Preliminary Reflections on Taiwan Policy Trends in the Biden Era

Preliminary Reflections on Taiwan Policy Trends in the Biden Era

Preliminary Reflections on Taiwan Policy Trends in the Biden Era

Any new American administration is zealously watched for signs of leadership and policy changes. Our most recent and contentious change—with wide differences between outgoing and incoming presidents—has drawn even greater scrutiny at home and abroad. In Asia, Taiwan and our treaty allies are especially sensitive to signs of policy change. Appointments, nominations, testimonies, and comments—both public and private—are mined for hidden meaning and dissected in detail. The end of the Trump presidency freed up much of the news cycle from constant Twitter drama, allowing news agencies to cover more substantive issues, including prospects for both foreign and domestic policy. In this regard, there is much to cover. What is in store for Taiwan? Everyone has his or her favorite indicators. My favorites are who is staffing what billets in our departments and agencies, and what changes are happening in security and defense, including some developing long before the 2020 election.

China is now the declared main driver of our defense policies, strategies, and capability development. This is not our first such shift. We have long been fascinated with our changing visions of China. Our traders, businessmen, and missionaries were attracted from the earliest days of our nation. The Empress of China sailed for China from New York Harbor in 1784 to open trade. Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth, published in 1931, provided a view of the Chinese people under the last emperor. The fall of our World War II ally to Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) communists in 1949 was a shock that reverberated through our own government for years as we looked to assign blame. Conversely, Deng Xiaoping’s (鄧小平) charisma and market reforms gave us optimism. We believed that as China became more successful, it would become more liberal. We also believed that the end of the Cold War established liberal democracy as the world’s inevitable governing system. With that settled and democracy ascendant, there was nobody left to fight. 

It did not quite work out that way. Xi Jinping (習近平) became the “core leader” in 2016, moving sharply away from collective leadership. As part of his “great rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation, we have seen China pursue extensive extra-territorial claims to the entirety of the South China Sea. China militarized—despite promises to the contrary—artificial features in the Spratly Islands made from coral and rock dredged from the sea. Minorities in Xinjiang Province and Tibet are under increasing pressure amid a campaign described as a “cultural genocide.” We have seen increasing pressure on the territorial waters and air space of Japan and Taiwan, theft of intellectual property and technology, the trashing of treaty obligations on Hong Kong’s autonomy, and a massive expansion of China’s military and paramilitary forces, as well as their use in coercion and intimidation supporting massive political warfare campaigns. These and other actions have served to convince us that our vital interests are at risk. 

Action necessarily follows this conclusion. A more structured approach looks likely from the new US administration. One small sign with a loud voice was the formal invitation to Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴), Taiwan’s representative to the US, to attend the inauguration. Another is the State Department’s warning about Chinese overflights of Taiwan and simulated attacks on a US aircraft carrier. The confirmation hearings for the inbound Secretaries of State and Defense brought forth strong statements indicating that the “soft on China” era is over. Secretary Blinken’s hearing in particular brought forth a welcome affirmation of our deep and abiding commitment to universal human rights.  

Many important officials do not require Senate confirmation. In particular, the National Security Council staff is shifting the center of gravity of its staffers from the Middle East to Asia and the Pacific with Kurt Campbell as the Asia coordinator under National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. We may assume that we know their policy direction, as they made it public in their article “Competition Without Catastrophe,” published in the September/October edition of Foreign Affairs.

The last administration’s National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy announced our new vision. Government documents rarely become best sellers, but defense committees in Congress acted. Thanks to our friends at the American Enterprise Institute, we know that the FY 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) includes no less than 43 Asia-related provisions in its 4,517 pages. 

One of the most significant provisions in the NDAA is the creation of the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, or PDI. This long-sought initiative mirrors the European Deterrence Initiative that began life as the European Reassurance Initiative in 2014. This Pacific version comes with USD $2.2 billion in funding and establishes clear visibility for Congress to account for funds against programs and priorities. Its published Fact Sheet states that its intent is to “identify the specific resources required to enhance US deterrence of China in the Indo-Pacific region.” 

The key words here are “enhance US deterrence.” Credible deterrence requires an undoubted capability to prevail. The PDI and conventional deterrence are not the end of strategy and policy, but they are a necessary and critical component. 

The United States became comfortable—perhaps even complacent—with our unchallenged air and sea superiority after the end of the Cold War. When we returned forces to Asia in the early 50s, China and North Korea had no ability to project power seaward. Conditions are different now, primarily due to China’s military expansion and advances in technology. China projects power daily in campaigns designed to intimidate Taiwan, Japan, and other nations. We must act quickly to restore conventional deterrence. The PDI provides the tools to use across the government in support of reinforcing our conventional deterrence.

The importance and the potential of the PDI may be gleaned from the Congressionally mandated National Defense Strategy Commission’s report “Providing for the Common Defense.” It identifies our challenge and offers a clear road ahead:

America’s rivals are mounting comprehensive challenges using military means and consequential economic, diplomatic, political, and informational tools. Absent a more integrated, whole-of-government strategy than has been evident to date, the United States is unlikely to reverse its rivals’ momentum across an evolving, complex spectrum of competition.


The United States needs more than just new capabilities; it urgently requires new operational concepts that expand U.S. options and constrain those of China, Russia, and other actors. Operational concepts constitute an essential link between strategic objectives and the capability and budgetary priorities needed to advance them.

Now that Congress is concerned and supportive, the administration must act. News reports indicate they will. President Biden and Vice President Harris visited the Pentagon the 10th of February. There the President announced a review of how the military is postured to deter China in the Pacific Region. Specifically slated for review are the department’s strategy; operational concepts; technology and force structure; force posture and force management; intelligence; alliances and partnerships; and military relations with China.

The review will be a “sprint” with product delivery in four months, aided by the lack of any requirement to provide a public-facing document. The review will be conducted by roughly 15 civilian and military officials, led by Ely Ratner, a Special Assistant to Secretary Austin and an experienced government official. 

His choice was no accident. Personnel is policy, as the saying goes. Mr. Ratner previously led the Center for a New American Security as Executive Vice President and Director of Studies. The Center published  Rising to the China Challenge – Renewing American Competitiveness in the Indo-Pacific in December 2019. The report is bold, comprehensive, and “makes no small plans” to use a Churchillian phrase. It provides a thorough, and sobering, look at our challenges across all elements of our national power. It details specific actions to enhance deterrence and ensure strong support for the liberal democratic order in the region and beyond. 

The report recognizes that defense and the restoration of undoubted deterrent capabilities must be founded on a base of strong US technology development, healthy industry, economic strength, and skilled diplomacy. Specific defense recommendations and required actions necessary to sustain, or regain, conventional military deterrence through development of a new American way of war, harnessing America’s innovation base, and strengthening and networking US allies and partners are likely to emerge from this review. The legendary inertia within our doctrinal development, acquisition processes and defense industrial base will and should be seriously challenged. Now is no time to be comfortable with the status quo. These and others require comprehensive national strength. Taiwan, our treaty allies, and our security partners should be reassured with the emphasis on our friends and the injunctions to see to their own capability development likely in this review.

2021 may be the new 1948. In those earlier days we realized that Stalin’s USSR was not going to fulfil President Roosevelt’s vision for responsible global stakeholders and policemen. We produced NSC 68 to define and clarify our security policies and strategies in an era of rapid technological change, political turmoil, and emerging global competition. Perhaps with this review commissioned by the President we can develop another set of policies and strategies for this new and challenging era.  

Taiwan is already headed down this road with its continuing work on the Overall Defense Concept, the revitalization of the reserve component of Taiwan’s forces, increasing commercial power as firms relocate from the mainland to Taiwan, and deepening industrial ties with the United States and other democracies. A long journey lies ahead, but trends are promising.    

The main point: Despite a contentious presidential transition in the US and growing Chinese aggression, recent signs suggest that the US commitment to Taiwan’s defense remains strong.