When will Biden declare America’s ‘One China, One Taiwan’ policy?
In 2016, the newly-elected Donald Trump started “breaking china” and challenging China even before he took office. He accepted a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, the first U.S.-Taiwan head of government contact since relations ended in 1979. The call immediately raised hackles not only in Beijing but in Washington think tanks and among China experts.
Told he had violated an unwritten rule to shun Taiwan, Trump responded, “Interesting how the U.S. sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call.”
In a tweet, he bristled at the idea that he had to consult with Beijing before making decisions he considered in the national interest. “Did China ask us if it was OK to devalue their currency (making it hard for our companies to compete), heavily tax our products going into their country (the U.S. doesn’t tax them) or to build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea? I don’t think so!”
He said he could talk with anyone he chose to, and he obviously considered Taiwan as just another country.
China’s foreign minister Wang Yi warned, “China doesn’t want to see any disturbance [to U.S.-China relations]. I also believe this will not change the One China policy upheld by the American government for many years.” Trump responded in a Fox interview, “I fully understand the One China policy, but I don’t know why we have to be bound by a One China policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade.”
By April 2017, however, Trump began to soften his tone on the China-Taiwan issue. After Tsai raised the possibility of another call, he told Fox: “Look, my problem is I have established a very good personal relationship with President Xi [Jinping]. I really feel that he is doing everything in his power to help us with a big situation [on North Korea.] So I wouldn’t want to be causing difficulty right now for him. I think he’s doing an amazing job as a leader and I wouldn’t want to do anything that comes in the way of that. So I would certainly want to speak to him first.”
There was no further Trump-Tsai contact. The trade deal, the China-origin pandemic, and the legal and political attacks on his presidency consumed much of Trump’s time and energy. His former national security adviser, John Bolton, wrote that Taiwan became a secondary issue, if not an annoying distraction from his main dealings with China: “[O]ne of Trump’s favorite comparisons was to point to the tip of one of his Sharpie [marker] and say, ‘This is Taiwan,’ then point to [his desk in the Oval Office] and say, ‘This is China.’”
While Trump’s personal view of Taiwan may have devolved, his national security team remained faithful to the original vision of a normal, respectful and supportive relationship with Taiwan. Trump signed the Taiwan Travel Act and TAIPEI Act, (as well as the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act and Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, which also angered Beijing).
Through expanded arms sales, high-level official visits, and a series of strong speeches by key appointees, his administration launched a transformative U.S. policy on China and Taiwan. Embittered by what he saw as Xi’s duplicitous behavior on the pandemic in 2019 and 2020, Trump enabled his team to pursue a new approach to Beijing and Taipei that can be described fairly as a One China, One Taiwan policy.
To the surprise of many — and to Beijing’s chagrin — President Biden’s key national security and foreign policy appointees, who had participated in the feckless engagement policies of the Clinton and Obama administrations, followed their immediate predecessor’s clear-eyed and decidedly pro-Taiwan policy.
Though he didn’t emulate Trump by talking with Tsai after his election win, Biden did set his own precedent, inviting Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to his inauguration. He also began his administration by adopting Trump’s flawed approach of personalizing U.S.-China relations and downplaying the inherent systemic challenge from the communist regime. Pointing repeatedly to the number of times he had met Xi when they were both national leaders-in-waiting, Biden would insist, “I know him well and he knows me well.”
But Xi was yet to learn whether Biden would follow previous administrations’ preferred strategic ambiguity on the critical issue of defending Taiwan. When Trump was asked that question, he did not answer directly but said, pugnaciously enough to reveal his mindset, “China knows what I’m gonna do — China knows.” Biden addressed the matter just as emphatically. Asked by a CNN Town Hall audience member whether he would “vow to protect Taiwan,” he said unequivocally, “Yes.” When CNN’s Anderson Cooper repeated the question, Biden replied, “Yes, we have a commitment to do that.”
The White House followed with its usual “clarifications” and assurances that U.S. policy had not changed. It also sought to dismiss Xi’s summit reference to Biden as “my old friend,” saying Biden did not see Xi that way. Biden himself had addressed their personal relationship at a June news conference in Geneva: “Let’s get something straight. We know each other well; we’re not old friends. It’s just pure business.” He had earlier called Xi “a thug.” Xi’s chummy summit greeting may have been intended to cajole, or to goad, him.
Biden then turned a new page in the Taiwan policy discussion. National security adviser Jake Sullivan stressed that the president had told Xi of his strong support for the Taiwan Relations Act as a young senator. In his own brief press encounter the day after the call, Biden said he told Xi the U.S. would adhere to the act and to the One China policy, and said of Taiwan, “It’s independent. It makes its own decisions.”
That prompted followup questions in New Hampshire the same day. Asked whether Washington “supports” Taiwan’s independence, Biden responded: “I said that they have to decide — ‘they’ — Taiwan. Not us. And we are not encouraging independence, we’re encouraging that they do exactly what the Taiwan Act requires. That’s what we’re doing. Let them make up their mind.” Biden’s formulation seemed quite open to Taipei’s “independent” decision on “independence,” unlike the colder language of Kurt Campbell, White House coordinator for the Indo-Pacific — “We do not support Taiwan independence”— that is reminiscent of the “Three Nos” dictated to Taiwan by the Clinton administration when Campbell worked there.
At some point, Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, or Sullivan, may find it useful to end all the semantic speculation and openly declare America’s One China, One Taiwan policy.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.