After a protracted battle, the election of Joe R. Biden as the 46th US President is all but certain. All eyes in Taiwan are now turning to Biden to see whether he will continue President Donald J. Trump’s hardline against China and support of Taiwan. For the past four years, the Trump administration and the US Congress have responded to Beijing’s attempts to ostracize Taiwan by increasing support for Taipei. During his campaign, Biden promised to get tough on China. Yet his history as a political moderate makes it unlikely that he will be antagonistic to China, especially when it involves Taiwan.
What Can Taiwan Expect from a Biden Administration?
Throughout his political career, Biden has supported engagement with China. For instance, he supported the Most Favored Nation (MFN) status for China and its bid to join the WTO. In 2019, he denied that China was America’s economic competitor. He opposed the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act (TSEA) as it would harm US-China relations. However, Biden became critical of China during his 2020 election campaign, vowing to take a hardline approach to China’s worldwide influence. He criticized Trump for being “too soft” on China and repeatedly referred to China’s leader Xi Jinping as a “thug” for his human rights transgressions.
Despite this rhetoric, Biden is likely to emulate his former boss, President Barack Obama, who adhered to the one-China policy and only limited engagement with Taiwan despite becoming increasingly critical of Beijing. Congressional and American public opinion of China has since shifted from positive to negative since Obama’s presidency, however. The 116th Congress is one of the most critical of China in decades. It has passed more than 400 pieces of China-related legislation, most of it critical for Beijing. Expect Biden to take a firmer stance than Obama, but less antagonistic than Trump because a change, of course, would subject him to criticism from Congress and the American people. However, Biden does not want US-China relations, which soured under Trump, to deteriorate further. To avoid compounding difficulties, Biden’s actions in support of Taiwan will likely be more cautious than those of the Trump administration.
Will US-Taiwan Relations Improve or Should Taipei Be Worried?
The November 2020 US elections did not drastically alter the House of Representatives’ composition, which will continue bipartisan support of Taiwan. Less clear is White House support for Taiwan. It remains questionable if Biden will invite Taiwan to participate in his proposed “summit of democracies” to take place early in his first year in office. Biden has proposed gathering democratic leaders to strengthen democratic institutions and forge a common agenda on issues ranging from COVID-19 and associated economic fallout to addressing China’s rise and climate change threats, along with formulating longer-term approaches on technology and trade. Biden is unlikely to antagonize China by inviting Taiwan to this summit. The decision of whether to invite Taiwan will be an early indication of Biden’s support for Taipei.
Less ambiguous is Biden’s commitment to Taiwan’s defense. Biden is likely to continue his support for the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) and arms sales to Taiwan, albeit at a lower cost than the $13 billion that Trump approved. Biden is more likely to approve smaller arms sales and prioritize asymmetric warfare instead of costly systems such as F-16V fighter jets and Abrams tanks that have been part of previous sales. Concerning Taiwan’s defense, Biden is unlikely to abandon the decades-old policy of strategic ambiguity to one of “strategic clarity” as some of Trump’s advisors had advocated. Biden will likely avoid specifying US commitment to Taiwan’s self-defense beyond continued support of the TRA.
A Biden administration is more likely to pursue stronger economic relations than advance political and defense relations with Taiwan. For instance, Taiwan might finally see progress toward a US-Taiwan free trade agreement (FTA). A US-Taiwan FTA enjoys strong bipartisan support in Congress. However, Trump’s trade representative Robert Lighthizer has opposed moving forward with Taiwan FTA negotiations for fear of jeopardizing the Phase One trade deal with China. He continued to oppose the US State Department and National Security Council efforts to push Taiwan trade talks even after it became clear that the China trade deal would not meet expectations. Lighthizer’s departure from the White House removes one obstacle to the realization of the US-Taiwan FTA.
What Will Be the Impact of a Biden Victory on Cross-Strait Relations?
Beijing’s diplomatic, economic, and military pressure on Taiwan motivated the Trump administration and Congress to advance US-Taiwan relations. Despite Trump’s record of support for Taiwan, Biden claimed the President was too soft on China. He selected Senator Kamala Harris, a critic of China’s human rights record, as his running mate. Harris cosponsored the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019 and vowed to seek protections for Uighurs and support democracy in Hong Kong. Expect Harris to assert her opinions about protecting and rejuvenating US relations with diplomatic allies by criticizing China’s threats towards Taiwan. China is likely to respond by increasing tensions with Taiwan.
America’s anti-China sentiment will compel Biden to continue Trump’s hardline stance with Beijing. Do not expect Biden to pivot to Taiwan, however. Despite taking a stricter stance, Biden will step back from the Trump administration’s antagonizing actions toward China. For instance, in November 2020, Trump angered China by sending a US Navy Admiral to Taiwan to engage in intelligence-sharing talks with Taipei and US Secretary of State Pompeo publicly claimed that Taiwan is not the same as China. In response, China has increased the frequency of military jet patrols of Taiwan, often invading Taiwan’s airspace. To diffuse US-China-Taiwan tensions, expect Biden to reassess Trump administration initiatives that favor Taipei but irk Beijing, such as the Taiwan Travel Act (TTA) and the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA). Expect Biden to discontinue visits by US high-ranking officials to Taiwan.
Elizabeth Freund Larus, Ph.D. is Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia, USA. She is author of Politics and Society in Contemporary China.
Shirley Martey Hargis is Senior Research Associate at E Larus Consulting LLC.
This article is part of a special issue on Taiwan-US relations under Biden presidency.