Photo illustration by John Lyman

Where U.S.-Taiwan Relations Might Find Itself Under Biden

As President Biden’s inauguration has now passed, his administration’s Indo-Pacific policy remains a central focus of policymakers, analysts, and the general public. What lies in store for the United States and like-minded allies and partners, and how will Biden’s cabinet and advisers navigate the host of diplomatic challenges that await them in this dynamic geopolitical theatre?

Approximately a month after confirming Antony Blinken’s nomination to the position of Secretary of State, the Biden transition team declared longtime Asia strategist Dr. Kurt Campbell as the Coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs. He perceived China’s rise at a time when most of the world remained focused on conflicts in the Middle East and post-Soviet power vacuums. Campbell’s support for key elements of the oft-cited American “pivot to Asia” — the buildup of a strong U.S.-Japan alliance, for example — dates back to the 1990s during his tenure with the Clinton administration. Campbell also had a hand in the American response to the 1995-96 crisis (an event that he has referred to as his “own sort of personal Cuban missile crisis”), and he has made numerous public statements in support of Taiwan and cross-strait peace. In late 2001, he gave a PBS interview in which he labeled military support to Taiwan “appropriate and defensive and in response to build-ups in China.” Campbell has also written numerous articles for Foreign Affairs over the years — not only about cross-strait relations, but also about U.S.-China relations more broadly.

But forecasting U.S.-Taiwan relations under the Biden administration requires assessing how Asia hands like Campbell envision America’s role in this dynamic region going forward — and not just in the context of Washington’s strategic rivalry with China. Last week, Campbell and Brookings scholar Dr. Rush Doshi wrote this piece in Foreign Affairs, illustrating that Washington under Trump’s leadership has left an indelible stain on the United States’ image as a reliable Pacific powerhouse. Moreover, Trump’s penchant for disengagement from multilateralism has damaged the United States’ international reliability. But with the new administration’s stronger emphasis on revitalizing alliance management, Washington will likely provide its closest allies — particularly South Korea and Japan — more latitude by, for example, shelving dialogues in regards to cost-sharing burdens. On the other hand, this ebullience from Seoul and Tokyo cannot dispel a major elephant in the room, which is their continued impasse over economic and historical grievances that have continued to intensify — even into 2021. As such, a change in government under Biden will not singlehandedly resolve tensions between the two countries.

Meanwhile, Campbell and Roshi also illustrated that China is projecting its economic and maritime dominance throughout the region – a key reason American grand strategy hinges largely on Southeast Asia. President Trump did not attend the ASEAN Summit in 2018 and 2019. According to analysts, Trump’s absence provided Beijing with the maneuverability to secure deals that weigh in its geopolitical favor, such as the signage of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) back in November 2020.

Now, enter Taiwan into this framework. A Pew Research poll shows trends of unfavorable views towards China growing worldwide primarily due to their COVID-19 pandemic management. And with U.S.-China relations at a nadir, this furnishes Washington an opportunity to elevate its relations with Taipei. As we outlined in a different op-ed last week, cross-strait relations continue to weather tempestuous waters, and high-level engagements between Washington and Taipei have become more frequent. In addition, now-former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made an unprecedented announcement by lifting the guidelines for how American diplomats can interact with their Taiwanese counterparts just two weeks before Biden’s inauguration. While it has received high praise, particularly by Taiwanese officials, critics have expressed concern with the timing and intention(s) behind this particular foreign policy move, as well as how it may become a driver in U.S.-China relations going forward.

That being said, Campbell has expressed the belief that U.S.-Taiwan and U.S.-China dialogue need not be mutually exclusive. As he stated in one 2020 CSIS seminar, “it is entirely consistent to have one constructive relationship with China while also seeking a constructive relationship with Taiwan friends.” In 2019, he penned a Foreign Affairs essay calling for “competition without catastrophe,” noting that “Washington should heed the lessons of the Cold War while rejecting the idea that its logic still applies.” Like Blinken, Campbell seems intent on building up alliances in Asia while maintaining a balance of pragmatism, diplomacy, and security. Campbell’s diplomatic acumen and knowledge of Asian security issues have been met with reciprocation abroad, earning him “top national honors” from Taiwan and Korea.

Washington has maintained a major presence in Asia since the end of the Second World War, and its military, diplomatic, and economic statecraft in the region has led many Asian countries in molding a more prosperous and secure Asia. But the friction between Washington and Beijing has yet to decrescendo. According to a CSIS survey from October 2020, thought leaders from the U.S., Europe, and Asia believe that mobilizing cooperation among like-minded partners, rather than retrenchment from coalition-building, is the best method in approaching China as a security threat. Regular consultation between the Biden administration and regional partners in the Indo-Pacific will likely reassure Taipei because it will demonstrate Washington’s strategic focus back to Asia — on all fronts.

At his Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Blinken concurred that on the macro level, the Trump administration’s hawkishness towards Beijing is warranted. But he also said that he does not completely see eye-to-eye with the previous administration’s approach in dealing with China as a formidable strategic competitor. He also iterated his endorsement for expanding Taiwan’s international space in multilateral forums where statehood is not required, and even said that he wants to deliver Pompeo’s decision to lift the limitations on diplomatic engagements with Taipei “through to conclusion, if it hasn’t been completed.”

Blinken’s words give the impression of a promising start towards enhancing U.S.-Taiwan relations under the new administration. And today, it even reached a new milestone when the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies formally invited a Taiwanese diplomatic official (in this case, Taiwan’s representative to the U.S., Hsiao Bi-Khim) to a presidential inauguration for the first time since Washington changed diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing back in 1979.

But meanwhile, while Biden was being sworn into office as the new commander-in-chief on Wednesday, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement slapping sanctions on 28 officials formally associated with the Trump administration – including former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; former Deputy National Security Adviser Matt Pottinger; former Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, among others. According to the announcement, these individuals “seriously violated China’s sovereignty and who have been mainly responsible for such U.S. moves on China-related issue.” Yet, earlier this year, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that a new U.S. administration paves a way for a softening of tensions between Beijing and Washington, and has therefore implored for civility and cooperation.

But as China seeks to tirelessly pursue regional hegemony, and Washington’s sentiments under Biden have sent strong messages in supporting Taipei’s democratic endeavors, time will tell how Washington will maintain the delicate balancing act of elevating their bilateral partnership with Taipei without closing all windows of opportunity for cooperation with Beijing.