Biden Administration Signals Continuity Rather than Change in Initial Approach to Taiwan Policy
The Biden administration formally took office on January 20, 2021 following a tumultuous transition from the 45th to the 46th president of the United States. While there are many areas in which the new administration clearly disagrees on policy with the former administration, one area where there appears to be less disagreement is Taiwan. To be sure, questions remain about the new administration’s fundamental policy approach with regard to Taiwan—this will only become clear with time—but the early signs appear to signal more continuity than change in its approach to Taiwan policy. Perhaps the most significant indicator thus far came from Antony Blinken’s confirmation hearing for Secretary of State. In response to a pointed question from Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) about Taiwan (“How does Taiwan and our commitments to Taiwan figure in your thinking with regards to our interests in the region?”), Blinken stated:
There’s been a strong and long bipartisan commitment to Taiwan. The Taiwan Relations Act, also the communiqués with China, and part of that commitment is making sure that Taiwan has the ability to defend itself against aggression, and that is a commitment that will absolutely endure in a Biden administration. We will make sure Taiwan has the ability to do that.
I’d also like to see Taiwan playing a greater role around the world including in international organizations when those organizations don’t require the status of the country to be a member, they should become members, and when it does, there are other ways that they can participate.
And I think our own engagement with Taiwan should be looked at and indeed that’s being done. As you know, some regulations were promulgated by the outgoing Secretary of State, we’re going to take a hard look at those pursuant to the Taiwan Assurance Act and we will look at that. I had the opportunity, Senator, when President Tsai was running for office to actually receive her as a candidate at the State Department when I was last there. I spoke to her a number of times when she became president and I was Deputy Secretary of State. But the commitment to Taiwan is something that we hold to very strongly.
The clear statement of commitment to the provisions of the Taiwan Relations Act  and support for Taiwan’s international space from the nominee for America’s top diplomatic position will likely be seen as a reassuring signal for Taiwan supporters who are looking for policy continuity in a highly polarized political environment. At the very least, they suggest that the Biden administration will perhaps pursue a more traditional approach to Taiwan policy. Despite the reassuring notes, notably absent from Blinken’s comments was any mention of the Six Assurances, which was a prominent feature in the Trump administration’s rhetorical framework for Taiwan policy. Indeed, the Trump administration had declassified the assurances along with several internal memos and cables that provided context to their substantive intent. Both Rex Tillerson and Mike Pompeo, the first and second Secretaries of State under Trump, mentioned the Six Assurances during their confirmation hearings.
Even still, concerns that the Biden administration would buck the trend in the Trump administration’s steady upgrade of relations with Taiwan were put at ease when Taiwan’s representative to the United States, Ambassador Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴), revealed that she attended Biden’s inauguration ceremony after receiving a formal invitation. Noting the significance of the event, Senator James Risch (R-ID) tweeted:
I was gratified to see #Taiwan represented at the inauguration for the first time since 1979 today. I commend the new admin. for this invitation, & encourage them to build upon the progress made on US-Taiwan relations to reflect the challenges & geopolitical realities we face.
Indeed, this marks the first time since 1979 that Taiwan’s representative to the United States was formally invited by the presidential inaugural committee as a foreign diplomatic guest and attended the inauguration. The invitation for Taiwan’s representative to attend the inauguration follows Secretary Pompeo’s 11th-hour decision to lift self-imposed restrictions on contact guidelines with Taiwan in the last few days of the Trump administration. While there is unlikely to be a blanket endorsement of Pompeo’s revocation of the self-limitations, the Biden administration will inevitably draft new guidelines of its own. In light of recent events, it is more likely that any new contact guidelines will be prescribed and proscribed carefully and selectively by the new administration.
Beijing was of course far from a passive player in the presidential transition process. Any hopes that one would have for a quiet—if only temporary—lull in tension in the Taiwan Strait as Washington and Beijing attempt to recalibrate relations were quickly dashed as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) deployed an unprecedented number of fighter aircraft in patrols around Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ). In turn, this forced a quick and strong response from the Biden administration, with the Department of State issuing this January 23 statement:
The United States notes with concern the pattern of ongoing PRC attempts to intimidate its neighbors, including Taiwan. We urge Beijing to cease its military, diplomatic, and economic pressure against Taiwan and instead engage in meaningful dialogue with Taiwan’s democratically elected representatives.
The United States maintains its longstanding commitments as outlined in the Three Communiqués, the Taiwan Relations Act, and the Six Assurances. We will continue to assist Taiwan in maintaining a sufficient self-defense capability. Our commitment to Taiwan is rock-solid and contributes to the maintenance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and within the region.
Experts seem to generally agree that while a change of pace is likely, a radical change in policy is unlikely to occur under the Biden administration. However, experts hold different views about the tactical effects of its approach to Taiwan policy. According to Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), speaking at a webinar on Taiwan policy hosted by the Foreign Policy Research Institute: “The Biden administration will adopt a policy of doing no harm to Taiwan. The Trump administration has on occasion used Taiwan as a cudgel against Taiwan.” Speaking at the same event where Glaser was quoted, Rupert Hammond-Chambers, president of the US-Taiwan Business Council, sounded a more cautionary note. Hammond-Chambers pointed out that: “If the Chinese feel that there is leverage there [climate change cooperation] … they will almost certainly make strong demands and concessions in other areas, Taiwan to me in on the top of the list.” He also called on the Biden administration to continue the practice of regularizing arms sales to Taiwan.
To be fair, the line between “doing no harm” and doing very little is arguably very thin. The execution of Taiwan policy has long been largely reactive by design, given that it focuses on the process of resolution rather than any set outcome. As a result, it has been Beijing that often gets to define what constitutes “harmful” in terms of what the United States should or should not do with Taiwan by linking it to other issues and dialing up its rhetoric against any actions that it perceives as running counter to its “One-China Principle.” While the signs out of the gate are positive, the Biden administration must be cautious that if it adopts a so-called “do no harm” approach, Washington must be clear in defining what is “harmful” in close consultation with partners in Taiwan, and, most importantly, not to take a reflexive approach that anything which irks Beijing should be avoided.
The main point: The early signs of the Biden administration’s approach to Taiwan policy appear to signal more continuity than change.
(The author would like to thank Isabel Eliassen for her research assistance.)
 For a discussion about the legislative intent behind the Taiwan Relations Act, see GTI’s event “A Conversation with Former Congressman Lester Wolff” on January 6, 2021. Mr. Wolff was one of the original architects of the Taiwan Relations Act.
CCP’s 2021 Taiwan Work Conference Highlights Expansion of Soft-Hard Approach
As regularly scheduled in the beginning of a new year, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) 2021 Taiwan Work Conference (2021 對台工作會議) was held in Beijing on January 17-18. Hosted only once a year, the Taiwan Work Conference is the clearest indicator of the Party’s official policy towards Taiwan and lays out its guidance for the Taiwan-related system in the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC).   Wang Yang (汪洋), the 4th highest-ranking cadre of the CCP and deputy head of the policy-setting CCP Central Committee’s Taiwan Leading Small Group (中央對台領導小組)—chaired by General Secretary Xi Jinping (習近平)—delivered opening remarks at the meeting.
Wang concurrently serves as chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and is the party’s leading authority of the CCP’s United Front system in his role as the director of the United Front Leading Small Group (中央統戰工作領導小組). While Wang’s remarks at the conference did not point to any specific new policy measures, the Party appears to have at least acknowledged the need for it to reassess the effectiveness of its longstanding “soft-hard” approach of enticement and intimidation. Indeed, while the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) continues its coercive campaign with ramped-up military exercises around Taiwan, the CCP appears to be doubling down on adding economic sweeteners to woo Taiwanese businesses and people. In particular, the Wang noted “four requirements” (四要) for the Party’s approach to Taiwan policy in 2021:
- We must accurately recognize changes, scientifically respond to them, increase risk awareness, establish a bottom-line, carry forward the spirit of struggle, and transform our growing comprehensive strength and significant system advantages into effectiveness in Taiwan work.
- We must resolutely curb the separatist forces of “Taiwan independence” from relying on foreign forces to raise itself (挾洋自重) and provoke independence, fully demonstrating our determination and will to safeguard national sovereignty, security, and development interests, and never allow anyone or any force to split Taiwan from the embrace of the “motherland” [sic] in any way.
- We must support Taiwanese businessmen and enterprises to seize the opportunity in building a new development structure for the country, for them to actively participate in the implementation of the “14th Five-Year Plan”, the national and regional coordinated development strategy, and support Fujian province to explore new paths for cross-strait integration and development.
- We must break the restrictions and obstructions of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) authorities on cross-Strait exchanges and cooperation, and continue to improve the institutional arrangements and policy measures that guarantee the well-being of Taiwan compatriots and achieve equal treatment so that Taiwan compatriots have more sense of benefits.
Highlighting 2020 as an extremely unusual year for the Party’s Taiwan work, Wang noted how the world has been undergoing major changes unseen in a century due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. The senior CCP cadre also underscored how the situation across the Taiwan Strait remains severe and complex, yet there are new opportunities and challenges facing Taiwan work. Specifically, Wang stated that: “We must adhere to the ‘One-China Principle’ (一個中國原則) and the ‘1992 Consensus’ (九二共識), resolutely curb separatist activities and external interference in Taiwan independence, actively promote the peaceful development and integration of cross-Strait relations, and advance the reunification [sic] process.”
Media reports noted that Wang did not mention either “peaceful reunification” (和平同一) or “one country, two systems” (一國兩制). During periods of heightened tensions in the past, Beijing has omitted reference to “peaceful” ostensibly as a signal to Taipei and Washington. In what appeared to have been a response to President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) second inaugural address and improvements in US-Taiwan relations, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s (李克强) work report delivered at the beginning of the 2020 session of the National People’s Congress (NPC) notably omitted the word “peaceful” in Beijing’s approach to Taiwan. The use of the term “peaceful reunification” had been a mainstay of Chinese rhetoric on Taiwan policy since 1979, and its omission was interpreted as a potential sign of change in PRC policy towards Taiwan. “Peaceful reunification” was later referenced separately in the premier’s response to the media.
In reading the tea leaves, such official statements could be a signal to Taipei from Beijing that without the so-called “one country, two systems” model, it will not commit to a so-called “peaceful” approach in its Taiwan policy. It is also perhaps a signal to the United States as the new Biden administration takes office and Beijing’s deliberate omission of “peaceful”—now in two major speeches—could be a warning to the new administration to not take further steps to that Beijing sees as normalizing relations with Taiwan.
As an area of apparent emphasis in the CCP’s policy toolkit towards Taiwan for 2021, Wang highlighted efforts to encourage Taiwanese businessmen and enterprises to participate in China’s “14th Five-Year Plan”(十四五年計劃)—the PRC’s national development plan that spans 2021–2025. In practice, this could mean a significant expansion of the November 2019 announcement of a raft of 26 measures (26條措施) to entice businesses and persons from Taiwan with preferential economic measures, which themselves followed a tranche of 31 similar measures announced in February 2018. It is reasonable to expect that further preferential measures will be announced over the next few years that will aim to implement this directive. These attempts by Beijing to bifurcate Taiwan’s businesses appear to be in response to the Tsai administration, which has been trying to redirect Taiwan’s capital and businesses southward through Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy, leading some to leave the Chinese market because of the ongoing US-China trade war.
The main point: At the annual Taiwan Work Conference, which is an indicator of the Party’s official policy on Taiwan, Wang Yang’s remarks omitted terms “peaceful unification” and “one country, two systems,” and highlighted the so-called “four requirements,” which signaled tougher actions against “Taiwan independence” and called for additional economic incentives for Taiwanese businessmen and enterprises.
 The last three years Taiwan Work Conference were covered in the Global Taiwan Brief: 2020: https://globaltaiwan.org/2020/01/vol-5-issue-2/, 2019: https://globaltaiwan.org/2019/01/vol-4-issue-2/; 2018: https://globaltaiwan.org/2018/02/21-gtb-3-4/.
 The meeting was chaired by Yang Jiechi (楊潔篪), director of the Foreign Affairs Office of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. Liu Jieyi (劉結一), director of the Taiwan Affairs Office of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, gave a work report.