Beijing has become increasingly frustrated with the Biden Administration over Taiwan as it realizes that Washington is unlikely to “overturn” what the Chinese government previously regarded as idiosyncratic practices of the Trump Administration. A recent summit between the two sides in Anchorage, Alaska, makes it clear that Taiwan and other issues of concern for the US will characterize bilateral ties for the months ahead.
In a stern warning to the US on March 7, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (王毅) stated that the Biden Administration should stay away from the “insurmountable red line” in the Taiwan Strait, adding that the Chinese government had “no room for compromise.” Addressing the fourth session of the 14th National People’s Congress (全國人民代表大會) in Beijing, Wang added: “We urge the new US Administration to fully understand the high sensitivity of the Taiwan issue” and “completely change the previous administration’s dangerous practices of ‘crossing the line’ and ‘playing with fire.’”
Wang’s comments reflected mounting anger in Beijing, which appears to have been taken aback by the Biden Administration’s unwavering commitment to Taiwan and stability in the region. Part of Beijing’s frustration also conceivably stems from a misreading of the incoming administration, and increasingly negative perceptions of China within the US over the past several years. The Chinese leadership has tended to overly personalize US policymaking and, rhetorically at least, has primarily attributed the recent souring of relations to the unorthodox views of a handful of officials in the Trump Administration—among them Donald Trump himself, as well as former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Simultaneously, it has failed—whether intentionally or unintentionally—to acknowledge that its behavior, whether in terms of unfair economic practices, gross human rights violations, or lack of transparency during the COVID-19 pandemic, has made it nearly impossible for governments to continue to turn a blind eye. As the latest Pew survey shows:
Roughly nine-in-ten US adults (89 percent) consider China a competitor or enemy, rather than a partner […]. Many also support taking a firmer approach to the bilateral relationship, whether by promoting human rights in China, getting tougher on China economically or limiting Chinese students studying abroad in the United States.
Consequently, no sooner than when Trump was defeated by Biden in the November elections last year, did Beijing begin calling for a “reset” in bilateral relations. This desire was undoubtedly based on the belief that with President Trump out of the picture, US policy toward China would become more permissive and less willing to challenge what Beijing perceives as its “red lines”—among them Taiwan, the South China Sea, and China’s “internal affairs” in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. However, Beijing’s call for “the better angels” in Washington policymaking was not accompanied by any commensurate drawdown in its threatening activities in the region or towards Taiwan. Instead, China sustained its pressure, making it clear that the US alone was expected to make concessions. To make matters worse, Beijing also completely misread Biden’s desire for Chinese cooperation on combating global warming when it believed that Washington would engage in a transaction for the sake of Chinese participation. Instead—as Biden’s climate envoy, John Kerry, made clear—the US will not trade Chinese collaboration on climate change (what the US terms a “critical standalone issue”) in return for US abandonment of the protection of human rights.
Thus, rather than cede space to China, Biden officials have signaled their intention to ensure continuity in US support for Taiwan. In statement after statement, President Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and press secretaries have underscored Taiwan’s importance and Washington’s intention to continue to support its democratic ally. Responding to Wang’s admonitions the day after, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki stated that the United States would retain its longstanding commitments to Taiwan, adding, “we will continue to assist Taiwan in maintaining a sufficient self-defense capability. So, our position remains the same.”
Over at the Pentagon, US support for Taiwan has also remained steadfast. Nine days after Biden’s inauguration, and following aggressive intrusions by People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), Chinese defense ministry spokesman Wu Qian (吳謙) defended the behavior as “a solemn response to external interference and provocations by ‘Taiwan independence’ forces,” adding that “those who play with fire will burn themselves, and Taiwan independence means war.” Responding to those comments, John Kirby, the Pentagon’s press secretary, stated:
We find that comment unfortunate and certainly not commensurate with our intentions to meet our obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act and to continue to, as Secretary Blinken at the State Department said yesterday, look for ways where we can cooperate with China, but we have obligations that we intend to meet.
Thus, rather than see the US government distance itself from Taiwan as Beijing had hoped, Washington has demonstrated that its commitments to Taiwan will remain robust and that it will retain many of the elements that characterized the Trump Administration’s approach to the dispute. In so doing, the Biden Administration has signaled that the policies that prompted Beijing’s ire are not, as China claims, mere aberrations. Rather, they represent the new normal in US policy vis-à-vis China and Taiwan. In fact, the case could be made that the desire to implement such policies predated the Trump presidency, and would have occurred whether Trump was in the White House or not. In other words, more robust support for Taiwan, as well as a greater willingness to test Beijing’s “red lines,” is now both bipartisan and institutional. Taiwan’s adept handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, its role as a partner in democracy promotion, as well as its growing importance as a global supplier of semiconductors and other advanced technologies—which will be key to the successful implementation of an alternative global supply chain that is less dependent on China—have all underscored the need for the US (and like-minded allies, hopefully) to do more to preserve Taiwan’s independence and ability to function as a sovereign, democratic entity.
Arms sales to Taiwan will therefore continue, as will efforts to include Taiwan in multilateral fora and deepen its economic integration with a fledgling group of democracies. It is even possible that high-level visits to Taiwan and exchanges with Taiwanese officials—always a source of anger for Beijing—will continue to occur. As the summit in Anchorage made clear, the US is certainly not about to abandon its support for Taiwan. Beijing’s hopes to the contrary, therefore, will be dashed.
The big question now is the manner in which Beijing will react to the reality of continued US support for Taiwan. It can either (a) reduce tensions so as to give Washington the incentive to reduce its commitments to Taiwan, or (b) ramp up the pressure. That decision, in turn, depends on a number of factors, such as whether policymaking in Beijing is driven by personal hubris or rational calculation, or perhaps by internal pressure on the regime to sustain an external crisis so as to deflect domestic criticism, potentially due to a major economic downturn or factional infighting within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP, 中國共產黨). The high level of uncertainty signifies that Taipei and Washington cannot simply assume rational decision-making in Beijing, as miscalculation could have disastrous implications for Taiwan’s security.
It is also possible that concessions by the United States—such as a reduction in arms sales to Taiwan or the overturning of recent policies on high-level engagement—could be interpreted by Beijing as signs of weakening US commitment to Taiwan, and therefore indicators that it can use force to resolve the Taiwan “question.” Such a scenario is all the more likely given the growing realization within the CCP that Taiwanese citizens almost universally reject the concept of “peaceful unification” (rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding, which blames the impasse on a “very small number of Taiwan separatists”), especially in light of recent developments in Hong Kong. Even former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) said recently that “one country, two systems” (一國兩制) is “dead.”
Given that in almost every scenario, the end result is the use of force by China against Taiwan—potentially within the next six years, according to a recent testimony by Admiral Philip Davidson, commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command—it will become all the more imperative for Taiwan and its security partners to increase deterrence in all its aspects so as to reduce the likelihood that Beijing will make that one, ultimate decision. An overconfident Beijing must be convinced that the “net benefits” brought by war against Taiwan would not be worth their costs. Reported plans by the US to deploy a network of precision-strike missiles along the “first island chain” (which “passes through” Taiwan) as part of a USD $27.4 billion program for the Indo-Pacific theater over the next six years would undoubtedly contribute to that deterrence. However, far more needs to be done.
The main point: Although Beijing may initially have hoped that the Biden Administration would make more concessions to China over its regional ambitions, growing evidence that Washington will remain committed to Taiwan has quickly led to an exchange of heated rhetoric. In this kind of environment, both Washington and Taipei must prepare for the worst and ensure that deterrence continues to prevent Chinese adventurism.