All the major US media networks now forecast that former Vice President Joseph Biden—the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party—has won the 2020 presidential election and will become the 46th president of the United States. In a full-blown dash out of the gate in preparation for assuming the highest political office, President-elect Biden has already taken the step of forming his agency review teams, including for defense and foreign policy. As the president-elect and his transition team take a fine-tooth comb to review the agencies—as well as policies of the current administration—one area they will certainly look at is Taiwan policy. In part because of the high-profile and openly confrontational tack taken by the Trump administration in its approach to China policy, Taiwan has been in the headlines almost constantly over recent years. In turn, this has created a misperception that adjustments in US policy towards Taiwan were driven primarily by policy towards China. It is of course the prerogative of any incoming administration to review the policy and practices of its predecessor. In this special issue of the Global Taiwan Brief, we asked several of our research fellows and advisors to weigh in on what they think will be—and what they think should be—the priorities for the incoming Biden administration.
But before diving into the expert assessments of what we might have to look forward to over the next four years under the Biden-Harris White House, it is worthwhile to take a look at how we got to where we are today.
Despite expectations—and perhaps overstated concerns—of a fundamental change in US Taiwan policy, four years of the Trump administration did not alter the legal framework and policies that form the basis of US policy towards Taiwan—which remains firmly rooted in the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) and the Six Assurances. The US “One-China Policy” remains intact—although it has arguably been stretched. Indeed, its elasticity has always been a durable feature of the US-Taiwan-China relationship and a function of Beijing’s actions.
As President Ronald Reagan made clear in a 1982 memo that has been recently declassified, the US commitment to Taiwan’s self-defense is “conditioned absolutely upon the continued commitment of China to the peaceful solution of the Taiwan-PRC differences.” As China’s actions have grown increasingly aggressive vis-à-vis Taiwan and the world, especially in recent years, the United States has had to take a hard look at updating its policies and practices to better reflect objective reality. Justifying the adjustment in the administration’s approach to Taiwan policy over the past four years, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs David Stillwell noted in a major Taiwan policy speech in late August 2020:
What we are doing […] is making some important updates to our engagement with Taiwan to better reflect these policies and respond to changing circumstances. The adjustments are significant, but still well within the boundaries of our “One-China Policy.” […] We feel compelled to make these adjustments for two reasons. First, because of the increasing threat posed by Beijing to peace and stability in the region, which is a vital interest of the United States. […] The second reason we have been focusing on our engagement with Taiwan is simply to reflect the growing and deepening ties of friendship, trade, and productivity between the United States and Taiwan.
Also instructive of just how views of Taiwan are changing in the United States, it is noteworthy that the de facto US ambassador to Taiwan and long-time diplomat, AIT Director Brent Christensen, pointed out at GTI’s 2020 annual symposium: “I believe the US-Taiwan partnership underwent a subtle but powerful shift this year. This is the first time in my memory that influential voices […] began to discuss the US-Taiwan partnership more on its own merits than solely in the US-China context.” So what are some of the visible manifestations of these adjustments in the Trump administration’s upgraded engagement with Taiwan and the content of US Taiwan policy in general?
- A phone call between the President-elect Trump and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文).
- Regularizing the arms sales process to Taiwan.
- Routinizing and publicizing naval transits through the Taiwan Strait.
- Resuming cabinet-level visits and interactions by senior officials such as the US national security adviser and the secretary-general of Taiwan’s National Security Council.
- President Trump’s signing of two landmark Taiwan-related bills.
- Permitting the president of Taiwan high-profile visit-like transits through the United States.
- Declassification of internal policy documents that guide US policy towards Taiwan, such as President Reagan’s memos on the Six Assurances and arms sales to Taiwan.
- High-level public support for expanding Taiwan’s international space, as demonstrated by the campaign to include the island in the WHO.
- Elevating the Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF) to include new official partners and hosting the forum in different regions of the world.
- Launching the New Economic Prosperity Dialogue.
These actions all objectively reflect the upward trajectory in US-Taiwan relations during the Trump administration. While agency certainly matters for how policy is conducted, there are structural components of the US-Taiwan relationships that have a bearing on how policy will be conducted. This is especially true in the case of Taiwan policy given the centrality of the TRA—a domestic law that establishes the legal framework for the unofficial relations with Taiwan. That US-Taiwan relations have withstood and even thrived under precarious conditions since the change in diplomatic recognition—despite expectations of the contrary—is a strong testament to the robust, flexible legal and policy framework provided by the TRA and the Six Assurances. These measures mandate reciprocal American and Taiwanese obligations and commitments that have helped to preserve peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait for the past 40 years.
While any potential political transition injects a degree of uncertainty into policy, it is important to remember that the pro-Taiwan legislation signed into law over the past four years—including the Taiwan Travel Act, TAIPEI Act, Asia Reassurance Initiative Act, and the various National Defense Authorization Acts—was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in the US Congress, some even with unanimous consent. These accomplishments are remarkable political feats for a deeply divided Congress and should provide reassurance that Taiwan policy continues to enjoy robust bipartisan support in the United States. Moreover, that the president signed these bills into law—giving them the full political force of the US government—is a rare and powerful demonstration of unity in US policy.
Perhaps more importantly, these pieces of legislation help to broaden and deepen the foundation of US-Taiwan relations by reinforcing key commitments in the Taiwan Relations Act and Six Assurances and even expanding them in certain ways. More specifically, they extend the policy role and oversight function exerted by Congress as a co-equal branch of government, ensuring that American interests and values as defined by the TRA and these complementary laws are faithfully implemented by the executive branch, regardless of who may occupy the White House.
It is no exaggeration to say that the US-Taiwan relationship is stronger now than it has ever been since 1979. While agency is a factor in this improvement, it is also—and perhaps even more—a function of wider and increasing recognition of Taiwan’s geostrategic importance and shared democratic values, growing trust between Washington and Taipei, and a significant shift in the US’ China policy. These bonds will only grow stronger with care and good management by both Washington and Taipei.
It is the prerogative of any incoming administration to review the policy and practices of its predecessor—this is a necessary and constructive process to ensure that any policy is continuously updated to reflect current realities. However, a shift back to conducting policy with a creeping deference to how Beijing sees “One China” would be dangerous. Despite the many difficulties that marred the Trump administration’s broader policies, Taiwan policy has been one of its clear bright spots. As such, it behooves the incoming administration to continue to expand on these policies, working to demonstrate that the US approach to Taipei and Beijing is bipartisan and enduring, and that the US commitment to Taiwan’s democracy does not change with elections.
An old idiom applies: Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
The main point: As the incoming Biden administration reviews the policies and practices of the departing administration, one area it will certainly look at is Taiwan policy. It behooves the incoming administration to demonstrate that the US approach to Taipei and Beijing is bipartisan and enduring by continuing the positive elements of the Trump administration’s Taiwan policy.