As Biden’s cabinet designees are nearly all in place, a clearer picture of how his administration will approach U.S.-Taiwan relations can be drawn. Would it reinstate Obama’s Pivot to Asia, or retain elements of the Trump administration’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy? Below is an examination of the main foreign policy figures in Biden’s Cabinet and their past statements and stances toward Taiwan, China and the Indo-Pacific.

Antony Blinken as Secretary of State

With Antony Blinken as Secretary of State, one should expect to see a return of U.S. leadership. Instead of attempting to solve problems alone, the U.S. would seek to collaborate with allies to tackle climate change, human rights violations, security issues, among others. This suggests a more predictable and consistent U.S. foreign policy.


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Antony Blinken, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden's nominee for secretary of state, speaks as President-elect Biden announces his national security nominees and appointees at his transition headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware, November 24, 2020.

By embracing multilateralism and diplomacy, however, Blinken will by no means be soft on China. Like Pompeo, he has called on China to act like a “responsible stakeholder” and in a way befitting a great power. He has condemned China’s treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang and criticized the way it pursues economic profit at the expense of others.

In an article he co-authored with Robert Kagan, Blinken also stressed the need for the U.S. to reassert its technological sphere of influence. He suggested the establishment of a “league of democracies” to counter initiatives like the Belt and Road Initiative which serve to advance Beijing’s political agenda.

More importantly, he has urged like-minded countries to counter the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s abuse of the international system. To Blinken, multilateralism is a tool that would allow the U.S. to counter China with the support of its traditional allies. The failure to solidify alliances under the Trump administration, Blinken argued, had given China a strategic advantage over the United States.

Jake Sullivan as National Security Advisor

Jake Sullivan is very clear on China. At a Carnegie Endowment webinar, Sullivan listed China as one of the top three national security priorities for the United States.

In a Foreign Affairs article co-authored with Kurt Campbell, Sullivan describes the era of engagement with China as having come to an “unceremonious close.” Going forward, he believes that the U.S. should stop making undue assumptions about changing the Chinese system and instead find concrete ways to co-exist with it. That is, the Cold War logic of containing the Soviet Union with hopes that it will eventually collapse will not work.


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President-elect Joe Biden's national security adviser nominee Jake Sullivan speaks at The Queen theater, Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020, in Wilmington, Delaware.

Sullivan described China as a “far more challenging competitor,” whose economic prowess gives it substantial political leverage. To compete with it, Sullivan believes that the U.S. should look beyond the treaties and alliances created after the Second World War and establish a new framework that includes a “broader set of like-minded states.” This is similar to Antony Blinken’s league of democracies but hints at including even non-traditional allies like Taiwan.

The idea of establishing such a framework is echoed around the world. Britain has proposed a D10, an Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) was already created earlier this year, and there are talks of expanding The Quad to incorporate countries like New Zealand.

An alliance of democracies will be beneficial for Taiwan regardless of whether it is invited. After all, the establishment of such an alliance demonstrates a strong interest in prioritizing human rights and democracy, the hallmark of Taiwanese soft power, over the economic gains from working with authoritarian regimes like China. Both Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have repeatedly referred to a “coalition of democracies” that will serve to protect values of freedom and democracy in the Indo-Pacific.

Lloyd Austin as Secretary of Defense

It is unclear how General Lloyd Austin, a retired general whose career focused on the Middle East, will approach China. In justifying his choice of General Austin as Secretary of Defense, Biden referred to the General’s logistics management expertise when he removed troops from Iraq, a skill he believed was transferrable to the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines. But it has little bearing on the U.S.’s long-term strategy of countering China. His article mentioned neither China nor the Indo-Pacific.


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U.S. President-elect Joe Biden listens to retired U.S. General Lloyd Austin speak after Biden announced Austin as his nominee to be defense secretary at his transition headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware, December 9, 2020.

Biden’s appointment of General Austin and his ambiguous stance toward the Indo-Pacific send an equally worrying message to countries like Japan as it does to Taiwan. Japan shares national security concerns with Taiwan: not only is China encroaching on Taiwan’s ADIZ on a frequent basis, but it is also escalating its maritime operations in the East China Sea, repeatedly entering Japanese waters without prior notification.

Despite hints that the Pentagon may be less supportive of Taiwan, Congress has demonstrated willingness to continue supporting Taiwan’s self-defense capabilities. The 2021 National Defense Authorization Act has required the U.S. to provide the resources necessary for Taiwan to implement its Overall Defense Concept and to expand U.S.-Taiwan military cooperation.

Additionally, in passing the 2021 Consolidated Appropriations Act, Congress simultaneously passed a 2020 version of the Taiwan Assurance Act, which urges the U.S. to continue normalized arms sales to Taiwan.

Katherine Tai as the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR)

Katherine Tai, Chief Trade Counsel of the House Ways and Means Committee, is a longtime China critic.

At a Center for American Progress event on progressive trade visions, Tai made several comments on the U.S.-China trade relations. She explained that a trade policy with China must have both “offensive and defensive” elements and described Trump’s trade policy as aggressive but “largely defensive.” To be offensive, Tai said that there needs to be a joint effort between democracies to counter the rise of China in both economic and security domains.

In August last year, Taiwan lifted a longstanding ban on U.S. pork and beef imports to open talks on a bilateral trade agreement with the United States. While the current USTR Robert Lighthizer demonstrated little interest in initiating trade talks with Taiwan, experts expect the Biden administration to strengthen economic relations with Taiwan in ways that the Trump administration did not.

Given that Tai prefers a multilateral approach in countering China, Taiwan may also have a higher chance of joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

Katherine Tai, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden's nominee to be U.S. Trade Representative, speaks after Biden announced her nomination during a fresh round of nominations and appointments at a news conference at his transition headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware, December 11, 2020.

That said, Biden has explicitly stated that he would not be considering any trade deal until he “invests in America first.” It remains to be seen how his administration will approach this issue.

Biden: A “Secure and Prosperous” Indo-Pacific?

In November, Biden received separate congratulatory calls from the leaders of Australia, Japan, and South Korea. The official readout of these calls emphasized one particular phrase: a secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific region. The use of this phrase appears to be deliberate, suggesting some form of continuity with the Trump administration’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy.

Taiwan cannot defend democratic values alone, and neither can the United States. When evaluating the U.S.-Taiwan relationship, it is important to look beyond bilateral arrangements. Although Taiwan benefits from friendly acts and arms sales, its partnership with the U.S. is most valuable when the U.S. is at the forefront of the liberal international order. By embracing allies, the U.S. can nudge other countries to cooperate with Taiwan.

But when the U.S. abdicates leadership and loses credibility among its allies, people cease to see the democratic process as a model to follow and turn to alternative forms of government. The result is salient: established democracies are on the decline and delicate ones like Taiwan are at increasing risk of being undermined by authoritarian regimes. In the long run, Taiwan will profit more from a return of U.S. multilateralism than it realizes.

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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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