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Ticklish Taiwan: What Will Biden Do?

Dec 18, 2020

We know that U.S. President-elect Joe Biden will enter the White House on Jan. 20. What we don’t know is whether, or how quickly, he will want to reset relations with China. In that context, Taiwan is an important focal point.

Over the past four years, the Donald Trump administration’s policy toward China has time and again created tension and destabilized relations. Supported by a fierce offensive from the Trump administration, authorities in Taiwan have challenged the country’s bottom line that there is only one China.

How Biden will handle Trump’s political legacy is worth close attention. After four years of Trump, the general atmosphere in the United States on relations with China has changed and voices favoring a tougher stand have become increasingly strident.

Trump’s moves on the Taiwan question have made relations with China highly volatile. How the Biden administration handles the Taiwan Travel Act, Taipei Act and other Taiwan-related acts signed by Trump will undoubtedly make waves across the Taiwan Strait. Moreover, the Trump administration has been laying land mines for Biden. For example, the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the U.S. recently signed a cooperation memorandum with the American Institute in Taiwan. It has an implementation period of five years, well into Biden’s term.

In addition, the Trump administration sold weapons to Taiwan on election day and afterward. The purchases have already overdrawn the financial resources of the Taiwan authorities. Fulfillment of these contracts will occur mainly during the Biden administration.

Trump may have lost the election, but Trumpism and the Trump legacy with regard to Taiwan will remain for the new president to deal with.

How the Biden administration will navigate relations with the U.S. Congress on the Taiwan question also deserves close attention. Given the atmosphere that has developed in Congress during Trump’s four years, legislators’ position on China-related topics is unlikely to change much, no matter which party controls the Senate. Biden’s interaction with Congress on the Taiwan question will largely define cross-strait relations over the next four years.

The Biden administration’s China policy will be more predictable, more rational and more strategic than Trump’s. It is possible for him to return to America’s traditional policy in this field. But given the incoming president’s own statements over the years — as well as observations of his team’s performance during the Obama administration and the composition of the group he is now organizing to manage Asia-Pacific affairs — the new administration may revert to strategic ambiguity. It will probably develop and implement policies more strategically than Trump has done as he created frictions on specific issues and increased cross-strait tensions.

Although the Biden administration may focus on a broader relationship with China, sales of arms to Taiwan by the U.S. will undoubtedly continue, as will the so-called freedom of navigation patrols in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea. The Biden team will likely declare its support for “Taiwan values,” and visits to the island by senior American officials will continue.

But as a veteran politician who understands the need to avoid a breakup while engaging in a fight, Biden is unlikely to make any radical changes to basic policies toward Taiwan.

Even so, major changes have taken place in the overall climate of China-U.S. relations. U.S. interactions with Taiwan have turned up the heat on a relationship that was already strained and confrontational, so the possibility that the new U.S. administration will stage further incidents cannot be excluded.

The American side may have already noted this: In a key document dealing with China’s 14th Five-Year Plan and long-range objectives through 2035 — which was considered and adopted at the fifth plenary session of the 19th CPC Central Committee — “promoting the peaceful development of cross-strait relations and the reunification of the motherland” was identified as a specific task in the journey toward building a modern socialist country in an all-around way. Taiwan-related work is defined as a strategy in the process of national rejuvenation.

This means that the Chinese mainland intends to continue pursuing the peaceful development of cross-strait relations over the next five years without seeking to change the status quo in the Western Pacific. This does not mean, however, that Beijing will allow the Taiwan authorities to disturb its bottom line. After all, the Chinese Constitution and Anti-Secession Law set a clear boundary.

Chinese leaders have declared that the Chinese people neither stir up trouble nor are frightened by it. Beijing is sincere in its desire to peacefully resolve political confrontations across the Taiwan Strait, but this does not mean Taiwan authorities will be allowed to have their own way a go unfettered without triggering action by national authorities.

China hopes to create a win-win scenario with the United States. A more desirable situation would have China and the U.S. working together to curb the extreme pro-independence forces in Taiwan, safeguarding the “one China” principle and maintaining security, stability and development across the Taiwan Strait over the next four years.


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