Written by Jacques deLisle.
As the Biden administration takes office, expectations—and, in many quarters, hopes—are high that much will change in American foreign policy. U.S. policy on Taiwan-related issues, however, is not likely to shift fundamentally. That is an outcome that should be – and generally will be -welcome in Taiwan. The relationship’s foundations may be strengthened, and apparent post-Trump setbacks are likely illusory. For Taiwan, reasons for concern mostly lie elsewhere, in the fraught U.S.-China relationship, the mounting challenges posed by Beijing, and questions about how the U.S. will respond.
During the Obama administration, Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou proclaimed—with assent from Washington—that bilateral relations were the best they had been since before the termination of diplomatic ties in 1979. During the Trump and Tsai Ing-wen presidencies, U.S. support for Taiwan grew stronger still. The U.S. has blamed Beijing for the deterioration in cross-Strait relations and credited Tsai for her commitment to peace and stability. Much legislation—annual National Defense Authorization Acts, the Taiwan Travel Act, the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative Act, the Asian Reassurance Initiative Act, and the Taiwan Assurance Act—has affirmed long-standing U.S. commitments to Taiwan, pressed for higher-level official visits, closer defense cooperation, and support for Taiwan’s participation in international organizations and the global community, and enhanced cooperative efforts such as the Global Cooperation and Training Framework. The U.S. included Taiwan in its Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy. Offers of arms sales under the Taiwan Relations Act and visits by high-level U.S. officials saw significant upticks.
Under the Biden administration, much of this is very likely to continue. As the torrent of Taiwan-supporting legislation reflects, support for current policies is strongly bipartisan. Statements from Biden and his incoming team have signaled robust support, pledging to deepen ties with Taiwan, along with other friends and allies—and especially democratic states—in the Indo-Pacific.
As has long been the case, U.S. Taiwan policy under Biden will be deeply affected by U.S.-China relations. Wariness about Biden in Taiwan stems largely from positions on China policy and cross-Strait issues previously espoused by Biden and his advisors. Nevertheless, China’s behavior and, with it, assessments by the Biden team have changed. The now-entrenched consensus view in Washington is that China is, at best, a competitor, pursuing policies harmful to U.S. interests and inimical to U.S. values. The policy of “constructive engagement” is over. There is very little appetite in U.S. policy circles for once-common arguments that Washington should make concessions on Taiwan or pressure Taipei to be more accommodating toward Beijing because it would benefit U.S. relations with China.
The Biden critique of Trump’s China policy has been not that it was too tough, but that it was not smart—as well as, at times too soft: overly focused on trade deficits, insufficiently concerned with human rights, too often praising Xi Jinping, and lacking coordination with allies. Biden’s principal post-election statement on China policy characterized China as a competitor and a source of strategic challenges that needed to be held accountable.
In some respects, U.S.-Taiwan ties are likely to benefit from broader changes in foreign policy. Biden and his team have pledged to restore relations with allies and friendly countries, reemphasize democracy, human rights, and other values issues, and reengage with international organizations such as the World Health Organization, the United Nations Human Rights Council, and the World Trade Organization. If realized, these promises bode well for Taiwan. The first would enhance U.S. commitments and capacity to counter Chinese assertiveness, in part by creating a closer strategic alignment of democracies in the region—an idea warmly received in Taiwan. The second would play to Taiwan’s strongest suit in external relations and expand Taipei’s opportunities to play a card that has long been deployed effectively in its arduous pursuit of international stature. The third would resonate with Taiwan’s status-enhancing self-characterization as a good global citizen and contributor of international public goods (including responding to COVID-19) and support Taiwan’s ongoing quest for access to major international institutions.
To the extent that personnel is policy, Biden’s appointments are likely to give reason for optimism in Taiwan. Most prominently, National Security Council “Asia Czar” Kurt Campbell was a principal architect of Obama’s “pivot to Asia” (welcomed in the region for its aims, if not its truncated implementation) and has been an increasingly sharp critic of China as a threat to regional order (including through its posture toward Taiwan) and an ardent advocate of cooperation with regional allies. The confirmed and rumored Asia policy personnel are highly experienced. A veteran team is less likely to make the unforced errors that have marred past administrations’ early days, such as seeming assent to Beijing’s language on Taiwan issues which has required awkward scrambles to reassure that U.S. policy had not changed.
Some in Taiwan are wary that the Biden administration will backslide from the extraordinary levels of support seen under Trump. However, much of the Trump-era boon was fool’s gold. The phone call between Tsai and President-elect Trump and Trump’s musings about abandoning the one-China policy was more than offset by Trump’s post-phone call reassurance to Xi. Not to mention his intermittent high praise for China’s leader, and anxiety in Taiwan that Trumpian transactional foreign policy put Taiwan’s interests in peril in a possible U.S.-China deal. The Trump administration’s highly provocative, and at times racist rhetoric about China, its disdain for allies and liberal values in an “America first” foreign policy, and the extraordinary volatility of its policies were bad for Taiwan’s security. The latter remaining dependent on the existence—and Beijing’s perception—of stable U.S. commitments. The outgoing administration’s parting shot brought more of the same: further lifting restrictions on high-level contacts, which offered Taiwan a win that was more apparent than real, roiled U.S.-Taiwan-China relations and sowed frustration for its successor. The embrace of Trump in Taiwan also had become problematic as Trump turned against democracy in the United States. The alignment chafed against Taiwan’s long-standing self-presentation as an exemplar of democracy, and it discomfited a growing swath of the broad political spectrum of support Taiwan has enjoyed in U.S. policy circles.
More substantial dangers for Taiwan during a Biden administration come from more fundamental and less tractable sources. First, Taiwan remains at risk of becoming collateral damage in increasingly securitized U.S.-China economic conflicts. Although Taiwan may benefit from the improved prospects for a U.S.-Taiwan bilateral trade agreement and efforts to build more secure supply chains, U.S. policies on technology access – along with Chinese policies that anticipate further movement toward decoupling – are challenges for Taiwan, with its tech-heavy economy and deep integration into global value chains.
Second, the security threat from China has grown along with Beijing’s military prowess and its shift to gray zone tactics (including military moves that intimidate but stop short of imminent threats of force) and political warfare (for example, disinformation campaigns targeting Taiwan’s elections). These developments increase the cost to the U.S. of intervention to protect Taiwan and create ambiguity about when U.S. policy would and should contemplate intervention. Such concerns have led to more serious arguments that the U.S.’s goal of deterring both Beijing and Taipei from a cross-Strait conflict now requires replacing the venerable doctrine of “strategic ambiguity” with greater “strategic clarity,” articulating—and perhaps expanding—the scope of Washington’s red lines. That shift, however, is not certain to become policy.
Finally, it will, at best, take the Biden administration some time to reassure Taiwan and other friends and allies in the region—and to convince Beijing—that U.S. commitments and reengagement robust and reliable. The shift in relative power in China’s favor has raised long-term doubts, the amelioration of which depends on strong bonds among the U.S., its allies, and like-minded states. The Trump years provided a disconcerting proof of concept that the U.S. might abruptly abandon its long-standing roles. The Biden administration thus has some daunting repair work to do for U.S. credibility in the region. And it must do so when much of its attention will be focused on domestic issues, including immediate crises in public health, the economy, and democracy, and the longer-term task of rebuilding the domestic material and moral foundations of U.S. power abroad.
Jacques deLisle is the Stephen A. Cozen Professor of Law, professor of political science, and director of the Centre for the Study of Contemporary China at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also director of the Asia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.