Biden Will Speak Softer but Act Stronger on Taiwan
U.S. support will be strengthened, but Trump’s provocations will disappear.
Last week, the world was waiting to see whether U.S. President Donald Trump would be reelected. Four days later, the verdict was in. Joe Biden, winning more overall votes than any other candidate in U.S. history, will be the 46th president of the United States.
While the United States was fixated on the final days of campaigning, China didn’t miss a beat in its aggression toward Taiwan. The day before the U.S. presidential election, Chinese aircraft flew into Taiwan’s airspace eight separate times. These military maneuvers are part of a disturbing trend of increased Chinese military activity over the past two months. Since Sept. 9, Beijing has flown near-constant sorties into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), sometimes conducting as many as 30 in a day. On Sept. 21, China claimed that the median line, the boundary between the airspace of Taiwan and China that both sides had generally respected for decades, no longer existed.
These are the tense cross-strait circumstances a newly elected Biden will step into when he takes the oath of office in January. The decisions he makes concerning Taiwan will shape the future of the self-governing island, a democracy of nearly 24 million people and the 21st- largest economy in the world, as well as the tenor of U.S.-China relations regional stability.
So what can we expect from the next president on Taiwan? We can already see some differences emerge. For example, when Trump won the 2016 election, he received congratulations from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen via phone. This made him the first president or president-elect to speak directly to the president of Taiwan since the United States normalized relations with Beijing in 1979. On the occasion of Biden’s election, no such phone call took place. Instead, Tsai sent her congratulations via Twitter, avoiding direct contact between the two.
This is just one anecdote. But does it suggest that Biden’s approach to Taiwan will differ greatly from that of the Trump administration?
Yes and no. The cornerstones of U.S. Taiwan policy—arms sales and strategic ambiguity—will change little under a Biden administration. The big difference will be in how Biden tries to maintain stability across the Strait.
The Trump administration has been bold in its arms sales, approving over $17 billion worth of arms over the past four years and blurring the line between offensive and defensive weaponry. Moreover, the Trump administration agreed to sell 66 F-16s to Taiwan in one of the largest arms sale packages ever offered to the island nation.
Yet while Trump earned praise for bolstering Taiwanese defenses against a possible mainland invasion, his approach to arms sales did not deviate significantly from his predecessors. The stated goal of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan is to ensure the “security, or social or economic system, of the people of Taiwan” and to further the “principle of maintaining peace and stability in the Western Pacific.” In other words, arms sales are largely dependent on the military threat Beijing poses.
For example, relations between the PRC and Taiwan deteriorated during the early 1990s, leading to the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis and a spike in U.S. arms sales to Taiwan at the beginning of the Clinton administration. Trump was also not the first president to sell high-end aircraft to Taiwan; President George H. W. Bush sold F-16s. And while Clinton, the second Bush, and Obama all decided against selling the F-16, choosing instead to help upgrade and maintain aircraft already in Taiwan’s possession, the recent sale received bipartisan support largely because of the heightened threat posed by Beijing today.
Biden will maintain similar policies, continuing to offer arms to Taipei to address the growing threat across the Strait. Biden is a strong supporter of the policy; he was one of the original senators who voted for the Taiwan Relations Act, which serves as the basis for the sales. But that doesn’t mean that he will offer similarly large packages to Taipei; some of the island’s need for weaponry and equipment has already been fulfilled through recent sales. It is also possible that Biden may try to soften the blow to Beijing by not overly publicizing sales or by notifying Beijing privately before sales are announced. But the sales themselves will continue regardless.
When it comes to America’s overall position, strategic ambiguity has guided U.S. policy on Taiwan for decades. Presidents have periodically questioned the policy, but none have gone so far as to change it.
The same can be said for Trump. Initially, the direct call between him and Tsai caused many to speculate that he may choose to support Taiwan’s independence openly. But he was cautious in the following years to avoid actions that Beijing or Taipei could construe as recognition. Indeed, despite attempts from within his party to discard strategic ambiguity, Trump limited himself to the vague, “China knows what I’m gonna do.”
Recently, there has been a flurry of debate about whether it’s time to abandon the policy as a warning to Beijing. But such views likely do not represent those of the president-elect. Biden is on record with his support of strategic ambiguity, which he has described as “reserv[ing] the right to use force to defend Taiwan but [keep] mum about the circumstances in which we might, or might not, intervene in a war across the Taiwan Strait.”
Continuing to embrace strategic ambiguity doesn’t mean Biden will be less supportive of Taiwan than Trump. Biden was the first Democratic presidential candidate to extend congratulations to Tsai when she won reelection in January. But he correctly views strategic ambiguity as the best way to deter Beijing without emboldening Taiwan. In his words, “The president should not cede to Taiwan, much less to China, the ability automatically to draw us into a war across the Taiwan Strait.”
If the main contours of U.S.-Taiwan policy remain the same, then does it make a difference who is president? Absolutely. While Biden will work towards the same goal of deterring Beijing without emboldening Taipei, he will embrace different, more effective ways for achieving it.
Trump could not protect Taiwan’s international space because he purposefully reduced U.S. influence in international institutions. He pulled out of numerous international organizations and deals, including the World Health Organization (WHO), the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Paris Climate Agreement, the United Nations Human Rights Council, and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. So there was little that could be done when China forced Taipei out of the WHO’s World Health Assembly in 2017, where it had been an observer since a 2009 agreement. In 2020, China forced Taiwan’s exclusion even though its COVID-19 response was one of the most successful in the region, and condemnation from the State Department was largely ignored. Similarly, Taipei has also been kept at the margins of the United Nations Climate Change Conference since the United States left the Paris Agreement. And although entry into the TTP is a priority for Taiwanese leaders, Taipei lost its best path to joining without Washington to champion its candidacy.
Biden, as he has already showed through moves such as cancelling Trump’s attempt to pull out of WHO, will be more involved in international institutions and strive to regain the United States’ global leadership role. This will give the United States more institutional power to advocate for Taipei’s inclusion and protect Taiwan’s international space better than the Trump administration’s unilateral efforts. Moreover, Biden is likely to reinstate the budgets for key U.S. organizations like USAID that Trump undermined and gutted. He also nominated a critic of the World Bank and IMF to oversee the U.S. role in both institutions. Reduced development aid and perceptions that American influence in the Pacific was declining have pushed countries toward China. In 2019, the Republic of Kiribati and the Solomon Islands both switched recognition from Taiwan to mainland China in exchange for multi-million dollar infrastructure deals.
A Biden administration will also work more with allies to meet the broader challenges China poses. The United States would not expect its security partners to play an integral role in any armed defense of Taiwan. But even the diplomatic support of other countries could go far in cautioning an increasingly confident Beijing.
In contrast, the Trump administration has relied mainly on unilateral options to enhance deterrence against the PRC, like freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs). These operations in which the U.S. navy sails through areas over which China has illegally declared sovereignty will likely continue under a Biden administration, but less frequently as he shifts to utilizing nonmilitary tools as well.
But the bigger change will be Biden’s tone. Trump has focused on provoking Beijing—using Taiwan as “an instrument of pushback against China.” Last month, a second high-level visit from a U.S. official to Taiwan within two months prompted China to fly 18 military aircraft across the sensitive midline on the Taiwan Strait, forcing Taipei to scramble fighter jets in response. The sale of F-16s was delayed because Trump was using it as a bargaining chip in trade deal negotiations with China.
Biden’s goal will not be to threaten Chinese interests for its own sake but to maintain the status quo across the Strait. For example, he has stated publicly that the United States should not come to Taiwan’s aid if Taiwan provokes war by declaring independence.
This more balanced approach will do much to reassure Beijing. Deterrence requires both reassurance and credible threats. The Trump administration has been effective at the former, signaling to Beijing that Washington is willing to defend Taiwan if necessary. But Washington must also avoid making Beijing believe that it will punish it no matter what, or else the United States loses the power to shape China’s potential use of force. Thus, reassuring Beijing that the United States is not attempting to change the status quo by encouraging Taiwanese independence is equally important. Hopefully, Biden will reinstate this balance.
Oriana Skylar Mastro is a center fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. She is also a foreign policy and defense fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Twitter: @osmastro
Emily Young Carr is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.