Biden & Taiwan: Advancing a Flexible US One China Policy

Written by Robert Sutter.

Image credit: Xi Jinping Visit-8 by Antonio R. Villaraigosa/Flickr, license CC BY-NC 2.0

The Biden administration continues the Trump government’s remarkable advances with Taiwan despite China’s objections. Thus high-level US government rebukes Beijing military countermeasures, including repeated warship passages in the Taiwan Strait and Chinese air and naval shows of force attempting to intimidate Taiwan.

An extraordinary visit to Taiwan in April by a delegation of top policymakers in the Barack Obama and George W Bush administrations – led by Biden’s close friend and trusted troubleshooter, former Senator Christopher Dodd – featured high profile consultations with President Tsai Ing-wen and other Taiwan leaders. Furthermore, the US-led G7 and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken called for Taiwan’s inclusion in the World Health Assembly despite China’s opposition. Administration and congressional spending plans involving tens of billions of dollars to compete with China in computer technology, 5G communications and high technology industries feature a keen awareness of Taiwan’s central role in producing advanced microchips critical to US success over China.

Such Biden administration actions reflect a continuing sharp turn away from the pattern followed by most US administrations since the normalisation of US-China relations of strictly implementing the US one-China policy in ways that would avoid the severe upset of Beijing. The current practice reflects a remarkable change in the determinants of the US one-China policy, raising questions about the utility of continuing this framework.

Why and How Have Determinants of the US One-China Policy Changed?

The main reason is Beijing’s growing determination to expand its wealth and power at others expense as its economic and military capacities advance Chinese influence and control in Asia and the world. China’s drive is broadly seen by bipartisan majorities in Congress and elsewhere in Washington as posing a series of serious challenges to America. If not met effectively, these will lead to substantial erosion of US power and influence relative to China. This risks Chinese dominance in Asia and in high technology industries and an international order detrimental not only to narrow US national interests but also to regional and global free economic interchange, national independence, popular sovereignty, and personal freedom.

In the case of Taiwan, this drive involves multifaceted military, diplomatic and economic pressures to change the status quo in China’s favour. US policy now works vigorously to push back and sustain the status quo. Taiwan’s key location and role in the Indo-Pacific region and its strong position amid keen US-China competition over the high technology industries of the future are essential elements valued by US policymakers seeking to compete with and counter adverse Chinese advances. Taiwan’s political democracy, free-market economy and support for international norms America seeks to advance are valued by US leaders who oppose expanding authoritarian rule. US relations with Taiwan also provide leverage for US policymakers seeking to impose costs or otherwise influence PRC behaviour.

The brakes that heretofore curbed US advances in relations with Taiwan, which risked antagonising Beijing, are less critical in current US policymaking focused on countering China’s adverse challenges. In particular, the concern that US advances with Taiwan would upset the overall US relationship with China has been overtaken by events involving acute US rivalry with China. This is also reflected in the related US worry that tensions with China over Taiwan would upset US allies and partners in Asia-Pacific. Meanwhile, the steady and determined Tsai Ing-wen leadership has significantly reduced past US concerns that advances in US support for Taiwan would prompt Taiwan leaders to move toward independence and thereby provoke Beijing.

Tensions With China and the Outlook for the US One-China Policy

Going forward, Beijing’s ever-rising military power and related political and economic influence remain as the most important brake on advancing American support that might prompt strong PRC reactions adverse to US interests. The tense situation in the Taiwan Straits is seen as dangerous. Analysts predict increasing danger as rising Chinese military capacities appear to outpace American military strength, changing the overall balance of power to the advantage of China.

Nevertheless, countervailing factors seem important. Heading the list is China’s demonstrated reluctance to confront America in ways that would lead to military conflict.

The reasons include the adverse impact of such conflict on China’s many internal priorities, its still strong economic dependence on the United States, and its vulnerabilities along the rim of Asia and control of essential sea lines of communication.

Obviously, deterring China from attacking Taiwan may be more difficult as the balance of forces in the Taiwan Strait continues to change in Beijing’s favour. That US forces can no longer guarantee a quick victory over Chinese attack is important. Still, the United States and its allies in the Cold War were able to deter successfully major asymmetries in a military capacity in Europe vis-à-vis the massive Soviet Union forces there and presumably could do so in the case of Taiwan today.

A more immediately relevant countervailing factor is Beijing’s effort to slow or reverse the overall hardening of American resolve to resist Chinese challenges. China seeks to avoid a cut-off of economic, high technology and other interchanges with the United States that is needed and advantageous for China’s development. The US focusing the spotlight on China’s aggression against Taiwan could further energise calls for American resistance, seriously curbing the many advantages China gets from economic, technology and other US interchange. Such focus would reduce the influence of US business and other interests in sustaining involvement with China advantageous for their companies and organisations but increasingly seen as adverse to overall US national security.

As for the US one-China policy, an advisable path forward would be to avoid a possible significant disruption caused by a US declaration formally changing policy toward Taiwan and China. Instead, recommended is continuing the recent steady and incremental steps that solidify Taiwan’s relationship with the United States using a broad and flexible interpretation of the US one-China policy in a likely prolonged period of intense US-China rivalry in the years ahead. In this context, formally asserting US readiness to protect Taiwan from PRC attack in a way that would appear to undermine the one-China policy seems unadvisable. Though advocated by some in the interest of avoiding US ambiguity on this matter given the end of the US defence alliance with Taiwan over 40 years ago, it seems provocative and unnecessary amid acute US determination to counter adverse Chinese ambitions across the board.

Robert Sutter is Professor of Practice of International Affairs, George Washington University, USA. The issues raised in this article are treated in his latest book Chinese Foreign Relations: Power and Policy of an Emerging Global Force, fifth edition (Rowman and Littlefield, 2021).

This article was published as part of a special issue on Taiwan’s Security & China-US Rivalry.

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