The Biden Administration and Taiwan: Positive Opening Moves

Written by Gerrit van der Wees.

Image credit: 210210-D-BN624-0298 by U.S. Secretary of Defense/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

We are almost two months into the Biden Administration, and—contrary to what was argued in a recent article by Prof. John F. Copper—the new US administration has already shown on several key moments that it is strongly supportive of Taiwan. It is keen to help maintain Taiwan’s freedom and democracy and promote its place in the international community—a positive beginning.

But where do we go from here? Discussions abound on how far and how fast the US should support a democratic Taiwan under threat by its authoritarian neighbour. Should we stick to strategic ambiguity or move towards strategic clarity? Is it enough to prevent a war, or do we need to develop a longer-term vision? A few observations.

A Good Start for the Biden Team

Things were off to a good start when the Biden team invited Taiwan’s Representative to the United States, Ms Hsiao Bikhim, to attend the inauguration ceremonies on January 20, 2021, the first time since the break of relations in 1979 that Taiwan’s representative had been invited.

A few days later, when on January 23 and 24, the PRC sent a dozen bombers and fighter aircraft into Taiwan’s ADIZ zone at the southern end of the Taiwan Strait. There was an immediate response from the State Department, saying, “We urge Beijing to cease its military, diplomatic, and economic pressure against Taiwan and instead engage in meaningful dialogue with Taiwan’s democratically elected representatives.” State Department spokesman Ned Price added: “We will continue to assist Taiwan in maintaining a sufficient self-defense capability. Our commitment to Taiwan is rock-solid and contributes to the maintenance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and within the region.”

On the same day, January 23, 2021, the US Indo-Pacific Command announced that the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt and its strike group had passed into the South China Sea. A few days later, on February 4, the missile destroyer USS McCain transited the Taiwan Strait. This was the first time since the beginning of the Biden administration, while on February 9, two aircraft carrier battle groups – led by the USS Roosevelt and USS Nimitz – carried out joint operations in the South China Sea, not far from the southern point of Taiwan.

During their respective Senate confirmation hearings, both Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Tony Blinken expressed their support for the island nation:  Secretary Austin stated: “… our support to Taiwan has been rock solid over the years and has been [of] bipartisan support. We’ve been strong in our commitments, and certainly I’ll make sure that we’re living up to our commitments to support Taiwan’s ability to defend itself.”

Secretary Blinken said in his confirmation that the American commitment to provide Taiwan with the capabilities it needs to defend itself “will absolutely endure in a Biden administration,” and noted that he “would also like to see Taiwan playing a greater role around the world.” He stated that he would liberalize US regulations for interacting with Taiwan, following the 2020 Taiwan Assurance Act (that encourages more contacts at higher levels). He concluded, “the commitment to Taiwan is something that we hold to very strongly.”

Taiwan also came up in the February 5, 2021 phone call between Secretary Blinken and PRC State Counsellor Yang Jiechi. According to the State Department readout, Secretary Blinken emphasized that “The Secretary reaffirmed that the United States will work together with its allies and partners in defense of our shared values and interests to hold the PRC accountable for its efforts to threaten stability in the Indo-Pacific, including across the Taiwan Strait, and its undermining of the rules-based international system.”

But the US and Its Allies Need to Develop a Longer-Term Vision for Taiwan’s Future

Last but not least, Taiwan featured prominently in the two-hour February 10, 2021 telephone call between President Biden and CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping, with a White House readout as follows: “President Biden affirmed his priorities of protecting the American people’s security, prosperity, health, and way of life, and preserving a free and open Indo-Pacific. President Biden underscored his fundamental concerns about Beijing’s coercive and unfair economic practices, the crackdown in Hong Kong, human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and increasingly assertive actions in the region, including toward Taiwan.” (emphasis added).

Thus, a very clear, well-coordinated and cohesive approach by the new administration: a good start and opening moves in the East Asia chess game.

Where Do We Go from Here?

But where do we go from here with US-China policy, and policy towards Taiwan in particular? On that, the new administration recently received plenty of advice in the form of lengthy reports from two different sources: 1) The Longer Telegram, Towards a New American China Policy, a document authored by an anonymous former high US official – and published by The Atlantic Council – and 2) A Strategy to Prevent War over Taiwan – by Philip Zelikow and Robert D. Blackwill – published by the Council on Foreign Relations.

“The Longer Telegram” supports strategic clarity and considers the defense of Taiwan as a core US national interest, and presents clear policy recommendations to move things in the right direction. A “Strategy to Prevent War” makes a number of trenchant observations and some prudent policy recommendations. Unfortunately, shortcomings in analysis make for a set of findings that should largely be dismissed.

To develop future-oriented policies towards Taiwan, the US needs to develop a vision that reaches beyond the immediate confines of current “One China” policies. Below, we outline some of the basic elements of such a vision.

Towards a Longer-Term Vision

Together, the US – and like-minded allies in Europe and Asia – need to be more inventive and creative in enhancing Taiwan’s role internationally, and at the same time, be more insistent on the principle of universality.

Instead of painting a picture in which — through misunderstanding or miscalculation — a confrontation or conflict erupts (Taiwan as a “flashpoint”), it would be more constructive to develop scenarios that would lead to peaceful coexistence as two friendly neighbours. For this to happen, it would be necessary for three parallel and interrelated processes to take place:

First, the rulers in Beijing need to be convinced to look at Taiwan in a new light. Chinese leaders need to move away from the old animosities, contradictions and perceptions dating from the Chinese Civil War, which ended 70 years ago. It needs to become clear to Beijing that the perpetuation of the current zero-sum military strategy, economic and political pressure is not conducive to cross-strait relations. Moreover, peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait can only be achieved if China accepts Taiwan as a friendly neighbour.

Second, the international community must re-imagine its own Taiwan relations. Considering that the vibrant democracy that is Taiwan today is not the same as the repressive Republic of China (ROC) claiming to represent China in the 1970s, the US and Western Europe in particular need to look at Taiwan in its own light and its own right, and not perpetuate the view it a subset of relations with China.

We need to bring Taiwan in from the cold of political isolation and start working toward more normal bilateral relations. Under the principle of universality as laid down in Article 1.2 of the Charter of the United Nations, we also need to start supporting Taiwan as a full and equal member of the international family of nations.

Third, in due time and at its own pace, Taiwan needs to reinvent itself. This process has already been underway since the transition to democracy in the early 1990s. It can be expected to accelerate further under the second term of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) of the Democratic Progressive Party. The following are key elements of this process: 1) through a process of truth and reconciliation, Taiwanese society needs to come to terms with its repressive ROC White Terror past. 2) through a process of democratic reforms, Taiwan needs to adjust the administrative, legislative and judicial structure to present-day needs. And last but not least 3) through their own democratic mechanisms, the public needs to adjust the governmental and constitutional structure to present-day reality.

In conclusion: To clear the pathway toward a peaceful resolution, it is essential to go beyond the confines of current “One China” policies and start looking at Taiwan in its own light and its own right. Yes, the China threat is a serious one, and we need to push back on all fronts, as suggested in the reports mentioned above.

However, in order to really chart a way forward towards long-term peace and stability in the East Asia region, we need to emphasize not only a peaceful process but also develop a vision for an end-state that aims at peaceful coexistence between China and Taiwan as two friendly neighbours, and whereby Taiwan’s future as a free and democratic nation that is accepted as a full and equal member in the international community. The three parallel and interrelated processes described here might provide helpful guidance in this regard.

Gerrit van der Wees is a former Dutch diplomat. From 1980 through 2016 he served as chief-editor of “Taiwan Communiqué.” He teaches at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, and at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.

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