The White House’s Taiwan faux pas

The White House’s bigger faux pas last weekend wasn’t when President Biden said the U.S. would “defend Taiwan” if China were to invade, it was excluding Taiwan from his new Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.

Diplomacy is at the center of the Biden administration’s foreign policy. One of the few goals of this administration is to declare that “diplomacy is back,” whether it’s from mending trade relations with Europe or gathering partners for a new economic club in Asia.

These efforts are being led by the White House’s desire to rebuild and expand its diplomatic relations, and less about the economic reasons, such as expanding trade opportunities. The more countries the White House can add to its list of “friends,” the louder it can tell voters that Biden is delivering on his campaign promise.

So, when Biden announced that the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework would have 13 countries as its initial participants, including seven from southeast Asia, many in Washington immediately declared it a diplomatic success. Apparently, this was a higher number than some expected.

Unfortunately, at least one important country didn’t make the list: Taiwan.

Even though Taiwan officials were some of the first and few to publicly express interest in joining the framework, White House officials instead have decided to keep Taiwan out for the time being. The argument was that by keeping Taiwan out, the White House was able to secure more southeast Asia participants who otherwise would be uneasy about angering China by getting too close to Taiwan. Some in Washington might call this move by the White House a “strategic tradeoff.”

As a form of diplomatic consolation, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said they are “looking to deepen our economic partnership with Taiwan.” And while the U.S. has multiple high-level dialogues with Taiwan, it’s questionable what the White House really can offer Taiwan to make amends.    

Taiwan remains an international outcast in many ways. Despite being a global trading powerhouse and a member of the World Trade Organization and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, Taiwan has only a few official trade partners around the world. For years, Taipei has tried to initiate trade negotiations with the U.S. Now, in an effort to expand its trading partners, Taiwan is in a race against China to get into the Trans-Pacific Partnership. If China gets into that trade agreement first, it likely will block Taiwan’s entry.

China continues to assert its global influence and to block Taiwan from participating in important international agreements and organizations — such as its continued blocking of Taiwan’s entry to the World Health Assembly. And while Beijing might not be happy about the new Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, it’s at least happy that Taiwan isn’t in that, either.

With or without Taiwan, the jury is out on whether the framework will be an economic success. It’s great that the Biden team will deepen its relationship with countries such as India and Vietnam. But framework negotiations haven’t even started and several issues already stand out. For one, the framework lacks incentives like market access that make current and future participants excited about joining. Many in Asia want meaningful trade and economic engagement, not just more diplomatic forums. But Taiwan needs America’s support to get into even mediocre economic agreements. 

Not bringing Taiwan into the framework keeps Taiwan’s economy isolated in many ways. But it’s not too late for Biden to offer his administration’s support.

First and foremost, the White House should move ahead with a U.S.-Taiwan free trade deal. A recent study shows that such a deal is good for the U.S. and Taiwan economies and bad for China. It would serve as an example to other countries that have been hesitant to expand trade and economic partnerships with Taiwan.

Second, Taiwan is an important part of the global supply chain. Taiwan is one of the few countries with the capability to manufacture some of the most advanced semiconductors, so the U.S. should strengthen its partnership with Taiwan and, working with other partners in Asia, make sure these technologies don’t fall into the wrong hands.

Riley Walters is deputy director of the Japan Chair at the Hudson Institute.

Tags Biden Biden trip to Asia Indo-Pacific Economic Framework Taiwan Taiwan–United States relations

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