Taiwan Policy under Biden: The First Six Months, The First Year, and Beyond

Written by Michael Mazza.

Image credit: Joe Biden by Gage Skidmore/Flickr, license CC BY-SA 2.0

This article was originally published by Global Taiwan Institute and can be found here.

The new Biden administration will have its hands full from day one. Even as it focuses its energy on finally getting a handle on the COVID-19 pandemic, the administration will have to recalibrate its China policy, making numerous decisions about which aspects of the Trump administration’s approach to keep and which to jettison. Beyond China, it will have to meaningfully strengthen alliances and security partnerships worldwide, make a decision about how best to rein in Iran’s nuclear program going forward, and work quickly to preserve (or not) the New START arms control agreement with Russia. Taiwan policy, on the other hand, should not require significant deliberation in the early going.

The US-Taiwan relationship is arguably on firmer footing than it was four years ago, with more robust security, economic, and diplomatic ties. Importantly, the Trump administration achieved that firmer footing not by embracing a disruptive approach, but rather by operating in a fashion consistent with precedent and with the “One-China Policy.” Although the Biden administration is bound to make adjustments, “stay the course” should be the order of the day.

The First Six Months

Staying the recourse requires both maintaining valuable Trump administration initiatives and continuing to incrementally improve bilateral ties. One challenge in the early going will be the time required to staff up a new administration, which will limit the administration’s ability to implement brand new policies during the first half of 2021. Even so, there are a number of “light-lift” steps the incoming Biden team can take to demonstrate to Taiwan, China, and US partners in Asia that the United States will continue to prioritize a robust US-Taiwan relationship and Taiwan’s security.

On the diplomatic and economic front, the State Department should prioritize holding the second iteration of the Economic Prosperity Partnership Dialogue with Taiwan. First announced in August, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo revealed last week that the first talks were scheduled to occur on November 20 in Washington, DC. Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment Keith Krach, who traveled to Taipei in September to attend the funeral of Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), will lead the US side.

In moving quickly to plan a second set of talks to be held in Taipei, the Biden administration could kill two birds with one stone. Even dispatching an acting undersecretary would suffice to convey that the White House is taking the Taiwan Travel Act to heart and that it will continue to pursue the high-level visits that the Trump administration prioritized late in its one and only term. Maintaining the new economic dialogue, moreover, would demonstrate that the Biden administration recognizes the importance of US-Taiwan economic ties and would keep hope alive for a possible bilateral trade agreement.

Also on the diplomatic front, the State Department should continue to prioritize multilateral engagement including Taiwan via the Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF). Launched during the Obama administration as a joint US-Taiwan program, the GCTF now includes the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association as a co-sponsor as well. GCTF, according to the American Institute in Taiwan, “serves as a platform for Taiwan to share its expertise with partners around the world.” After a record-high seven workshops in 2019, there was only one during 2020 (in a virtual format, of course), presumably due to COVID-19. With AIT continuing to work at full-speed, getting a workshop on the books for the first half of 2021 should be doable. Possible topics include ensuring election integrity, managing COVID-19 vaccine rollout, and the use of big data and artificial intelligence in addressing public health challenges.

In the security realm, early movement on arms sales would be valuable and feasible. The Trump administration announced in June 2017 its first sales, which included upgrades to naval electronic warfare systems, air-to-ground missilestorpedoes, and shipborne surface-to-air missiles. The Biden administration’s first sale need not necessarily be so grand. Approval of Taiwan’s outstanding request for 1,240 TOW (Tube-launched, Optically tracked, Wire-guided) anti-armor missiles—assuming the Ministry of National Defense still wants them—would be an uncontroversial place to start. During the first half of 2021, the fact of a sale would arguably be more important than its contents, as it would demonstrate the Biden administration’s commitment to continue the Trump administration’s approach of regular, rather than bundled, arms sales to Taiwan.

President Biden should also direct the Department of Defense to maintain the current pace of US naval vessel transits through the Taiwan Strait. Now is not the time to back away from the Department’s insistence that US vessels and aircraft will sail and fly wherever international law allows, especially when doing so can offer visible support for a democratic partner facing an existential threat.

The First Year

Having established its disinclination to walk back advances in the bilateral relationship achieved during the Trump years, the new Biden administration should look for meaningful ways to further deepen ties before 2021 comes to a close.

As the new president begins to put his stamp on Asia policy, he will likely seek to address a key shortcoming of his predecessor’s approach: the lack of a trade agenda for the region. Although leaders across the region may hope the Biden administration will ultimately join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Transpacific Partnership (CPTPP)—the rejiggered Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement negotiated by President Obama—that seems unlikely for now. Hillary Clinton ran on withdrawing from the TPP during the 2016 presidential election, and although President-elect Biden has said he would consider a re-negotiated deal, it is not at all clear that there is an appetite in the Democratic Party or in the Senate, even if it remains in Republican control, for new multilateral trade agreements.

In order to regrow political support for such agreements, the Biden administration should start small. To that end, there may be no better place to start than Taiwan. The American and Taiwanese economies are more complementary than competitive, an agreement would not lead to significant job losses in the United States, and a deal could be used to begin to lay out a coordinated international approach to the tech competition with China. A US-Taiwan bilateral trade agreement (BTA) would be relatively easy to negotiate and could borrow from the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) to speed the process. A BTA would likely not lead to large economic gains for the United States, but it would set baselines for future bilateral and perhaps even multilateral trade agreements. Economics aside, such an agreement would draw the United States and Taiwan closer together and perhaps spur other countries to pursue their own trade deals with Taiwan, all of which would contribute to deterring Chinese aggression. President Biden should announce by the end of 2021 that he intends to launch BTA negotiations with Taiwan.

The Biden administration should also strive to hold a bilateral naval exercise with Taiwan by the end of 2021. This would be a significant new venture, but not one entirely without precedent. After all, the United States Air Force trains Taiwan’s F-16 pilots in Arizona. Training together in international waters should not be considered a bridge too far. It is, rather, a natural next step for the United States and Taiwan.

While a combined naval exercise would have symbolic import, it would have substantive significance as well. The United States sells Taiwan plenty of military hardware, but spends far less time helping Taiwan’s armed forces improve their “software”—the professionalism, competence, and creativity of Taiwan’s sailors, soldiers, pilots, and marines. The Taiwan Relations Act describes “any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means […] a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.” Should China ever decide to use force against Taiwan, the Taiwanese and American militaries could find themselves fighting alongside each other to ensure Taiwan’s continuing freedom. Yet the two militaries do not prepare to fight together, a lapse that may give the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) more confidence it can prevail in a conflict. The Biden administration should make rectifying this deficiency a priority.

The Longer Term

That late 2021 naval exercise should not be a one-off. Over the coming years, the new president’s Department of Defense should begin building a calendar of regularly scheduled exercises. Initially, engagements might focus on non-combat operations like search and rescue, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, communications, cross-deck helicopter operations, and underway replenishment. Over time, naval exercises should take on more complex operations, including surface and anti-submarine warfare. Eventually, all four of each country’s service branches should be training together regularly at sea, in the air, and on the ground—if not in Taiwan then in the United States.

Finally, the Biden administration should pursue and seek to deepen bilateral discussions about Taiwan’s security with treaty allies and other partners. With at least some partners, these discussions do happen, though largely behind closed doors. Occasionally, outside observers get a peek at those conversations. Most recently, the joint statement on Australia-US Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) 2020 included an entire paragraph on Taiwan:

The Secretaries and Ministers re-affirmed Taiwan’s important role in the Indo-Pacific region. […] The United States and Australia highlighted that recent events only strengthened their resolve to support Taiwan. They reiterated that any resolution of cross-Strait differences should be peaceful and according to the will of the people on both sides, without resorting to threats or coercion.

In the years ahead, the Biden administration should strive to place Taiwan on the agenda for all of its Indo-Pacific and European 2+2 meetings, working towards public affirmations similar to that following AUSMIN 2020. In private, the United States and its partners should have frank discussions about how they would react in the event that China uses force against Taiwan. What might US intervention look like? What would the United States expect or hope for from its allies and partners? How do those allies and partners perceive their own interests vis-à-vis a Taiwan Strait conflict and what types of support, if any, are they prepared to offer to Taipei and Washington?

These consultations will ensure that the United States and its friends will be better prepared to act quickly in the event of a crisis. Just as importantly, such talks, of which Beijing will inevitably become aware, will contribute to deterring China from resorting to force in the Taiwan Strait.

The main point: The Trump administration put the US-Taiwan relationship on firmer footing not by embracing a disruptive approach, but rather by operating in a fashion consistent with precedent and with the “One-China Policy.” Although the Biden administration is bound to make adjustments, “stay the course” should be the order of the day.

Michael Mazza is a senior non-resident fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute, a visiting fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, and a nonresident fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

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