How Trump and Biden Differ on Taiwan

How Trump and Biden Differ on Taiwan
Photo Credit: AP / TPG Images
What you need to know

No matter who wins in November, the U.S.-Taiwan relationship will remain a relationship of convenience.

The United States 2020 presidential election — just over two months away — has been an object of much speculation in Taiwan. In particular, U.S.-Taiwan relations saw tectonic shifts under the Trump administration, and some question what the next presidential administration may bode for Taiwan. 

Sharp divides have already arisen, with an open letter by Taiwanese Americans United calling for endorsing Joe Biden while the Taiwan Solidarity Union called for endorsing Donald Trump’s reelection. This has been understood by some as a gap between Taiwanese in Taiwan and overseas Taiwanese regarding their preferred choice of American president, although this may be a misleading perception. The TSU’s stances may not be particularly surprising considering that it is sometimes seen as the party of right-independence. 

The Tsai administration will have to plan for either possibility going forward. A recent statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs thanking both Republicans and Democrats for their bipartisan support hints that the government is already hedging bets. It is possible that deep Green elements of the pan-Green camp will endorse Trump — even if this has the potential to sabotage ties with a future Democratic administration. This is an issue that faces Taiwanese lobbying groups in the United States with strong links with Republican politicians, but no corresponding focus on building ties with Democrats. 

Trump’s record on Taiwan

The Trump administration illustrated a tendency to break from precedent on Taiwan policy, starting from the December 2016 Trump-Tsai phone call, in which Trump shocked the world by being willing to take a call from a Taiwanese president and by referring to Tsai on Twitter as “president of Taiwan.” The exact details of how this call took place are still murky, though former Republican Senate Leader Bob Dole reportedly had a role in brokering it. 

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Photo Credit: Taiwan Presidential Office
Tsai Ing-wen makes an unprecedented phone call to then U.S. President-elect Donald Trump in December 2016.

As depicted in Superpower Showdown, a recent book by Wall Street Journal reporters Bob Davis and Lingling Wei, the call was put on Trump’s schedule by a junior staffer sympathetic to Taiwan. Though another presidential administration would have struck the call off of the schedule, Steve Bannon noticed this and kept the call on Trump’s schedule, hoping to shake up the U.S.-China relationship, and keeping Jared Kushner in the dark to the potential consequences. 

Since the Trump administration took office, one has seen the passage of legislation supportive of Taiwan including the Taiwan Travel Act, TAIPEI Act, and the US$250 million expansion of America’s de facto embassy in Taiwan, the American Institute in Taiwan. Several arms sales have taken place, including a US$330 million arms sale to the ROC Air Force in September 2018 and a US$2.2 billion arms sale of M1A2T Abrams tanks, Stinger missiles, and other equipment in July 2019. 

American military activities have also increased in the area around Taiwan as a response to China’s aggressive drills, including sending naval vessels into waters near Taiwan and warplanes across the median line of the Taiwan Straits. Further legislation that has been introduced, such as the Taiwan Defense Act, would bring America just short of a formal commitment to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion. 

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, who visited Taiwan earlier this month under the auspices of learning from Taiwan’s successes fighting Covid-19, was the highest-ranking cabinet official to travel to Taiwan since 1979.

A geopolitical pawn?

Such actions have led some to label the Trump administration “the most pro-Taiwan” American presidential administration in history. At the same time, there have been warnings that the Trump administration may simply see Taiwan as a geopolitical pawn, and that its upgrading of ties with Taiwan was a way for Trump to strike back at China — with such warnings coming from voices far from the political Left. 

In his recent tell-all about his time in the Trump administration, former National Security Advisor John Bolton warned that Trump had compared the size of the Taiwanese economy to a pen and the size of the Chinese economy to the Resolute desk used in the Oval Office, suggesting that Trump was willing to throw Taiwan under the bus, much as he did with the Kurds, with his eye on the greater prize of a trade deal with China. 

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
U.S. President Donald Trump, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, U.S. President Donald Trump's national security adviser John Bolton and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a working dinner after the G20 leaders summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina December 1, 2018.

Derek Grossman, a Senior Defense Analyst at the RAND Corporation, has also been among those to warn Taiwan about the dangers of strengthening ties between the U.S. and Taiwan. Grossman argues that the U.S. may simply be trying to “dangle Taiwan in front of China,” and cites examples of the Trump administration throwing its security relation with Japan and South Korea into question by demanding billions in payment in return for maintaining military bases, as illustrating the potential dangers for Taiwan. One of the Trump administration’s actions on its first day in office was also to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which was originally intended to cement closer ties between the U.S. and Asia Pacific economies in order to counter China. 

Still, many in Taiwan have been dismissive of such warnings, perhaps substituting wishful thinking for reality on the present state of U.S.-Taiwan relations. We see this wishful thinking in the conflation of congressional actions with actions from the Trump administration. Some media outlets, such as the Liberty Times, have exaggerated Republican support for Taiwan by claiming that the Republican Party plans to adopt its 2016 platform for Taiwan again in 2020, when the Republican Party in fact has no platform for 2020.

A more realistic assessment of whether Taiwan would benefit from a second Trump term would understand that to bank on Trump is to hope that U.S.-Taiwan relations will continue to see upgrades under Trump, but realizing that there is also the danger of suddenly being discarded by Trump if he sees any political gain from doing so.

Biden not the dove he seems to be

In the event of a Biden presidency, it has been noted that despite Biden sometimes being thought of as dovish on foreign policy, the Biden administration has sought to ramp up its anti-China rhetoric. This has included attempting to depict the Trump administration as, in fact, soft on China, being all talk and no action. 

Former AIT director Joseph Bosco noted that Biden has primarily attacked China for its theft of intellectual property and as economic competition, rather than aggressive actions in the South China Seas. At the same time, the Biden campaign has referred to China’s detention of upward of one million Uyghurs in Xinjiang as “genocide,” something the Trump administration has not yet formally done. The Biden campaign also indicated that it will press for continued sanctions against China over the deterioration of democratic freedoms in Hong Kong, likely drawing on the provisions of the 2019 Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act.

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Photo Credit: AP / TPG Images
Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden listens to a speech by Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping (not pictured) at a China-U.S. Business Dialogue in the Beijing Hotel in Beijing, China, August, 19, 2011.

Democrats also struck out at the Trump administration in July 2019 for suspending sales of fighter jets to Taiwan as an effort at placating Beijing, suggesting that the Biden administration may seek to sell fighter jets to Taiwan — a move that was nixed under the Obama administration in 2011. Significantly, Biden was the first Democratic presidential candidate to congratulate Tsai on her reelection in January 2020. In this respect, as continuing sanctions against China, arms sales to Taiwan, and attacking China on trade issues, as former Washington Post Beijing bureau chief John Pomfret wrote in a recent editorial, Biden could potentially counterintuitively be “The main beneficiary of the Trump administration’s China policy,” in inheriting the Trump administration’s playbook against China. 

Concerns have been raised regarding Biden’s past record on China policy, seeing as in the past Biden attempted to depict China as not being an enemy of the United States. As recently as in May 2019, Biden stated, “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man. I mean, you know, they’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what? They’re not competition for us,” drawing the ire of Republicans and Democrats alike. Likewise, many former Obama presidential administration officials were among those to sign an open letter published in July 2019 urging that “China is not an enemy.

However, the political climate in America has changed drastically from even just a year ago. Many of the foreign policy advisors in the Biden administration are hawkish and that Biden advisers have gone on the record with statements on China to try and negate Biden’s image as soft on China. China is an issue that Trump has sought to attack Biden on, depicting Biden as the candidate that China would want to have win. 

Multilateralism a key point of distinction

Yet it is also clear that a Biden administration would differ in its approach to countering China than the Trump administration. It is generally thought that Biden would take a more multilateral approach to counter China, something flagged in comments by Biden campaign foreign policy advisor Ely Ratner. As a senior politician who first took office in the 1970s, Biden may have had his foreign policy views shaped by the traditional Cold War alliance model. But the difference between the Cold War and present U.S.-China tensions is the high degree of economic integration between the two countries. A key source of tensions between America and China, in fact, arise from the prospect of decoupling between the two largest economies in the world. 

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Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
Representatives of members of Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal gather for a photograph in March 2018. 

It has been speculated that a Biden administration may seek to re-join the TPP, which has taken new form as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership in the years since America’s withdrawal. Taiwan is currently pursuing a bilateral trade agreement with the U.S., opening Taiwan to American beef and pork imports to clear a longstanding obstacle to a bilateral agreement. Either way, it would be a challenge for a Biden administration to reassure traditional allies of the U.S. in the region, such as Japan and South Korea, rattled by their experiences of the Trump administration’s threats to withdraw military bases. 

By contrast, a Biden administration might encounter distrust from Taiwan because of the deeply-rooted perception in Taiwan that Republicans are more steadfast allies of Taiwan compared to Democrats. This is a product of the emphasis on engagement with China as a way of pushing the country to change by Democrats in the past, with a particular focus on economic engagement, and the cancellation of previously planned arms sales of F-16s to Taiwan by the Obama administration, an act that the pan-Green camp has never forgiven. 

A relationship of convenience 

Still, it should be clear that structural factors dictate increased tensions between the U.S. and China, regardless of whether Trump wins a second term, or whether Biden wins the presidential election. But fundamentally speaking, whether under Trump or under a different American president, Taiwan’s importance to America is primarily geostrategic, as part of efforts to counter China. 

This can lead to Taiwan being used as leverage for negotiations with China or the sudden reversal of supportive policy toward Taiwan, irrespective of presidential administration. One need look for no more prominent an example of this than the sudden derecognition of the Republic of China in favor of the People’s Republic of China in 1979. 

This can take place with both Democratic and Republican presidential administrations. Even if a Biden administration would be less likely to reverse course on Taiwan as brazenly as the Trump administration has threatened to, the prospect of abrupt abandonment proves an existential bedrock of the U.S.-Taiwan relationship — as with all relations between nation-states, fundamentally a relationship of convenience more than anything else.


READ NEXT: In US-China Conflict, What Is the End Game for Taiwan? 

TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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