What Would a Biden Presidency Mean for US’ Taiwan Policy?

Written by Gerrit van der Wees.

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

This article was originally published by the National Interest and can be found here.

The victory of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in the US Presidential elections will mean a sea change for how the United States deals with the rest of the world, and how the world perceives the United States. However, interestingly, for Taiwan, it is expected to bring continuity.

Biden himself has a long history of support for Taiwan. He was already a member of the United States Senate in 1979 when the Taiwan Relations Act was approved. When he became chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2001, the first country he visited as chairman was Taiwan. Moreover, in January 2020, then-candidate Biden sent congratulations to President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan on her re-election, stating that “You are stronger because of your free and open society. The United States should continue strengthening our ties with Taiwan and other like-minded democracies.”

There are ample reasons for a Biden Administration to continue the broad support for Taiwan that was built up in the latter half of the Trump administration. Key will also be what people Biden will appoint in what positions. Michele Flournoy, who is mentioned often as a potential defence secretary, has written extensively about the threats from China faced by Taiwan, and how the US should help counteract those. Another name often mentioned is former Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, who is very knowledgeable on Taiwan, while other members of the Biden-Harris team such as Ely Ratner of CNAS and Julianne Smith of the German Marshall Fund also have written and spoken extensively on how to enhance relations with Taiwan.

There is no doubt that President Donald Trump’s “America First” policy and his withdrawal from international fora and agreements—such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Paris Climate Accord, and the World Health Organization—put him at odds with many of America’s friends and allies, who saw it as a reneging on US leadership role.

Trump’s adversarial and transactional relationship with many of Europe’s leaders—along with his demands that Japan and South Korea pay some fivefold for the basing agreements—further estranged the US from its traditional friends and allies. This weakened the US position in the increasingly tense strategic competition with China. Thus, instead of working with others, Trump stood increasingly alone.

This did not mean that other countries were not concerned about China’s aggressive behaviour. To the contrary: the predatory trade practices, the “wolf warrior” diplomacy, the unsubtle influence operations, the repression of Uyghurs in East Turkestan, and the imposition of the National Security Legislation in Hong Kong, and the increasingly shrill military threats against Taiwan did in fact deeply concern many other nations. Nevertheless, they felt that the go-it-alone, uncoordinated approach of President Trump was not effective; the valiant efforts of Mr Pompeo to draw in other countries notwithstanding.

In the middle of all this turmoil, Taiwan’s position and US Taiwan policy escaped relatively unscathed or even turned out better than before. Particularly under the guidance of National Security Advisor John Bolton, the steady hand of Assistant Secretary of Defence Randy Schriver, and with the help of key people at State like Assistant Secretary David Stilwell and Secretary Pompeo himself, there was an all-of-government approach in support of Taiwan. This saw – within a relatively short time frame (Summer 2018 – present) – a large number of steps and measures supportive of the country.

A major driver was also the US Congress, which—with bipartisan support—passed several key pieces of legislation. These are policies such as the Taiwan Travel Act (Febr. 2018), the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (Dec 2018) and the TAIPEI Act (March 2020), which all contained significant provisions enhancing US-Taiwan relations.

Thus, the transition to the Biden administration is taking place against a background of sharp differences between the old and new administrations on how to conduct foreign policy. Nevertheless, ironically, the respective visions of Taiwan are very similar. This is due to a number of fundamental changes in how Taiwan is perceived in the foreign policy community in Washington. Below we highlight the main elements.

First, it is becoming increasingly clear that the fact that Taiwan is now a vibrant democracy should be the guiding principle in our relations with the island-nation. When the US and other Western nations de-recognized the Kuomintang government of Chiang Kai-shek in the 1970s, it was a repressive authoritarian dictatorship keeping up the pretence of being the government of all of China. The West rightfully recognized the PRC government in Beijing, but for too long the policies of the US and other Western nations towards Taiwan remained a subset of relations with China. It is increasingly recognized these days that Taiwan needs to be seen it its own right and its own light: as a beacon for democracy in Asia.

Secondly, over the past few years, the perception of China has changed dramatically: until just a few years ago, the basic approach was one of “engagement”, in the hope that China would become a “responsible stakeholder.” However, particularly since Xi Jinping came to power, it has become increasingly clear that the PRC has become more repressive domestically, and more aggressive internationally. Both the United States, Europe and allies in Asia, Australia and New Zealand now speak of “strategic competition.” The best example of this change of heart is reflected in China Reckoning by Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner published in March / April 2018.

Thirdly, notably since the momentous election of DPP President Tsai Ing-wen in January 2016, and her overwhelming re-election in January 2020, the PRC government has launched increasingly shrill threats and intimidation campaigns again the democratic nation. The PLA Airforce sent fighter aircraft across the median line in the Taiwan Strait. Furthermore, the PLA sent Navy ships to circumnavigate the island. At the same time, the PLA army held military exercises on the Chinese coast North and South of Taiwan. It also kept up unrelenting disinformation and cyber warfare campaign against the young democracy.

These three developments are ample reason for a Biden Administration to continue the broad support for Taiwan that was built up in the latter half of the Trump administration. In order to achieve its purposes in a much more balanced and coordinated way, the Biden Administration is likely to deploy an array of measures. These range from diplomatic pressure on China, enhancing economic ties with Taiwan, continuing to strengthen Taiwan’s defence capabilities, and broadening Taiwan’s international space.

Particularly in the areas of diplomatic steps and broadening Taiwan’s international space, the Biden Administration can be expected to work much more closely with traditional friends and allies. It is likely to jointly work toward convincing the government in Beijing that it needs to accept Taiwan as a friendly neighbour instead of continuing to fight the tail end of a Chinese Civil War that ended 71 years ago. Thus, friends and allies in Europe, Japan, India, Australia and New Zealand must also jump on the bandwagon. Time is of the essence.

Gerrit van der Wees is a former Dutch diplomat. From 1980 through 2016 he served as chief editor of Taiwan Communiqué. He teaches the history of Taiwan at George Mason University and Current Issues in East Asia at George Washington University.

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