Written by Douglas H. Paal.
Image credit: 12.02 總統由國安會秘書長及外交部長李大維陪同，與美國總統當選人唐納川普（Donald J. Trump）通話 by 總統府/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0
Four years ago, on December 2, 2016, shortly after Donald Trump had become president-elect, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen placed a phone call to Trump to congratulate him on his recent victory. Reportedly, someone trusted by Taipei with access to Trump had told Ms Tsai that her call would be received and not rejected. It was the first such opportunity for contact at that level since the United States broke diplomatic relations with the Republic of China in 1979, and so politically irresistible for Taiwan’s leader.
Trump, indeed, accepted the congratulations and – shortly after – defended it, saying, “Interesting how the U.S. sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call.” Trump is a disruptive figure, and his break with precedent fit with the pattern of rejection he often expressed of the behaviour of his predecessors.
Nevertheless, Trump’s willingness to upend established practice did not last long in this case. In fact, buyers’ remorse seemed to develop quickly in both Taipei and Washington. In Taipei, this was because the phone call had been portrayed as a breakthrough in relations, but when Trump quickly backed away, it appeared more likely a misjudgement.
In Washington, it was because of the reaction from Trump’s own advisers and Beijing. According to informal China policy adviser, Michael Pillsbury, he and Matthew Pottinger – later to become Deputy National Security Advisor to Trump – were asked right after the phone call to come to Trump’s New York headquarter and manage unexpected matters related to Taiwan and China for the president-elect.
Beijing subsequently sent China’s top diplomat and expert on America, State Councillor Yang Jiechi, to visit Trump’s New York offices and deliver a message. He said that unless Trump respected the foundational “one China principle” and ceased official dealings with Taiwan’s leaders, future meetings with China’s leaders would be impossible. For Trump, this seemed to risk his plans to deliver his voters a major deal on trade relations with China.
As we learned in the memoir of his later National Security Adviser John Bolton, The Room Where It Happened, Trump harbours underlying low regard for Taiwan. He once unfavourably described the country as the equivalent of a felt tip pen point compared with the size of the large desk in the Oval Office. For Trump, apparently, market size matters.
Fast forward to the 2020 election, with Trump loudly contesting his defeat, both Taiwan and president-elect Joseph R. Biden had a small but telling issue. With Biden not formally elected, but widely acknowledged to have won, and Trump denouncing those who congratulated Biden, should President Tsai risk angering one side or the other by offering congratulations?
For the Biden camp, there was a question about how to keep faith with his campaign promises to be “tough” on China and with the many in the U.S. who want to see Taiwan treated well, while not triggering doubts about his capacity to return America’s foreign policy leadership to a more competent, less disruptive, track by casually overturning old but still relevant understandings on official contacts between China and the U.S.
In the end, both the Tsai and Biden teams came up with a diplomatically elegant but little-noticed solution: Tsai’s congratulations were passed on November 14, by Taiwan’s representative to the United States, Bi-khim Hsiao, Director of Taipei’s Economic and Cultural Relations Office (TECRO) in Washington, to Biden’s foreign policy adviser, soon to be nominated as Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken. A warm message was sent in both directions, but diplomatic red lines were not crossed.
As background, it should be noted that especially in the later phase of the Trump Administration, pro-Taiwan and anti-China elements in the administration sought to step up relations with Taiwan. They established new political and commercial dialogues and also openly raised the level of “virtual” participation in Tsai’s second inaugural ceremony. They also sent an Undersecretary of State for economic consultations in Taipei, pushing through arms sales. Furthermore, they allowed press reports of a two-star admiral’s visit to Taiwan.
These were not genuinely unprecedented as individual developments. However, the timing, cascade, and publicity for them seemed intended to push the envelope that normally encases U.S.-Taiwan relations and set a new benchmark for the years ahead. Officials were not crossing the redlines for China that Trump avoided overstepping in the interests of trade with mainland China, but they were coming close.
The Trump administration has focused on developing Taiwanese friendship. However, this developing relationship is combined with rising opposition to China from the Taiwanese public, which stems from China’s increasingly threatening behaviour. This includes counterproductive harsh rhetoric, the theft of Taiwan’s diplomatic relations with small countries around the world, and encroaching military patrols by China’s navy and air force. Furthermore, one must not fail to mention the extreme example of Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong through the imposition of a draconian National Security Law there. Hong Kong’s example of “one country, two systems,’ originally sold by Beijing as a form of appeal to Taiwan’s population, was transformed into a life-and-death threat by China in the eyes of a great many Taiwanese. (The whys and wherefores of China’s drift in this direction should be the subject of a separate analysis.)
As the U.S. election proceeded, opinion spread in Taiwan (and Hong Kong) that Trump was, if nothing else, reliably pro-Taiwan and anti-China. Commentators voiced concern that Biden’s election might dilute this thrust of American policy. That Biden had spent more time than any U.S. official with China’s Communist Party Secretary General Xi Jinping, despite recent campaign rhetoric, reinforced this concern that Biden may be less effective against China. This is a concern which will linger through at least the early months of Biden’s term of office.
As Biden and his senior officials continue to select personnel and assign policy priorities and roles in the weeks and months ahead, Taiwan will remain an important, but probably a secondary concern. This is not said to diminish the importance of the issues involved because Taiwan is one of the true potential flashpoints that could trigger a confrontation between China and the U.S.
Biden campaigned consistently and perseveringly on domestic issues primarily: managing the COVID-19 pandemic, recovering the U.S. economy, promoting racial justice, and mitigating climate change. Foreign policy issues like Russia, China, alliances and Taiwan will not be first-order concerns.
Nevertheless, Biden’s proudest record as a Senator and Vice President deeply involved him in foreign affairs. It is important to note that any given president’s most significant policy autonomy is in foreign policy. If the Senate remains under a Republican majority after January, this will further limit the scope of Biden’s domestic agenda, giving him the incentive to score points in foreign affairs.
In this light, Taiwan will be an essential concern primarily for offices below the White House. Decisions important to Taiwan will be made at senior but lower levels, hopefully in the context of a considerable reassessment of the needs the U.S. has in the face of a mighty economic, technological, military and geopolitical challenge from China. Moreover, the fact that Secretary of State-designate Blinken oversaw the elevated treatment of Tsai when she was a candidate but not yet in her 2015 presidential office – and when he was then Deputy Secretary of State for President Obama – should be a sign that Taiwan will be taken seriously in the next four years.
In sum, I believe the transfer of power from Trump to Biden is most likely to be seen as a shift in symbolism rather than substance. Biden promises to restore the proper functioning of the government, which means in part the restoration of deliberative inter-agency processes that Taiwan should rely on to reflect its interests in a coherent fashion. Disruptive practices by the U.S. have left a record of bringing greater pressure on Taiwan without concrete improvements.
If this proves not to be the case, the Biden people, most of whom have considerable experience on Capitol Hill, will hear from the broad bipartisan support in Congress for Taiwan. The congratulatory phone call exchange between Bi-khim Hsiao and Tony Blinken suggests they know how to do these things effectively and differently.
Douglas H. Paal is a Distinguished Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He previously served as Vice President for Studies and Director of the Asia Program of the Carnegie Endowment vice chairman of JPMorgan Chase International (2006–2008) and was the unofficial U.S. representative to Taiwan as director of the American Institute in Taiwan (2002–2006).
This article is part of a special issue on US-Taiwan relations under Biden presidency.