Report

With Trump Gone, Taiwan Seeks Assurances From Biden Administration

But Biden and his team are likely to resist using Taiwan as a cudgel against China the way Trump did.

By Jack Detsch, Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter, and Christina Lu
Taiwan's chemical corps personnel stand in formation during a demonstration as Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen inspects troops in Tainan, southern Taiwan, on January 15, 2021.
Personnel with Taiwan's chemical corps stand in formation during a demonstration as Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen inspects troops in Tainan, southern Taiwan, on Jan. 15. Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images

Taiwanese officials and lawmakers have been playing out the same worst-case scenario in their head for years now: China attacks the island across the Taiwan Strait, and officials in Taipei call for backup from the United States and other allies. With Joe Biden now sitting in the Oval Office, Taiwan wants to know: How would the United States respond?

Wang Ting-yu, who co-chairs the foreign affairs and defense committee in Taiwan’s parliament, told Foreign Policy that the island’s military would not be caught off guard if China prepped for an attack. Taiwanese satellite and radar systems would be able to spot a buildup of People’s Liberation Army forces in Guangdong or Fujian province, across the strait, and it could take as many as 60 days for China to mass enough troops for an amphibious assault, he said. 

“Those 60 days will be a precious time for international society to stop a war or to send a clear signal. ‘This is a red line you cannot cross,’” he said. “The question is, Taiwan will be prepared to protect our home. What will the world, especially the United States, what will you do?” The message that Biden should send to Chinese President Xi Jinping is simple, Wang said: “‘Don’t even try it.’”

Lloyd Austin, who was confirmed Friday as Biden’s defense secretary, told lawmakers during his confirmation hearing this week that he would “make sure” the United States was living up to its commitments to help Taiwan defend itself.

Biden is taking power at a low ebb in U.S.-China relations and after a transition where the outgoing administration took big strides to solidify Washington’s relationship with Taipei—often with an eye toward antagonizing Beijing—from even before Donald Trump took office, starting with his controversial December 2016 call with President Tsai Ing-wen, the first time that a U.S. president or president-elect had ever directly spoken with a Taiwanese head of state. Just days before Biden was sworn in, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lifted restrictions on official communications between the two countries and was set to follow up by sending outgoing U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft to the region, before the trip was scuttled at the last minute. Trump, in his final months, also approved billions of dollars’ worth of arms sales to Taipei, and Pompeo declared the treatment of Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang region to be a genocide—two major public rebukes of China. These moves enraged Beijing, with state media calling the outgoing administration’s actions the result of a “last-ditch madness … likely to bring them annihilation.” As a parting shot, China placed sanctions on almost 30 outgoing Trump administration officials, including Pompeo, Craft, and National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien.

Biden is under pressure from allies, including Japan, to draw a red line to prevent any Chinese crossing of the Taiwan Strait and has staffed his national security team with China hawks, most notably Kurt Campbell, who served as the State Department’s top Asia official during the Obama administration. But that doesn’t mean an antagonistic line: Campbell, whose experience on Taiwan dates back to his time in the Clinton-era Pentagon, called for the Biden administration to foster cross-strait dialogue between Taipei and Beijing at a think tank event last month.

Many experts expect Biden to hold off on the public saber-rattling and use of U.S. policy toward Taiwan as a way to push back at China that typified the Trump approach.

Biden’s objectives are likely to include “viewing Taiwan as a card to be valued, not a card to be played in competition with China,” said Ryan Hass, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who served as the director for China, Taiwan, and Mongolia on the National Security Council during President Barack Obama’s second term. “I think that there will be a focus on helping Taiwan gain confidence and its own security, control of its own economic destiny, and dignity and respect on the world stage.”

Wang, the Taiwanese lawmaker, said that while officials had been speaking to the Biden team during the transition, they would leave the interpretation of Trump’s upgrading of official communications to the Biden team. (Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter severed all formal diplomatic relations with Taipei in 1979.) Some former U.S. officials also think that both sides will take time to suss out the newly upgraded relationship.

“I think it’s going to be important to ask our friends in Taiwan that question: What are they comfortable with?” Hass said. “Where do they want to see the relationship [going]?”

Biden has already extended a friendly hand to Taiwan. He formally invited Bi-khim Hsiao, Taiwan’s top representative and de facto ambassador to the United States, to attend his inauguration. She accepted, tweeting that she was looking “forward to working with the next US administration in advancing our common values and interests.” Hsiao’s attendance was the first time a Taiwanese representative had been invited to a U.S. presidential inauguration since Carter severed ties. Afterward, Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry boasted about how her attendance highlighted the “close and cordial ties between Taiwan and the United States.” Emily Horne, a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council, said the U.S. commitment to Taiwan was “rock-solid.”

In recent years, the Trump administration has redoubled U.S. military support for the island, extending over $5 billion in arms sales last year, including drones, coastal defense systems, missiles, and artillery. Wang, who said China has buzzed Taiwan’s air defense identification zone almost every day over the past year, also hoped for the United States to sell Taiwan sea mines to deter against a possible Chinese invasion and wanted to see Taipei improve its domestic submarine production. Wang also said he would like to see Biden invite Taiwan to the big Rim of the Pacific military exercise that is held every two years, which it has never been invited to. China received an invitation to the exercise in 2018 before it was rescinded over the militarization of artificial islands in the South China Sea.

While Wang and others have hoped to see Taiwan’s representation in Washington upgraded, the relationship is likely to remain more low-key.

“My guess is the Biden administration just decides to go back to the practice of being less public. And that is because there is no perceived need to use Taiwan as a weapon against China—that’s harmful to Taiwan’s interests,” said Bonnie Glaser, a senior advisor for Asia and the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. “I think that using Taiwan as a card or weapon to poke Beijing in the eye … that practice will disappear.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Christina Lu is an intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @christinafei

Tag: Taiwan