CHINA’S CONDEMNATION OF the outgoing Trump administration’s latest provocation over Taiwan — lifting long-standing restrictions on contacts between US and Taiwanese officials — has been tetchier than usual albeit along the customary lines of argument.
Beijing’s spokespeople no longer feel any constraints on piling in on the Trump administration, and did so again today in response to the newly declassified US Indo-Pacific strategy document. However, in both cases Beijing is sending a message to incoming Biden administration about its red lines — and they do not come much more rufescent than Taiwan.
President-elect Joe Biden is likely to tone down the US rhetoric in support for Taiwan, but not necessarily the substance. He will want to stabilise cross-Strait relations and, if possible, return them to the status quo as it was before the Trump administration took office. Kurt Campbell, the veteran US diplomat expected to become Biden’s ‘Asia tsar’, has hailed that state of affairs as ‘the greatest unclaimed success in the history of U.S.-Chinese relations’.
After four years of outspoken support for Taiwan from the Trump administration, US-China relations are in a very different place.
Nonetheless, Biden will support continued US arms sales to Taiwan. During his campaign, Biden said US policy should be to help Taiwan resist China’s expansion of its power-projection capabilities in part to subjugate Taiwan. This should mean that the Biden administration will follow Trump’s in supplying arms and equipment to strengthen Taiwan’s maritime and aerial surveillance capabilities, and to increase its ability to ‘hang on’ in the event of an invasion until substantial US force arrives. US war gaming scenarios show a quick capitulation as a critical element in ‘losing’ Taiwan.
Biden is also unlikely to push to repeal the Taiwan Travel Act of 2018, which lets US and Taiwanese officials to go on official trips to meet each other, rather than making ‘informal’ visits. US UN ambassador, Kelly Craft, was due to go to Taiwan today but the trip was cancelled as part of halting all international travel by senior US officials for domestic reasons. Biden will, however, avoid irritating Beijing in this regard by not trumpeting such visits in the confrontational manner of the Trump administration.
An acid test of how far Biden will go in backing Taipei is whether he puts the United States’ weight behind Taipei’s effort to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). This is the successor to the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership (TPP), which Trump pulled out of, and counterweight to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) created in November, with China as its largest participating economy.
Biden will also likely dampen expectations of a free trade deal with Taipei, although one is gathering some support within the US Congress. Biden’s US Trade Representative, Katherine Tai, who as it happens is of Taiwanese descent and her boss will have similar reasons for being unenthusiastic about a US-Taiwan free trade agreement as Trump’s US Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer. He held out against opening negotiations for fear of jeopardising other US-China issues, in his case, Trump’s Phase One trade deal with Beijing. Tai and Biden will have to pick up that deal, whose trade component runs to the end of his first year, and start on the contentious issues such as intellectual property protection that Trump ducked as too difficult.
Nonetheless, trade between the two economies will be underpinned by the US-Taiwan Economic Prosperity Partnership Dialogue that Trump inaugurated in November, and Biden will let continue. The focus areas will be health care, supply chain security, energy, infrastructure investment and 5G development.
The last two particular stand out. President Tsai Ing-wen has sided with the United States against ‘untrusted IT vendors’ such as Huawei and ZTE. Biden is unlike to change US policy on 5G security.
Meanwhile, Taiwan will join the United States, Japan, Australia in multilateral infrastructure investment in the region to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
From there to facilitating Taipei’s greater international participation more generally is where it will get difficult for Biden. In March 2020, Trump signed the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative Act, which requires the US government and its officials to promote Taiwan’s international participation. It had passed the US Congress with bipartisan support. If anything, Taipei’s assiduous burnishing of its democratic credentials, including its support for protestors in Hong Kong, has won Taipei more friends in Washington since.
Nonetheless, the act has had little demonstrable effect now it is law. Beijing’s relentless chipping away at the number of countries that recognise Taiwan diplomatically has been far more effective. Trump’s main effort was to include Taipei in the annual World Health Assembly (WHA), the decision-making body of the World Health Organization (WHO, which did not succeed. Biden will have some breathing space with the WHO, as the United States will itself have to rejoin it first.
If Biden’s proposal to hold a Summit of Democracies comes to fruition, he will have to take a hard decision on whether Taiwan is invited as an observer or as a formal participant, which would imply statehood status. The latter would be closer to a red line than Beijing would tolerate or Biden would be comfortable with.