Although Trump has not given up hopes of changing the election outcome by lawsuits, most now believe that the result is set in stone, with Biden being the winner. Biden’s victory comes as a shocker to many in Taiwan and Hong Kong. After witnessing recent years of pro-Taiwan and pro-Hong Kong efforts by the Trump administration, many Taiwanese and Hong Kong people cherish and appreciate the international society’s attention unseen in decades. The rekindled enthusiasm in Taiwan’s international space turns into a belief that Trump would win a second presidency. As more mainstream news media proclaim Biden to be the winner, the devastation quickly engulfs the society in Taiwan. The excitement of a more vibrant presence quickly gives in to fear of abandonment by the international society again.
If it is of any help, international relations theories tell us that such fears are unlikely to occur. In fact, there are good reasons to believe that US-Taiwan relations are unlikely to worsen with the new administration. Likewise, Sino-US relations are unlikely to improve dramatically.
Skepticisms of the new administration come from Biden’s role as the vice president during the Obama presidency. This experience might motivate Biden to rehash Obama’s foreign policy. Taiwan endured a period of marginalization during the Obama administration. For instance, in Obama’s most critical Asia policy (i.e., rebalancing to Asia), Taiwan is simply not mentioned in numerous official statements. Actions to support Taiwan’s international participation were a rarity. To make matters worse, Taiwan’s diplomatic truce strategy was seen and supported by the US to lower the risks of antagonizing Sino-US relations. No wonder expectations for Biden’s policy toward Taiwan are bleak.
Biden might adhere to a similar foreign policy, but it would not take long for his administration to realize such a policy is detrimental to the existing US leadership in international society. Obama chose a foreign policy of engagement with China largely out of necessity and convenience. During his presidency, the US was still mired in the Middle East, countering budding terrorist organizations, and finding solutions to global warming. The over-stretched administration thus saw a China, premised on its slogan of peaceful rise, as welcoming. At that time, cooperative relations with China were beneficial for the US to reap economic benefits, maintain an image of a benign hegemon, and sustain US leadership worldwide.
The world order that Biden succeeds after Trump is drastically different from the one when Obama came into office. In 2020, China is, without a doubt, a clear adversary to the US and its liberal international system. Many in Washington believe that Obama’s foreign policy has inevitably contributed to China’s current elevated status in international society. The policy of engagement has failed to transform China into a more democratic regime. In his presidency, Trump has further instilled the idea that China is the US’s top enemy, which has gradually become a consensus in American society. Polls by Pew Research Center show that over 70% of the public view China negatively; CSIS’s elite polls reveal that leaders now see China as a competitor.
China’s ascending international status resulting in contending or even replacing US hegemony sits well with the hegemonic stability theory predictions in international relations. The US, like previous hegemons, could respond to a rising contender in either of the two ways. First, it could acquiesce in China’s rise and decide to transfer its status to China in a gradual, peaceful manner. The power transition from Great Britain to the United States best exemplifies this process. However, existing hegemons rarely decide to dethrone themselves, as the weakened status in international society might further precipitate their demise. History is repeated with examples that tensions, conflicts, or great wars arise as the existing and rising hegemons battle for supremacy in international politics.
What sets the example of the UK-US transitions apart from others are their share histories, identity, and beliefs in democratic norms and institutions. These reasons help convince Great Britain that the Pax Americana will be peaceful. These factors are nonexistent in current Sino-US relations. On top of growing animosities toward China, China’s negligence or even disdain for human rights, democratic norms and institutions, and liberal international institutions makes it difficult for the US to allow it to be the next hegemon willingly.
As a result, domestic pressure is unlikely to propel Biden to roll out a pro-China policy. Biden is quite receptive to public sentiment on this issue. For instance, facing criticisms of acting soft on China during his campaign, Biden immediately promised to act tough on China. Expectedly, once the Biden administration dramatically changes the current policy course toward China, it would soon become the target of criticisms from the opposition party, hawks inside his own party, elites, and even the general public, questioning his ability to safeguard US leadership. This pressure will force the Biden administration to adopt a tougher policy on China, perhaps more than it wants to.
Consequently, Biden will at least, to a certain degree, maintain Trump’s Taiwan policy. We also believe that the situation described above applies to his Hong Kong policy. Biden’s Taiwan and Hong Kong policies will be examined and compared closely with Trump’s. It is certainly possible that Biden decides to put Taiwan on the back burner to avoid antagonizing relations with China. However, he would learn that such a soft stance might have severe electoral consequences. Being perceived as a China pleaser could cost the Democratic party the 2022 mid-term election and even the 2024 presidential election.
US allies overseas will also watch Biden’s foreign policy toward China and Asia closely. If Biden decides to kowtow to Chinese pressure, then it would lead key US allies such as Japan and South Korea to doubt US security commitment to Asia, which might trigger them to take balancing steps either by siding with China or forming their own alliance, both would weaken US influence in the region. In short, for Biden, the reputation of the US hegemony is at stake in his presidency. To his own surprise, his best China policy should be one that looks like Trump’s.
Charles K.S. Wu (firstname.lastname@example.org) is PhD candidate in Political Science at Purdue University. Twitter: @kuanshengtwn
Yao-Yuan Yeh (email@example.com) is Associate Professor of International Studies and Chair of the Department of International Studies and Modern Languages at the University of St. Thomas, Houston. Twitter: @yeh2sctw
Fang-Yu Chen (firstname.lastname@example.org) is PhD in Political Science at Michigan State University. Twitter: @FangYu_80168
Austin Wang (email@example.com) is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Twitter: @wearytolove
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