Navigating US Taiwan policy in 2021
Under the Trump administration, U.S.-Taiwan ties have reached new heights on multiple fronts, but so too have cross-strait tensions as the U.S. pursues arms sales of advanced weaponry and increases joint exercises and official visits in the face of persistent intimidation from China. This culminated in a statement by U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo that “Taiwan has not been a part of China,” which sought to push China to the brink. At the same time, President Trump is likely to take additional measures against China in the remaining weeks of his presidency that could cause further anxiety in the already crisis-prone Taiwan Strait.
In this context, President-elect Biden’s policy toward Taiwan is expected to be congruent to America’s longstanding position, with greater coherence and inclusivity. His longstanding interest in Taiwan and deep understanding of the triangular U.S.-China-Taiwan relationship are likely to provide the impetus for a more effective rebalance against Beijing’s pressure.
Biden’s congressional career began only a few years after Henry Kissinger’s first trips to China in the early 1970’s. Biden is one of the few remaining witnesses to the process of normalization of U.S.-China relations and Taiwan’s unofficial relationship with Washington, under the premise of the “One China” policy. Moreover, he has held powerful positions in U.S. foreign policy in his career, including chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations three times. These experiences will soon be tremendous assets for steadying cross-strait relations while effectively bringing Taiwan into the international fold.
Six years into his tenure, then-Sen. Biden voted for the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, the foundational U.S. law governing its relations with Taiwan – including arms sales and commercial and cultural relations – which has solidified Washington’s role in the balance of power across the Taiwan Strait. The law does not contain a security guarantee, but it leaves open the possibility of U.S. military intervention to defend Taiwan in case of a mainland Chinese invasion.
To maintain stability, Washington has embraced a doctrine of strategic ambiguity to leave room for both sides of the Strait to sort things out peacefully, while deliberately deterring any provocative actions on the part of Taiwan. Later, Biden opposed the proposed Taiwan Security Enhancement Act (TSEA) of 1999 on the grounds that the establishment of formal military communications would unnecessarily provoke the mainland.
Two years later, during the George W. Bush administration, Biden acted as a moderating force between President Bush and Taiwan’s President Chen Shui-bian. When President Bush promised that he would defend Taiwan from mainland Chinese incursion, Biden was among the first to publicly criticize the president for briefly forsaking the established doctrine. Later in August 2001, Biden led a congressional delegation to Taipei and subsequently to Beijing.
Meeting with President Chen in Taipei, Biden reiterated the Taiwan Relations Act and warned that the U.S. would not defend Taiwan if it unilaterally declared independence. Later in September, he further opposed Bush’s efforts to provide Taiwan with a missile defense system out of fear that it may result in a regional arms race.
Fast forward to the present day. The massive China-Taiwan military imbalance and the latest spike in the People’s Liberation Army’s warplane incursions into Taiwan’s air defense space have raised questions about the credibility of U.S. deterrence against Chinese aggression and commitments to Taiwan’s security. However, countering these threats does not necessarily contravene the longstanding framework in which U.S. arms sale to Taiwan is predicated on the threat posed by Beijing. So long as China keeps up the military intimidation, U.S. arms sales and defense cooperation with Taiwan will likely continue, albeit in a less visible manner than it did under the Trump administration.
Diplomatically, the Biden administration is expected to adopt a more multilateral approach, ensuring that Taiwan is a more active player across various international organizations and more closely aligned and coordinated with allies and partners. As Washington may look to reverse its withdrawals from international institutions such as the World Health Organization and restores closer ties with allies, the ensuing democratic coalition may provide much-needed leverage to lobby for Taiwan’s participation and push back on some of Beijing’s more problematic behaviors.
As to U.S.-Taiwan official exchanges and visits, I hope Biden will take a more effective approach, focusing more on substance than noise. Commercially, while the Trump administration had started the Economic and Commercial Dialogue, it has not yet involved trade officials, leaving opportunities for the Biden administration to cement the bilateral trade relationship and a free trade agreement.
Washington’s deepening ties with Taiwan will remain a key feature in its Asia policy beyond 2020, as the convergence of American and Taiwanese interests and the Chinese pressure campaign continues. The White House has long lacked a commander-in-chief who understands the multi-faceted nuances of the U.S.-China-Taiwan triangle. But the forthcoming change in leadership, coupled with the longstanding bipartisan support of Taiwan, may bring about a welcome change toward an effective Taiwan policy. It is time that Taiwan receive the attention it deserves in Washington as an important strategic partner.
Zoe Leung is the director of Track 2 Diplomacy Programs at the George H. W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations. Cameron Waltz contributed research to this article.