Just How Worrisome is President Biden’s Taiwan Policy?

Written by John F. Copper.

Image credit: Xi Jinping Visit-9 by Antonio R. Villaraigosa/Flickr, license CC BY-NC 2.0

Shortly before Donald Trump left office, a top government leader in Taiwan proclaimed that he was the best U.S. president for Taiwan ever.

Taiwan’s residents felt the same. President Trump ranked extraordinarily high in local public approval ratings. He was considered pro-Taiwan. Most believed he liked Taiwan and would protect it from China.

He also upgraded Taiwan’s nation-state status, suggesting he believed Taiwan deserved its own identity. He approved large arms sales to Taiwan that it would use to parry China’s threats and intimidation.

Indeed, one could say President Trump had Taiwan’s back.

In contrast, judging from strong anti-Trump statements made during the U.S. presidential campaign, Joe Biden will treat Taiwan differently. Indeed, as president Biden moved quickly to expunge President Trump’s policies in almost every way possible. Democrats sought to impeach Trump and even prevent him from serving in high office again.

Another factor, Joe Biden was allegedly indebted to China for the large amounts of money his son Hunter had made from dealing with China in business using his connections with his father and from which his father benefited. In other words, President Biden owes China.

Knowing these facts, the Biden administration cannot be expected to fancy Taiwan. Likely Biden will treat Taiwan harshly. Taiwan beware!

However, there are reasons to think President Biden may not be so bad for Taiwan and that he may not seek revenge on Taiwan for it being pro-Trump.

Why? Joe Biden has a long history of government service—47 years. During his career, he was widely known to be a likeable person who could get along easily with others. He did not propose or support controversial policies. He went along. He was not a strategic thinker or planner.

Biden served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for several years. He was also the committee chair for a while and co-sponsored the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979. Nevertheless, he was not known to be a supporter (or a foe) of Taiwan. The former head of the American Institute in Taiwan, America’s pseudo embassy in Taipei, and an eminent Taiwan scholar – having written three books on U.S.-Taiwan relations – fails to mention Biden’s name in his work. Further, during the campaign, Biden did not mention Taiwan.

For lack of anything else to say, pundits opine President Biden’s domestic and foreign policies will resemble those of the Obama administration.

However, the Obama administration’s China policy is not a model to follow. When he entered the White House, Barack Obama devoted most of his attention to Europe and the Middle East, not Asia. On his first trip to China, he consented to China’s “core interests”—which many observers viewed as taking Beijing’s view on Taiwan. He then realized he was “taken” by Chinese leaders and walked this back. Later he suggested downplaying or even ending relations with Taiwan. His supporters in and out of government spoke and wrote widely of ending America’s involvement in China’s civil war, meaning dumping Taiwan. Later he made another big shift; he adopted Hillary Clinton’s “pivot” to Asia policy, essentially an anti-China containment policy. But it did not attract America’s Asian allies, and by the time Obama left Washington, U.S. relations with China were at a nadir.

Yet none of this affected U.S. Taiwan policy. Taiwan was basically an afterthought to the Obama administration.

Hence, for Biden to revisit Obama’s China and Taiwan policy is not fitting.

Instead, it is instructive to look at President Biden’s appointees in the foreign policy realm. Anthony Blinken, his Secretary of State, is a European expert and will probably not influence China policy very much (though he has made money from business connections with China). China policy (and relations with Taiwan) will be Kurt Campbell’s purview, who Biden has appointed as his “China Czar.” Campbell has considerable knowledge and experience in the China area. In 2016 he published a book entitled The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia. In The Pivot, he expounds in detail about U.S. policy toward China and Taiwan. His views are moderate. He advises on preventing a cross-Strait conflict, which he believes is not good for any member of the triangular relationship.

Biden’s pick for Secretary of Defence, Lloyd Austin, a former military officer, recently told reporters he supported President Trump’s expansion of the U.S. Navy and considered China a “pacing threat” to the United States.

President Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, who served in that role when Joe Biden was a candidate after his appointment, spoke of China being the foremost threat to the United States. He even advised that he keep President Trump’s tariffs applied to China to pressure Beijing to narrow its trade surplus with the United States.

President Biden’s supporters in the Democratic Party, especially the party’s leftists, want a robust cum aggressive China policy. They regard China as a threat and should be treated as one. That being said, none of Biden’s advisors are hostile toward Taiwan.

Another way to anticipate President Biden’s Taiwan policy is to look at his China policy ideas enunciated during the campaign. Clearly, U.S. presidents’ Taiwan policy has been driven by their China policy, and President Biden will not likely be an exception to this rule.

Candidate Biden spoke of cooperating with allies to formulate a China policy while foreswearing Trump’s nationalism and favouring globalism. He spoke of persuading China to support the U.S.-built liberal world order. He mentioned leveraging China on human rights and working with China on solving global warming. He advanced free trade and rejected tariffs.

Working with allies to deal with China, however, seems more of an ideal than reality. The European Union countries have already negotiated an important deal with China. Regardless, Europe is not doing well economically and will not improve as much as other areas of the world in 2021. Japan also lacks economic verve. Russia is a China ally, and that will unlikely change.

The U.S. has already improved relations with India. Whether this will advance is in question.

Biden’s vice president being half Indian should help. Nevertheless, the Indian government does not like her for her past criticism of India’s human rights and Kashmir and her perceived preference for Muslims over Hindus.

Other Asian countries admire China’s nationalism and see it as a policy to emulate as it will spur economic development.

To revive the Western liberal world-order is not seen as realistic in much of Asia and the world. As Walter Russell Mead says: “It is like trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

It is too late for that.”

Lecturing China on its human rights will not be received well as Beijing sees it as interference in its domestic affairs while smelling of past Western imperialism.

Fixing global warming is something China has excelled at, an issue leaders believe it can aid others in. China leads the world in solar energy. It is working on fusion, which seems very promising.

Finally, China, and many others perceive this too, is experiencing a renaissance; America is in decline. The IMF predicts that China’s economic growth in 2021 will be double America’s. President Biden’s green economy, helping blue states, and other items requiring spending a lot of money will push American further into debt, requiring higher taxes. That will hurt GDP growth and deprive the U.S. of money to spend on research and development where it is already falling behind China.

This means Biden’s America will not compete well and will not have an advantage in bargaining with the Middle Kingdom. Thus, as President Trump and his advisors have said, China must be seen as a big and persistent challenger. Consequently, Biden’s China/Taiwan policy may be close to President Trump’s. President Biden’s major policy changes have been made in domestic policy, and not foreign policy seems to support this view. In that context, Taiwan may fare alright, and U.S. Taiwan policy may not turn south very much.

John F. Copper is the Stanley J. Buckman Professor (emeritus) of International Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. He is the author of more than thirty-five books on China, Taiwan and U.S. Asia, including the seventh edition of Taiwan: Nation-State or Province? (Routledge) last year and Taiwan’s Politics in Action (World Scientific) early this year.

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