against peaceful protestors […] Under my administration, we will cooperate with China on global issues like climate change, but we won’t allow human rights abuses to go unchecked. The United States must reclaim our own moral authority and work with like-minded nations to stand up forcefully for human rights in China and around the world.
It is also revealing that under a Trump administration which didn’t often speak the language of democracy and liberalism, various US non-governmental organizations—among them Freedom House, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), and the International Republican Institute (IRI)—substantially increased their engagement and collaboration with their Taiwan counterparts, chief among them the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy (TFD), a Taiwanese government-sponsored NGO. Furthermore, both IRI and NDI have revealed plans to open regional offices in Taiwan in the near future. The will to engage Taiwan is therefore alive and well, and the foundations for continued collaborative work are existent. We expect that President Biden, who unlike his predecessor speaks the language of democracy and liberalism, and who has vowed to rebuild the global democratic alliance, will choose to include Taiwan as part of that worthy effort. US leadership in this sphere, moreover, should encourage other nations to follow suit by deepening their own interactions with the Asian democracy.
Besides democracy promotion, it is also expected that the Biden administration will seek to repair its relationship with multilateral agencies, such as UN specialized bodies, which deteriorated under President Trump and, in some cases (such as the World Health Organization amid the COVID-19 pandemic), resulted in the US pulling out altogether. While resuming an influential role within those organizations and seeking repair where repair is needed—including a necessary reduction of the influence which authoritarian states like China have amassed within them—it is also hoped that the Biden administration will further collaborate with likeminded countries in efforts to ensure Taiwan’s meaningful participation, which has been curtailed due to Chinese interference.
On matters of security, there is a high likelihood that Biden’s National Security Council (NSC) and Department of Defense will be headed by individuals who, just a few years ago, would have been considered hawkish on China. Although the “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia first emerged as a concept under President Obama, it wasn’t until the Trump administration that US Navy patrols truly began to challenge an increasingly assertive People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in contested areas such as the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. Given the destabilizing effects of Chinese behavior in the region and a desire for a continued US leadership in the Indo Pacific, it will be very difficult for the incoming administration to draw down the US military presence and collaboration with regional allies and partners. As such, freedom of navigation patrols and passages in the SCS, East China Sea, and the Taiwan Strait will likely continue to serve as a deterrent against overly aggressive behavior by Beijing.
With the State Department and the Pentagon, the Biden administration must also continue to ensure that Taiwan is provided with the military capabilities it needs to deter and defend itself against PLA aggression. To this end, it is expected that the new administration will continue consultations with Taipei and retain the practice of de-bundling and normalizing arms sales to Taiwan—a legacy of the Trump era. The US military should continue to provide training assistance to Taiwan, and where possible, expand areas for joint or multilateral training. Intelligence sharing, both at the military and civilian level, should also be expanded commensurately with the growth in burden-sharing.
On the diplomatic side, it is unlikely that the Biden administration will seek to establish official diplomatic ties with Taiwan or to adopt an official “Two-China Policy” recognizing both the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China (Taiwan). Nor is this necessary for the time being. However, like his predecessor, President Biden should continue to expand US engagement with Taiwan within the scope of its “One-China Policy,” the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), and Six Assurances, calibrating such efforts in response to efforts by Beijing to isolate Taiwan and undermine its sovereignty. This policy approach would come short of “provoking” China by altering the status quo while conditioning Beijing into reducing its hostile behavior toward Taiwan. The Biden administration should also encourage other democracies to follow suit, under the logic that a more united front would make it more difficult for Beijing to punish countries that decide to engage Taiwan.
On the trade side, the Taiwanese side hopes that Washington will resolve the logjam at the United States Trade Representative (USTR) and move forward on a bilateral trade agreement with Taiwan, especially after the Tsai administration, at a considerable domestic cost, lifted a longstanding ban on US meat products containing the steroid ractopamine. Besides economics, trade agreements between the US and smaller countries have important political ramifications which, in Taiwan’s case, would contribute to its resilience amid Chinese efforts to undermine its sovereignty. The Biden administration may also seek to re-engage with Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) member states, a trade bloc—then known as the TPP—which his predecessor pulled out of three days after being sworn in. Such efforts should be accompanied by signals of support for Taiwan’s inclusion in the trade bloc.
Taiwan is beyond question the most successful demonstration of US-style democracy in Asia. The values espoused by the people in both countries are indispensable tools to reverse increasingly worrisome trends in democracy worldwide. With Democrats in Washington and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in Taiwan, the stars are aligned for a bright, bilateral future.
The main point: Despite initial uncertainty surrounding a Biden administration’s potential approach to Taiwan, a new emphasis on democracy promotion in Washington could result in unprecedented opportunities for engagement with the democratic island nation.