Written by Jacques deLisle.
Signals of US support for Taiwan were strikingly strong in 2022. Yet, despite the crucial role the US plays in Taiwan’s security, 2022 was also a year of jarring insecurity for Taiwan. Developments in 2023 are likely to be portentous for US-Taiwan relations and, in turn, Taiwan’s prospects more generally.
The upswing over the last half-decade in US backing for Taiwan accelerated in 2022. This trend continued amid—and at least partly due to—ongoing deterioration in US-China relations. Echoing two similar statements in 2021, President Joe Biden twice affirmed in 2022 that the US would defend Taiwan—including through direct military involvement—if China launched an unprovoked attack. Reprising another remark from 2021, Biden declared that it was up to the Taiwanese to decide the question of Taiwan’s independence. In spring 2022, a State Department website briefly deleted text stating that the US does not support Taiwan’s independence.
Such language was not inconsistent with longstanding US policy, nor did it constitute a repudiation of strategic ambiguity for strategic clarity or abandonment of the US’s venerable and deliberately murky “one China” policy. On the contrary, the statements stayed barely within the bounds of the relatively clear part of strategic ambiguity—that is, the US response in the event of an unprovoked attack—and were reconcilable with the US policy of not supporting Taiwan’s independence, as well as the Taiwan Relations Act’s position that the future of Taiwan must be determined by peaceful means. Nonetheless, Biden’s comments—especially as reiterated in 2022—offered exceptionally robust articulations of US support and did so in the context of a years-long period of fraught cross-Strait relations when the threat of PRC coercion—including military action —has seemed especially high.
In Congress, the bipartisan backing for Taiwan that produced unprecedented “pro-Taiwan” legislation during the preceding several years—including the Taiwan Travel Act, the Asian Reassurance Initiative Act, the TAIPEI Act, and provisions in National Defense Authorization Acts—continued into 2022. In addition, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi—second in the line of succession to the presidency and a top leader of the president’s party in Congress—made a high-profile trip to Taiwan, met with President Tsai Ing-wen, and touted the strong bilateral relationship while reiterating her longstanding criticisms of China’s human rights record and international behaviour. Her most likely successor, Republican Kevin McCarthy, said that he, too, likely would go to Taiwan “as Speaker.”
Although the Taiwan Policy Act—which would have gone beyond prior legislation in expressing congressional support for Taiwan (including by upgrading still-informal quasi-diplomatic ties and declaring Taiwan a major non-NATO ally) stalled, its agenda of expanding arms transfers and enhancing military cooperation made it into the 2023 NDAA (which folded in the proposed Taiwan Enhance Resilience Act). Passed near year’s end, it included financing for billions of dollars in security assistance and funding for weapons procurement and—in a departure from past practice—directed that up to $10 billion over five years be in the form of grants. The new NDAA came in the context of progress toward Taiwan embracing the asymmetric defence strategy Washington had been urging (and that Ukraine’s successes against Russia’s military seemed to vindicate) and Taiwan’s end-of-the-year adoption of a long-pending reform to extend mandatory military service from four months to twelve.
In some respects, the war in Ukraine brought strengthened indications of US support for Taiwan’s security. Biden’s highest-impact comments about defending Taiwan came when he responded to a reporter’s question by distinguishing between cross-Strait scenarios and the US’s decision to forego direct military engagement with Russia over Ukraine (which, like Taiwan and unlike NATO states, Japan, and Korea, is not a security treaty ally of the United States). More broadly, the US-led international response to Putin’s invasion offered a proof of concept that democratic states can rally to impose punishing sanctions on an authoritarian aggressor and to provide military, financial, and humanitarian support to a targeted fellow democracy.
The economic leg of bilateral relations showed signs of strength as well. In December 2022, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company announced it would raise its planned investment in Arizona to $40 billion—a move heralded for contributing to US goals of strengthening domestic chip production and supply chain security. The year also brought progress in long-running US-Taiwan talks on trade and investment agreements, and the US promises to provide Taiwan with opportunities akin to those that would have accompanied participation in the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.
Each positive element from 2022 had its limitations or a disconcerting side. As is often the case when senior US officials, including presidents, stray from the catechism on cross-Strait relations, the Biden administration offered assurances that US policy remained unchanged. The State Department restored some of the controversially deleted language. In conjunction with a meeting between Biden and Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Bali G-20 meetings, the US undertook to “put a floor” under the downward-spiralling relationship, and Biden reiterated that there was no change in the US’s one-China policy and Taiwan policy.
Although Taiwan had no choice but to officially and enthusiastically welcome Pelosi, the Speaker’s trip to Taiwan was predictably—and, in both Taipei and Washington, predicted to be—no better than a mixed blessing for Taiwan. The massive military exercises that China launched in response brought what some dubbed a fourth cross-Strait crisis (and the most serious since 1995-96), a possibly capacity-enhancing test-run for a blockade or invasion by China’s armed forces, and the prospect of a ratcheted-up “new normal” of greater grey zone activity by China. In the wake of Pelosi’s visit, China released an already-well-in-process White Paper on Taiwan—the first in more than two decades—that affirmed the toughened line on Taiwan policy—including terms for unification—that Beijing had been pressing since at least the beginning of 2019.
In defence policy, there was concern in Taiwan that the NDAA’s authorizations might not come to fruition soon. They depended on yet-unenacted appropriations by Congress. Moreover, Washington’s ability to deliver weapons systems in the near term was in serious doubt, given the massive and ongoing provisions of scarce arms to Ukraine. More subtly, there remained troubling divergences on the details of asymmetric defence policy for Taiwan, with doubts on the US side about the depth and durability of Taiwan’s apparent policy shift and concerns on the Taiwan side that US prescriptions went too far, potentially steering Taiwan’s defence capacity too much to post-attack and post-invasion scenarios.
The lessons from the Ukraine war read as, at best ambiguous in Taiwan. Although numbers rebounded somewhat after the Pelosi visit, early polling suggested that the Taiwanese public’s confidence in US intervention to protect Taiwan from China dropped after the Russian invasion (even as citizens’ stated determination to defend Taiwan rose). Prominent figures, including the most recent former president, publicly expressed similar doubts. Moreover, Washington’s commitments of arms, resources, and attention to Ukraine raised concerns that the United States was again troublingly distracted from its avowed refocus on the Indo-Pacific, including Taiwan. More broadly, the United States seemed unlikely to be able to replicate in a China-Taiwan crisis the international response it orchestrated—with still-uncertain durability and effectiveness—to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The costs of taking such measures against China, the reluctance of key regional states to join in, and the absence of European Union or NATO-like institutional frameworks are among the many sources of dispiriting disanalogies.
The TSMC project in Arizona drew charges that it would hollow out a vital economic sector in Taiwan and reduce the company’s value as Taiwan’s insurance policy against US abandonment. As a means to secure continued US support, the arrangement arguably smacked of mafia-style extraction of “protection money.” Progress in bilateral economic relations seemed destined to fall short of a hoped-for free trade agreement or a full substitute for IPEF membership (which Taiwan had been denied because of the reluctance of other Asian members to draw China’s ire).
…and It Could Get Ugly
US-Taiwan relations are likely to face significant challenges and pivotal moments in 2023. The ambivalent forces shaping US-Taiwan relations during 2022 are likely to continue into 2023, bringing greater complexity and uncertainty to the relationship.
In addition, US politics relevant to US-Taiwan relations could become messier in the coming year. With Republicans taking control by a slim majority in the House, Washington will re-enter a period of semi-divided government. Although the budding GOP scepticism on aid to Ukraine is unlikely to extend to Taiwan policy, the opposition-controlled House and Republican politicians more generally are likely to seize any opportunity to criticize Biden administration foreign policy, which could vex and constrain US policy on cross-Strait issues. With congressional and presidential elections ahead in late 2024 and the significant possibility that China policy will be a campaign issue, partisan competition to be “tough on China” may lead to renewed deterioration in US-China relations in 2023. To the extent that conventional wisdom holds—that Taiwan’s interests, including in relations with the United States, are best served by a relationship between Washington and Beijing that is neither very good nor very bad—campaign-season American politics could be problematic for Taiwan.
In Taiwan, the prospect of a visit by another US House Speaker raises the spectre that China will reprise its reaction to Pelosi’s trip. Stability-threatening moves by China may be more likely if what Beijing deems to be a Taiwan (or US) provocation occurs against the backdrop of plausible developments in the mainland, including an even-more-consolidated, Xi-dominated leadership as China moves farther beyond the 20th Party Congress and past the March 2023 government-shaping National People’s Congress session; a regime under stress from the twin difficulties of the economic toll of the economically costly, unpopular, and now-abandoned zero COVID policy, and the new challenges of soaring infection rates, accompanying economic dislocations, and possible renewed lockdowns; and a growing sense in China’s Taiwan policymaking circles that the Kuomintang’s success in Taiwan’s November 2022 local elections does not portend a Democratic Progressive Party loss (or even a substantially more cooperative government if the KMT were to win) in Taiwan’s January 2024 presidential and legislative elections.
The run-up to Taiwan’s elections also poses more direct challenges for US-Taiwan relations. Candidates for president routinely make pre-election pilgrimages to Washington, partly to assure that they will handle cross-Strait relations “responsibly”—that is, in terms of US interests. For the last sixteen years, at least one candidate—and the ultimately winning candidate—has been well-known to US interlocutors and provided the requisite level of comfort. US-Taiwan ties have been correspondingly solid. However, the task looks much more challenging in 2023. The leading prospective candidates do not inspire the confidence in Washington that Ma Ying-jeou enjoyed in 2008 and 2012 and that Tsai held in 2016 and 2020 (but not in 2012, when concern about her positions on cross-Strait issues led to all but openly declared US support for her victorious opponent).
Likely, DPP nominee and current Vice President Lai Ching-te will encounter questions over his 2018 remark (as Premier) that he is a “political worker for Taiwanese independence” and the broader suspicion that his politics are a deeper shade of green than the outgoing president, whom he challenged for their party’s nomination in 2020. The KMT standard-bearer—widely expected to be New Taipei Mayur Hou You-Yi or Party Chairman Eric Chu (Chu Li-luan)—may need to address questions about being (especially in Hou’s case) too much a blank slate on cross-Strait issues or remaining (especially in Chu’s case) too open to ties between Taipei and Beijing that are too close for Washington’s comfort in an era of sharply adversarial US-China relations. Either major party candidate will face concerns that he lacks the depth of experience, clarity of position, and demonstrated adeptness on cross-Strait issues. Possible third-party candidate—and spoiler—Ko Wen-je has already raised alarm with scattershot statements on cross-Strait issues during prior visits to Washington when he served as mayor of Taipei.
The dynamics of the campaign in Taiwan pose a risk as well. In a possibly bitterly partisan contest, the DPP may be tempted to sharpen the portrayal of the KMT as dangerously willing to sell out Taiwan’s interest through a hasty, concessionary accommodation with Beijing. On the other hand, the KMT may be similarly drawn to starker depictions of the DPP as irredeemably unable to engage with Beijing and thus prone to leading Taiwan into a disastrous conflict with China. Such moves could worsen Washington’s wariness that new leadership in Taiwan, due to its own choices or Beijing’s reactions, may bring deeper crises in cross-Strait relations and, in turn, greater challenges for US policy and more stressful US-Taiwan ties.
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 the director of the Asia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
This article was published as part of a special issue on ‘Farewell 2022 and Welcome 2023’.