As Joe Biden edged closer to a victory in the presidential election in the United States, concern began to grow in Taiwan about what the Democratic candidate’s presidency might mean for the self-ruled island.
President Tsai Ing-wen took to Facebook to address the issue, telling her followers that “whatever the outcome of the general election, these transactions will not change and we will continue to deepen Taiwan-US relations on these basis.”
That is because US President Donald Trump – who is yet to concede defeat – is remarkably popular among Taiwanese, mostly for his willingness to support the territory in the face of an increasingly assertive China, which claims the territory as its own.
The tone of US-Taiwan ties changed almost from the outset of Trump’s presidency when he broke with tradition and took a congratulatory phone call from Tsai following his inauguration in 2016. The move enraged China, whose Communist Party claims sovereignty over Taiwan and has whittled down the island’s formal diplomatic allies to just a handful of small states.
Since the 2016 phone call between Tsai and Trump, US-Taiwan ties have blossomed.
The US Congress in 2017 passed the Taiwan Travel Act, encouraging closer ties between US and Taiwanese officials via official visits and paving the way for a ground-breaking trip by US Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar earlier this year. Azar was the highest-ranking US official to visit Taiwan in 40 years.
During Trump’s four years in office, Washington has also sold $15bn worth of weapons to Taiwan and approved $7bn more in September – a cache that includes drones, fighter jets and cruise missiles.
Competitor or threat
The growing US support for Taiwan comes against the backdrop of deteriorating relations with China, with the two powers at loggerheads over a range of issues, including trade, the coronavirus pandemic and Beijing’s crackdowns in Hong Kong and the far western region of Xinjiang.
While some say Trump was merely using Taiwan as a bargaining chip in its relations with China, many Taiwanese were delighted at Trump’s combative stance towards Beijing.
The president made China the focus of his re-election bid, blaming it for the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed more than one million worldwide, most of them in the United States. Biden, however, referred to China as a “competitor” and not a “threat” like Russia on the campaign trail, and many Taiwanese now fear a Biden presidency could mean a more conciliatory White House at a time when Chinese President Xi Jinping has raised the spectre of military force taking control of the island.
“There is little in Biden’s campaign rhetoric or party platform that tells us how his administration will deal with democratic Taiwan or the increasingly threatening, totalitarian China,” said Kerry K Gershaneck, a visiting scholar at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University an adjunct professor with the University of Canberra’s Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis.
“No one from the campaign would go on record with policy specifics, although at the last minute when, under great pressure, his campaign put online a very generic statement of support for Taiwan.”
While a presidential candidate, Biden published an op-ed in The World Journal, the largest circulation Chinese language newspaper in the US, where he pledged “to continue deepening our ties with Taiwan, a leading democracy, major economy, technology powerhouse – and a shining example of how an open society can effectively contain COVID-19.”
Gershaneck expressed concern about Washington’s Taiwan policy if Biden were to pick a similar team of advisers as those who served during the Obama administration, who some critics believe delayed arm sales to Taiwan and largely stood by as China increased its military activities in the South China Sea.
“The Politburo is not losing any sleep,” Gershaneck said.
William A Stanton, the former director of the American Institute of Taiwan, the de facto US embassy, said it was still difficult to tell how Biden would handle Taiwan since he has not yet announced his cabinet.
“You have to look carefully at the people he appoints and what their backgrounds are … Personnel is often policy,” he said.
Stanton and other experts, however, observed that both congressional and American public attitudes towards China have shifted in the last four years in Taiwan’s favour.
Congress passed the TAIPEI Act of 2019, upgrading the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act that guaranteed continuing US support for Taiwan even after Washington broke off relations with Taipei, the seat of the Republic of China, in favour of the People’s Republic of China in Beijing.
While the US formally supports the One China Policy, which claims there is only one China which also includes Taiwan, the Taiwan Relations Act establishes the US as Taiwan’s biggest security guarantor.
Both houses have introduced bipartisan bills calling for Washington to lobby for Taiwan’s observer status at the World Health Organization (WHO) and passed symbolic bills reaffirming the US commitment to the Taiwan Relations Act, while House Republicans have thrown their support behind proposed H R 7855 Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act.
In October, the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan American think-tank, found that 77 percent of Americans surveyed had no faith in Xi following a similar public trend in countries such as Australia, France, Japan and Germany.
With the US Congress relatively unchanged from the election – with Republicans flipping eight seats in the House so far to the Democrats’ five – the Biden administration will also “find himself with the most pro-Taiwan House and Senate since the 1970s,” said Natasha Kassam, a research fellow in the diplomacy and public opinion program at the Lowy Institute in Australia.
That suggests the US will maintain its harder approach to China.
Kassam said that concerns about a softer Biden Administration were largely “likely unfounded,” as Biden’s track record has a “history of supporting Taiwan’s autumn.” While a US senator, Biden was an original signatory of the Taiwan Relations Act,
Taiwan, meanwhile, has seen a huge boost in its global public image from containing COVID-19 at a time when Beijing has come under intense scrutiny for its handling of the early days of the outbreak after the first cases were detected in the central city of Wuhan towards the end of last year.
“The US-Taiwan relationship will likely remain strong primarily because Washington’s interests converge with Taipei’s interests,” said Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia and the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“There are shared values as well as concerns about growing Chinese power and the way it is being used. US efforts to strengthen ties with Taiwan may be less public and less visible than under the Trump administration, but they will persist.”
The future of Taiwan-US arm sales, however, is less certain after the Trump Administration in four years sold Taiwan more weapons – worth $15bn – than the approximately $14bn sold during Obama’s eight-year administration.
In September, the US announced $7bn more in sales, which this time upgraded from so-called symbolic weapons such as tanks to much more practical cruise missiles and drones.
Whether a similar sale of missiles, which broke with traditional requests, will happen again is uncertain. However, AIT’s Stanton said that the US military, in particular, had always been “big supporters of Taiwan and many of them have regarded China with scepticism,” Stanton said. “[The military] recognise that, as we always used to say, Taiwan is the canary in the coal mine. If Taiwan goes, then that happens to our other allies in the region, particularly Japan.”
Taipei, meanwhile, has hedged its bets staying largely out of the US election while also emphasising both countries’ close ties and values, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs posting on Facebook: “Whoever wins the election, #Taiwan-#US relations will continue to go from strength to strength!”
Tsai also tweeted her support to Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris saying that she looked forward to “working together to further our friendship, & contributions to int’l society.”
Now it is my turn to extend congratulations to @JoeBiden & @KamalaHarris on being elected President & VP-elect. The values on which we have built our relationship could not be stronger. I look fwd to working together to further our friendship, & contributions to int’l society. https://t.co/xIvit7emjH
— 蔡英文 Tsai Ing-wen (@iingwen) November 8, 2020
While Tsai is probably aware that a congratulatory phone call with the new US president-elect is unlikely this time, Wang Ting-yu, a legislator and co-chair of Taiwan’s Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee, said he remained largely optimistic.
“No matter if it’s Biden or Trump, the American government is our ally and we have quite a good friendship with both parties. We don’t rely our national diplomatic relationship on only one person. It’s not responsible to our people,” he said.
“Trump and Biden’s personality and character are quite different, but [as for] the Trump Administration and the Biden administration, I don’t think there are so many differences between them. They have deep differences in domestic issues but for foreign issues, diplomatic issues, and national security issues, I think basically they are the same.”