All supporters of a free and democratic Taiwan have inevitably and understandably been concerned about the policies President Biden’s new administration will adopt toward Taiwan. This is not surprising.
No one can deny that the Trump administration did more to support Taiwan over the past four years than any previous U.S. administration. It was arguably his best foreign policy success.
Increased U.S. military sales and other positive steps
During Trump’s four-year term, the United States approved US$18.28 billion in arms sales to Taiwan, surpassing the previous record of US$13.98 billion set during the eight years of the Obama administration. Moreover, the weapons systems sold to Taiwan have been increasingly advanced.
In addition, we have seen increased visits to Taiwan by high-level American officials, more frequent U.S. military transits in the areas around Taiwan, and frequent, strong U.S. policy statements in response to PRC bullying. It is no wonder therefore that a majority of Taiwanese understandably appreciated President Trump.
Recognition that the PRC is a strategic competitor
The underlying rationale of all the decisions benefiting Taiwan was set forth in President Trump’s first National Security Strategy unveiled on Dec. 18, 2017, in which for the first time the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was declared a “strategic competitor.” The strategy accused the PRC government of maintaining a “repressive vision,” pursuing economic aggression designed to weaken America, and characterized both the PRC and Russia as “revisionist” powers trying to “shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests.”
Trump: Outlier in his own administration on both the PRC and Taiwan
Ironically, the strategic view of the PRC as a competitor was approved, at least in essence, by the same President Trump who began his administration calling Xi Jinping (習近平) “an incredible guy” and “a friend of mine.” It was also the same President Trump who refused to publicly address the PRC crackdowns in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, reportedly encouraged Xi to continue putting Uyghurs in internment camps, and rejected issuing a public statement on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre.
Hoping for a ground-breaking trade deal with the PRC, President Trump intervened to end sanctions against PRC technology company ZTE as a favor to Mr. Xi. He also offered to end a Justice Department case against a Huawei executive in exchange for trade concessions. Despite such efforts, Trump instead wound up in an unsuccessful trade war with the PRC.
There is little evidence that President Trump himself had any real interest in Taiwan. In fact, most positive initiatives of his administration toward Taiwan appear to have derived from Trump’s appointees and bipartisan congressional support rather than Trump himself, beginning with the decision to take Tsai’s congratulatory phone call after Trump was elected but significantly also before he took office.
National Security Advisor John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Council Deputy Matt Pottinger, Assistant Secretary of State David Stilwell, and Assistant Secretary of Defense Randy Schriver, among others, were the real driving forces behind the positive measures the United States adopted on Taiwan.
PRC behavior accounts for the change in U.S. views
We need to recognize, moreover, that the more forthcoming and positive U.S. attitude toward Taiwan also reflected an increasingly more accurate, negative assessment of the PRC. More than anything else, this altered U.S. perception was a response to the policies and behavior of the PRC.
In particular, Xi Jinping’s policies following his ascension as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and chairman of the CCP Central Military Commission in November 2012, and his subsequent appointment as president of the PRC in March 2013, increasingly removed any doubts about the authoritarian and hegemonic intentions of the PRC.
It was the cumulative effect of ever more aggressive PRC policies abroad and oppressive policies at home, rather than changes in U.S. administrations, including the arrival of the Trump administration, that accounted for the ongoing shifts in U.S. attitudes toward the PRC.
According to the respected Pew Survey in the summer of 2020, the turning point was around 2012 when American popular attitudes toward the PRC began moving in a more negative direction. As of this past summer, 73 percent of Americans had an “unfavorable” view of the PRC, and 77 percent said they lacked confidence in Xi Jinping’s handling of foreign affairs.
Biden’s more recent views on the PRC
President Biden’s earlier relatively benign view of the PRC, like that of many other global leaders, has darkened over time. In a presidential primary debate on Feb. 25, Biden called Xi a “thug” who “has a million Uyghurs in ‘reconstruction camps,’ meaning concentration camps.”
He also criticized Xi’s handling of Hong Kong, saying, “This is a guy who is — doesn’t have a democratic, with a small D, bone in his body.” After Beijing imposed the new national security law in Hong Kong, Biden vowed in a statement to “prohibit U.S. companies from abetting repression and supporting the Chinese Communist Party’s surveillance state” and to “impose swift economic sanctions” should the freedom of speech of U.S. citizens and entities be harmed.
Key Biden appointees have already expressed welcome views on the PRC and Taiwan
To the surprise of those who have been skeptical about what policies President Biden would adopt toward the PRC and Taiwan, the initial comments of all of his appointees during confirmation hearings on Jan. 19 were reassuring.
All the evidence thus far indicates there will be no major shifts in foreign policy toward the PRC and Taiwan and indeed a great deal of continuity with the Trump administration. Senate confirmation hearings for key Biden administration officials have been telling:
— Anthony Blinken, secretary of state
During his Senate confirmation hearing on Jan. 19, Anthony Blinken said the Biden administration would maintain the United States' commitment to ensuring that Taiwan has the ability to defend itself against aggression. He noted there has been "a strong and long bipartisan commitment to Taiwan" and part of this commitment "is making sure that Taiwan has the ability to defend itself against aggression."
He added that this “is a commitment that will absolutely endure in the Biden administration. We will make sure that Taiwan has the ability to do that.” Asked about what the United States would do if the PRC attacked Taiwan, Blinken responded: “That would be a grievous mistake on their part.”
Also notable were Blinken’s comments on the PRC: “I think what we’ve seen in recent years, particularly since the rise of Xi Jinping as leader, has been that the hiding and biding has gone away.” Blinken continued by actually endorsing in part President Trump’s approach to the PRC: “I also believe that President Trump was right in taking a tougher approach to China,” he said.
He added, “I disagree very much with the way that he went about it in a number of areas, but the basic principle was the right one, and I think that’s actually helpful to our foreign policy.” Blinken noted there was some continuity in taking a tougher approach to China, saying he was interested in crafting a bipartisan policy on China that would also seek to forge an alliance with other democracies.
— Avril Haines, director of national intelligence
In her Jan. 19 confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Avril Haines presented an equally tough approach to the PRC. She said that the counter-intelligence threat from an “assertive and aggressive” China would be a top priority if she were confirmed.
She called the PRC "a challenge to our security, to our prosperity, to our values across a range of issues," adding that that the intelligence community's approach to China "has to evolve."
"I do support an aggressive stance, in a sense, to deal with the challenge that we're facing," Haines said, observing that the United States needed a stance that's "more assertive than where we had been in the Obama-Biden administration."
— Janet Yellen, secretary of treasury
During her Jan. 19 confirmation hearing, Janet Yellen indicated that the Treasury Department, which manages sanctions regimes, would continue to adopt a tough line toward the PRC. Yellen criticized China’s “horrendous human rights abuses” and accused it of stealing U.S. intellectual property.
Stating that the new administration would remain focused on getting China to change its ways, she said the Biden administration would nonetheless prefer to “work with our allies” in the effort. “We need to take on China’s abusive, unfair and illegal practices,” Yellen asserted.
"China is undercutting American companies by dumping products, erecting trade barriers, and giving illegal subsidies to corporations. It’s been stealing intellectual property and engaging in practices that give it an unfair technological advantage, including forced technology transfers," Yellen said. "These practices, including low labor and environmental standards, are practices that we are prepared to use the full array of our tools to address."
— Kurt Campbell, National Security Council senior official for Indo-Pacific Affairs
Kurt Campbell is one of the few senior U.S. officials I know who visited Taiwan both before and after he served in government, and he is, therefore, more familiar with Taiwan than most Washington officials.
He was assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific at the State Department while I was director of the American Institute in Taiwan. Given our different roles and perspectives, he was never as forward-leading on Taiwan as I would have liked, but probably more so than anyone else might have been.
I believe Campbell rightly deserves credit for the Obama administration's “pivot,” or “rebalance” to Asia, and he is ideally suited by way of background and experience for helping to forge an approach to the most strategically important region in the world. Moreover, I saw first-hand that Campbell was willing to disregard key self-imposed limitations on our dealings with Taiwan years before Secretary Pompeo rightly raised the issue.
Campbell will not face a congressional hearing, so we will not hear his current policy plans, but we have a good idea based on his past statements. According to Taiwan News on Jan. 14, Campbell — speaking remotely at an Indo-Pacific Security Dialogue held in Taipei in December 2020 — “expressed confidence that the partnership between Taipei and Washington will remain robust: ‘There is a broad group of people across the political aisle in Congress that understand the profound significance of Taiwan and our strategic interest in maintaining a strong relationship with Taiwan.’”
Significantly, Campbell was also one of the experts who earlier signaled the need for a different approach to the PRC. In an essay he wrote with Ely Ratner in the March/April 2018 issue of Foreign Affairs, Campbell described the failure of U.S. policies toward the PRC:
“Nearly half a century since Nixon’s first steps toward rapprochement, the record is increasingly clear that Washington once again put too much faith in its power to shape China’s trajectory .… Neither carrots nor sticks have swayed China as predicted. Diplomatic and commercial engagement have not brought political and economic openness. Neither U.S. military power nor regional balancing has stopped Beijing from seeking to displace core components of the U.S.-led system. And the liberal international order has failed to lure or bind China as powerfully as expected. China has instead pursued its own course, belying a range of American expectations in the process …. That reality warrants a clear-eyed rethinking of the United States’ approach to China.”
I remain hopeful therefore that we will see further progress in countering PRC policies and strengthening U.S. ties with Taiwan.
Initial Biden administration actions also speak loudly to both China and Taiwan
In fact, the Biden Administration in its first week in office has already taken bold steps with regard to both Taiwan and the PRC:
—Taiwan representative invited to the inauguration
Although there was no pre-inauguration phone call from President Tsai to President-elect Biden, Taiwan's representative to the United States Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴) was formally invited to attend the Jan. 20 inauguration of President Biden, making her the first Taiwan representative to receive an official invitation to an inauguration since the United States severed diplomatic relations in 1979.
—U.S. aircraft carrier group entered the South China Sea
A U.S. aircraft carrier strike group led by the USS Theodore Roosevelt entered the South China Sea on Jan. 23 to promote “freedom of the seas,” the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command announced on Jan. 24.
The movement was a clear signal to the PRC in response to the major incursion on Jan. 23 of 13 PLA bombers and fighter jets into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone in the vicinity of the Pratas Islands. Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense said it was the highest number PRC intrusions observed in a single day this year.
Rear Adm. Doug Verissimo, commander of the strike group, was quoted as saying “With two-thirds of the world’s trade traveling through this very important region, it is vital that we maintain our presence and continue to promote the rules-based order which has allowed us all to prosper.”
—U.S. urges the PRC to halt pressure on Taiwan
Also on Jan. 23, President Biden’s administration urged the PRC to stop trying to pressure Taiwan militarily and called on both sides of the Taiwan Strait to engage in dialogue. The U.S. State Department spokesman issued a statement noting “with concern” the pattern of ongoing attempts by the People’s Republic of China to intimidate its neighbors, including Taiwan.
"We urge Beijing to cease its military, diplomatic, and economic pressure against Taiwan and instead engage in meaningful dialogue with Taiwan’s democratically elected representatives," it said.
The statement significantly and strongly added, “We will stand with friends and allies to advance our shared prosperity, security, and values in the Indo-Pacific region — and that includes deepening our ties with democratic Taiwan.” It reiterated Washington’s stance of supporting “a peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues, consistent with the wishes and best interests of the people on Taiwan.”
The statement also said that the United States would continue to assist Taiwan in maintaining “sufficient self-defense capability,” as outlined in the Three Joint Communiques, the Taiwan Relations Act, and notably the “six assurances.” “Our commitment to Taiwan is rock-solid and contributes to the maintenance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and within the region,” it strongly concluded.
It is difficult to imagine a more powerful statement of support for Taiwan at the start of a new U.S. administration. I believe we should all take heart that the Biden administration is off to an excellent start.