Taiwan-US relations during the Trump era were too good to be true. Having experienced that, Taiwan’s diplomatic circles are skeptical about Joe Biden’s policies towards China and US-Taiwan relations after he took office as US President. Biden has mentioned that the tough policies towards China will continue, while his team has repeatedly proclaimed that the US’s strategically competitive relationship with China will not change and the US’s support for Taiwan will not be shaken. During a Senate confirmation hearing, Antony Blinken expressed his support for Donald Trump’s attitudes towards Taiwan, although he disagreed with the Trump administration’s approach. Nevertheless, many political observers in Taiwan remain skeptical.
Judging from the actions taken by Biden after he took office, however, we can be certain that while Biden will not be Trump 2.0 in terms of the relations between the US, China and Taiwan, he will absolutely not be Obama 2.0 either. There is every reason for Taiwan to be hopeful about the policies of Biden 1.0 towards Taiwan and China.
Following a large-scale incursion by Chinese fighter jets into Taiwan between 23rd and 24th January and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s warning that Taiwan’s independence would mean war, Yang Jiechi, a member of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, delivered a speech to the “National Committee on United States-China Relations” on 2nd February, stressing that China expected to build a new type of international relations based on the principles of mutual respect, equality, justice, win-win cooperation and the establishment of a community with shared future for mankind. He also expressed hope for the construction of a bilateral relationship between the US and China that is free of conflicts, non-confrontational, mutually respectful and mutually beneficial. He also declared that issues concerning China’s sovereignty and territory such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang are regarded by China as red lines that must not be crossed.
Following allies into China
But the Biden administration’s reaction was very much different from Obama’s. Not only did the State Department immediately warn against China warplanes’ intimidation and harassment of Taiwan, but it also vowed that its commitment to Taiwan is “rock-solid”. The US Department of Defense also immediately hit back at China’s statement that Taiwan’s independence would mean war. The Biden administration even delivered a sting of punches on Yang Jiechi’s speech. First, in its daily press conference on 3rd February, the spokesperson of the State Council demanded that China immediately stop its suppression of Taiwan on military, economic and diplomatic fronts, and that it should begin meaningful dialogues with Taiwan’s democratically elected leader. Then the US Indo-Pacific Command also announced that the USS John S. McCain, a destroyer, had passed through the Taiwan Strait in the morning that day (3rd February).
On 4th February, Biden said, without mincing words, in his foreign policy speech that China is the most serious competitor, and the US will counter China in the fields of the economy, human rights, intellectual property and global governance as well as respond to China’s coercive actions (on the region). On 5th February Antony Blinken, the US Secretary for State, spoke with Yang during a phone conference, during which he reconfirmed that the US would work with its allies and partners to protect their shared values and interests in the face of China’s threats to the peace and stability of the Indo-Pacific (including the Taiwan Strait). In other words, within three days of Yang’s speech, the US made strong responses through the President, the State Council and the Department of Defense.
The way the Biden administration has responded to China has three characteristics. First, even though not all of the Biden administration’s officials have been sworn in, the speed at which the Biden administration has responded to statements made by China shows that the message conveyed by the Senate hearings attended by Biden’s team, i.e., China will be the most important diplomatic focus of the Biden administration, are not without substance. Second, the Biden administration tackles issues related to China with a “whole of government” approach, and a certain degree of coordination begins to emerge. This shows the mindset that its strategies for the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea are part of a master plan.
Third, despite the suggestions of outsiders and China’s operations behind closed doors, Biden has yet to talk with Xi Jinping on the phone. But he has spoken with the US’s allies in Europe and Asia. Such a fact shows that the US’s policies towards China is about taking the path of “entering China through allies” instead of letting US-China and cross-strait relations in the Pacific determine the US’s Indo-Pacific strategies.
Furthermore, judging from the substance of the Biden administration’s response to China, we can see that Biden no longer sees the issue of the Taiwan Strait as a controversy originating from Taiwan’s and China’s disagreements on unification or independence. The US will vehemently oppose China’s suppression of Taiwan in terms of the erosion of democracy, economic intimidation and diplomatic suppression. While in the past the focus was on China’s military threats to Taiwan and the US turned a blind eye to China’s diplomatic blockade of Taiwan, that is no longer the case. We can see traces of the US’s assistance concerning the proposed creation of Taiwan’s office in Guyana. This shows that while the US under Biden will stick to the “One China” policy, the Biden administration also supports Taiwan diplomatically compared with the Trump administration.
Some people argue that the Biden administration changed its stance on the Guyana issue within just 24 hours and its response was not as good as what the Trump administration did before. However, back then the Trump administration was dealing with countries severing ties with Taiwan, while the Biden administration is facing the issue of a new office being cancelled. These are fundamentally different issues. However, the Biden administration’s stance that it supports Taiwan’s development of (informal) relations with other countries is a very clear one. But at such a sensitive time, it has to keep a low profile.
Unexpectedly friendly towards Taiwan
It is obvious that Biden is indifferent to the idea of a new type of relations between China and the US as proposed by Xi Jinping. He is not in a hurry to talk or meet with Xi. No doubt Biden does not see China as an ideological enemy, but it is impossible for US-China relations to return to the Obama era, during which the US attempted to build “strategic reassurance” with China. The two sides crossed swords just two weeks after Biden was sworn into office, and Biden was not at a disadvantage. Quite the contrary, the domineering confidence that the two major powers of China and the US will rule the world jointly, as displayed by Yang in his speech, and China’s absolute lack of remorse for its cover-up at the early stage make the world suspect that China will become even more invasive in the post-pandemic era. Yang’s speech displays a kind of self-importance that shows China looks down on countries such as India.
Since Biden was sworn into office, his tough stance on China and support for Taiwan seem to have taken China by surprise. It can be seen that the relations between the US, China and Taiwan and Indo-Pacific relations could develop in ways far beyond the imaginations of China and Taiwan.
(Lai I-chung, Executive Committee Member of Taiwan Thinktank)
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