Written by Christine Penninga-Lin.
After a heated election campaign and long vote counting, Joe Biden is going to swear in as the 46th President of the United States. The interest for the 2020 US election is shared among the Taiwanese, and many found themselves preferring Trump over Biden for his administration’s Taiwan policy in the past four-year. An almost unimaginable development had these people been asked in 2016. After four years of Trump’s presidency, the US-Taiwan relation already looks significantly different than that before 2016. And so are the Sino-American relations.
The US identifies China as its strategic competitor in the 2017 National Security Strategy instead of its strategic partner, which is the term used by various US administrations since the 1980s. One should not merely attribute the shift in the US’ Taiwan and China policies to Trump and his administration’s trade war on China. The piece is not complete without viewing the structural change of the Sino-American relations in the past decade. As Biden’s foreign policy and national security team take shape, Taiwan should be and is looking at deepening the bilateral ties with the US and furthering cooperation based on shared values and interests.
Pre-Election Poll: Why the Taiwanese Public Favoured Trump over Biden?
It almost seems like no other country, especially under the second wave of the coronavirus plaguing, paid so much attention to a foreign election. Before the election, a YouGov poll on eight Asia Pacific countries shows that Taiwan is the only country favouring Trump over Biden. With 42% of respondents supporting Trump and 30% for Biden, Taiwan is, in fact, the only country in this poll series that favours Trump over Biden, making it an outliner in the poll. It might appear bizarre that the island country, being the first to legalise same-sex marriage in Asia and with an active civil society vocal on environmental issues, would support a US presidential candidate whose administration withdrew from the Paris Climate Accord and held a conservative-leaning ground on various social issues. What concerns the Taiwanese in the 2020 US presidential election is the prospects of the US-Taiwan bilateral relations and indirectly Taiwan’s international space facing the ever-increasing security threat from China. This concern is reflected in the same poll as 41% of the Taiwanese respondents believe Trump is more likely to improve US-Taiwan relations in contrast with only 14% for Biden. Inevitably, the bilateral relations with the US is the most critical foreign relations for Taiwan. Hence the foreign policies of both candidates; particularly their Taiwan and China policy, is at the centre of Taiwanese people’s attention.
This is very different from what the Americans care about as top election issues. The top five issues identified by Americans voters in an August 2020 Pew Research Center poll are as followed: economy (79%), health care (68%), Supreme Court appointments (64%), Coronavirus outbreak (62%) and violent crime (59%). Foreign policy (57%) comes in sixth place in terms of issue importance for American registered voters. Such differences are logical and understandable. After all, Taiwan and the US share very little in terms of their historical backgrounds and social contexts. Nonetheless, upholding the values of freedom and democracy is what the two countries share with great conviction.
Facing increasing pressure from the other side of the Taiwan Strait – and after witnessing concerning developments in Hong Kong – it is not strange that the Taiwanese put sovereignty and security of their country before other issues, as what is demonstrated in the Taiwanese presidential election this January. Interestingly, many Taiwanese who prefer Trump over Biden, particularly those amongst the younger generation, might align more to the liberal/ progressive side on social issues. The aforementioned support for same-sex marriage and climate change policies are two prime examples.
Taiwan Hopes for the Continuation of The US Bipartisan Support
During the last four years, the US-Taiwan relations is at its best after 1979. With two senior officials, Health Secretary Alex Azar and Undersecretary Keith Krach, visiting Taiwan in 2020, this marks the highest-level US official visits to Taiwan in 41 years. Taiwan also benefits from the US’ trade war with China as Taiwanese high-tech companies receive more orders, plus many of them return to Taiwan for increasing investments. The ten arms sales to Taiwan in the past four years, including the M1A2 Abrams tanks and F-16 V fighter jets in 2019 and HIMARS precision fire launcher and the AGM-84/ SLAM-ER air-launched cruise missile in 2020, bring a new record in quantity and quality of the US’ arms sales to Taiwan.
After his election in 2016, concerns rose in Taiwan that Trump would see Taiwan as a bargaining chip on the negotiating table with China. Moreover, there were fears that he would sell Taiwan without hesitance because of Trump’s experience as a businessman and his open praises on authoritarian leaders such as Putin and Xi. This did not happen. The Trump administration’s Taiwan-friendly policy is not the result of Trump’s liking or disliking about Taiwan. Former National Security Advisor John Bolton even writes in his book that Taiwan is high on the list of countries Trump considering abandoning. The US’ open support for Taiwan since 2017 did not only come from the executive branch. The bipartisan support in both the Senate and the House on passing the 2018 Taiwan Travel Act and 2019 Taiwan Allies International Protection Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI Act) demonstrate such bipartisan support. The vocal support for Taiwan from the Congress might be one of the few foreign policy issues that both the Republicans and Democrats agree upon in the past four years. After 1979, the US Congress has taken the lead on several occasions to consolidate the US-Taiwan relations.
One more thing that both the Democrats and Republicans agree upon is that the nature of Sino-American relations has fundamentally changed and the engagement policy did not serve its purpose. Democratisation did not take roots in China as an increasing number of Chinese people enjoy wealth brought by the country’s economic growth. That was what the US hoped for when China joined the WTO in 2001, a growing middle class that demands civil rights and generates democratisation as it happened in Taiwan and South Korea. It has been ten years since China overtook Japan and became the second-largest economy of the world. Its manifested regional and global ambitions make the US and other countries very difficult to look away from the rise of China’s power in economy stretching to politics and security issues.
What is Next for Taiwan-US Relations?
Biden and his administration will be looking at a table full of both domestic and foreign issues, and their focus is likely to take priority on US domestic issues such as coronavirus response and US economy. In his victory speech on 7 November, Biden spoke of healing the torn American society, and his top priority is to tackle the coronavirus pandemic. In terms of his foreign policy vision, he vowed to restore US’ global reputation as well as its relations with allies and partners. Although Biden did not mention much about Taiwan during his election campaign, he published an article in World Journal, the largest Chinese newspaper in the US-owned by Taiwan’s United Daily group, that he intends to deepen the tie between US and Taiwan. Many of Biden’s announced foreign policy and national security team members are veterans of the Obama administration. Nevertheless, picking up the Obama East Asia policy is not viable in a world that has changed. Biden is likely to continue the China and Taiwan policies of the past four years; albeit with a softer tone and less confrontational measures.
One lesson we can all learn from Trump’s presidency is not to be too distracted by politicians as individuals and their personality while overlooking the policies and policy results. Policy forming in any democracy—especially in one like the US supported by its professional bureaucrats and politically appointed staffs—is far more complicated than the personal preference of the leader.
Regardless of how speculations soared that the DPP administration bet on the wrong side in the US election, neither will President Tsai Ing-Wen nor her foreign affairs team openly address who their preferred candidate was. And they should not. This story could be something that curious souls can look forward to anecdotally in memoirs years after from now. Tsai and her team’s tasks at this moment are to foster the exchanges and understandings between Taipei and foreign policy circle in DC based on the result of the past four years. Diplomacy starts by making friends, and Taiwan needs all the support that it can gather. In the US, this includes the new Biden administration team, congress members, the Departments, think-tankers and staffs from both the red and blue parties.
The US-Taiwan relations are Taiwan’s most critical foreign relations, and Taiwan’s peace and security are of the vital national security interest of the US. Cooperation and friendships should be based on shared values and interests, and the two have many.
Christine Penninga-Lin is an independent analyst based in the Netherlands. She specialises in US-Taiwan-Japan relations and EU-Taiwan relations. Christine was a foreign affairs researcher at the Taiwan Thinktank in Taipei and works professionally in Chinese, English, Japanese and Dutch.
This article is part of a special issue on Taiwan-US relations under Biden presidency.