from Asia Unbound

Biden Administration Sends Important Signals for the Future of U.S.-Taiwan Ties

A F-CK-1 Ching-kuo Indigenous Defence Fighter (IDF) is seen at an Air Force base in Tainan, Taiwan, on January 26, 2021.
A F-CK-1 Ching-kuo Indigenous Defence Fighter (IDF) is seen at an Air Force base in Tainan, Taiwan, on January 26, 2021. Ann Wang/Reuters

Following Joe Biden’s election as the forty-sixth president of the United States, many people in Taiwan feared that U.S.-Taiwan relations would suffer. According to one poll conducted prior to the presidential election, Taiwan was the only place in Asia surveyed where the population favored President Trump’s reelection. The Trump administration had bolstered U.S. ties with Taipei, dispatching high-level envoys to the island, selling over $18 billion in arms to Taiwan (compared with $14 billion during the eight years of the Obama administration), removing all restrictions on contacts with Taiwan officials, working to shore up Taiwan’s relationships with its remaining diplomatic allies, and explicitly including Taiwan as part of its Indo-Pacific strategy.

A significant share of the Taiwan public was apprehensive that the Biden administration would be a continuation of the Obama administration, which they believed had prioritized Chinese cooperation on global issues such as climate change over building stronger ties with Taiwan. So far, however, these fears appear to be misplaced. The Biden administration has signaled that it will largely pick up where the Trump administration left off.

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Those who now serve in senior roles in the Biden administration signaled their support for Taiwan prior to joining the administration. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, and Kurt Campbell, the NSC coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, called for the United States to invest in capabilities that would bolster deterrence in the Taiwan Strait and for the United States and China to maintain their “tacit commitment not to unilaterally alter the status quo.”

Both Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin underscored their support for Taiwan during their confirmation hearings. Blinken stated the U.S. commitment to providing Taiwan with the capabilities it needs to defend itself “will absolutely endure in a Biden administration,” noted he “would also like to see Taiwan playing a greater role around the world,” and alluded to reexamining U.S. regulations for interacting with Taiwan with an eye toward liberalizing them. He concluded, “the commitment to Taiwan is something that we hold to very strongly.” Austin emphasized U.S. “support to Taiwan has been rock solid over the years” and he would “make sure that we’re living up to our commitments to support Taiwan's ability to defend itself.”

The Biden administration sent an important signal of its support for Taiwan when it chose to invite Taiwan’s representative in the United States, Bi-khim Hsiao, to President Biden’s inauguration. This marked the first time since the United States severed diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 1979 that Taipei’s representative in the United States was formally invited to a presidential inauguration.

The strongest indication that U.S.-Taiwan ties will continue to be strengthened came in official statements that were issued after China flew fighter jets into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone just days after Biden took office. The People’s Liberation Army sees operational value in conducting these missions, and it could have also been motivated by a desire to test the Biden administration’s response. The spokeswoman for the National Security Council responded by underlining the U.S. commitment to Taiwan is “rock-solid.” The State Department issued its own statement that is worth quoting in full:

The United States notes with concern the pattern of ongoing PRC attempts to intimidate its neighbors, including Taiwan. We urge Beijing to cease its military, diplomatic, and economic pressure against Taiwan and instead engage in meaningful dialogue with Taiwan’s democratically elected representatives.

We will stand with friends and allies to advance our shared prosperity, security, and values in the Indo-Pacific region—and that includes deepening our ties with democratic Taiwan. The United States will continue to support a peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues, consistent with the wishes and best interests of the people on Taiwan. The United States maintains its longstanding commitments as outlined in the Three Communiqués, the Taiwan Relations Act, and the Six Assurances. We will continue to assist Taiwan in maintaining a sufficient self-defense capability. Our commitment to Taiwan is rock-solid and contributes to the maintenance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and within the region.

The statement clearly puts the onus on Beijing for raising tensions, elevates the Six Assurances to holding the same weight as the three joint communiqués, affirms a U.S. intention to deepen ties with Taiwan, and again notes a “rock-solid” commitment to Taiwan. The Biden administration passed its first test with flying colors.

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Transition 2021

Taken together, these signals indicate that the Biden administration is likely to continue to forge a closer relationship with Taiwan. This reflects a growing sense among U.S. policymakers that as Chinese foreign policy grows more assertive and military deterrence in the Taiwan Strait continues to erode, China could be tempted to try to coerce Taiwan. As a result, the United States has to more clearly signal to China its commitment to Taiwan and work with Taiwan to bolster deterrence. It also reflects a growing consensus in the U.S. policymaking community that Taiwan is a reliable partner for the United States on a host of issues.

It is possible that the Biden administration will choose to strengthen this relationship out of the public eye, as the media attention makes a Chinese response more likely, and Taiwan often bears the brunt of that response. Thus, the next four years may see fewer high-level visits to Taipei, but one should expect that senior U.S. officials will continue to meet with their Taiwanese counterparts in private in an effort to build this partnership. Nonetheless, the Biden administration has sent strong signals during its first week in office that it will continue to nurture U.S.-Taiwan relations. The next four years are likely to have more continuity than discontinuity.