After Donald Trump’s election in late 2016, the U.S. president-elect took an unprecedented phone call from Taiwan’s leader Tsai Ing-Wen, shattering decades of diplomatic protocol and prompting angry protests from China.

Now, Beijing’s critics are looking for a similar show of support from President-elect Joe Biden, who has promised a tough line against China after a career of advocating engagement. While Tsai has already welcomed Biden’s win on Twitter, Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu told lawmakers Thursday that Taipei was “considering various ways” to congratulate the new president.

The speculation about a simple phone call illustrates Biden’s challenge in establishing his own China policy after four norm-breaking years under Trump: Restore the status quo and face accusations of weakness, or continue Trump’s provocations and risk undercutting cooperation with Beijing on issues of greater domestic concern like trade and climate change.

Trump later backed off Taiwan while courting Xi Jinping’s help with North Korea, saying he would ask the Chinese president before taking another call from Tsai. Still, the administration eventually won a legion of supporters among democracy advocates in Hong Kong and Taipei with a flurry of measures to pressure Beijing in the tense atmosphere of the trade war and coronavirus outbreak.

“Trump started the trade war with China, imposed tariffs on Chinese-made products and we as Hong Kongers see the enemies of our enemies as our allies,” said one 27-year-old democracy advocate who gave only his first name, David. “A lot of us are losing hope, because we see Biden as being soft on China.”

After decades as part of a U.S. foreign policy establishment that favored changing China through engagement, Biden will take office at a time of growing support in the West for a more confrontational approach. An official with Biden’s transition team didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the president-elect’s approach toward Taiwan.

The new president will face even more pressure to stand firm after Hong Kong’s government purged four opposition lawmakers from the former British colony’s legislature for disloyalty on Wednesday, prompting the body’s entire pro-democracy bloc to quit.

Several leading China hawks, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida — and even Trump — are among potential Republican presidential contenders in 2024, limiting Biden’s space to maneuver. Pompeo said this week that the current administration was “not finished yet” with China, as the U.S. announced “economic partnership” talks with Taiwan and sanctions against four more Chinese officials over their roles in Hong Kong.

Trump signed an order Thursday prohibiting U.S. investments in Chinese firms owned or controlled by the country’s military, saying Beijing was “increasingly exploiting” American capital to develop and modernize its security apparatus.

China, which views Taiwan as part of its territory even though the two sides have been ruled separately for more than 70 years, fired “carrier-killer” missiles into the South China Sea in August to signal its resolve against the U.S. Beijing will be eager to establish bottom lines with Biden early to keep the relationship from getting out of control.

Xi is among a handful of world leaders who have held back from congratulating Biden as Trump refuses to concede. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a briefing Monday that Beijing hoped the next president would “work in the same direction as us going forward,” sidestepping questions about trade talks and what tangible moves he expected from Biden.

A demonstrator in a Donald Trump mask. Activists in Hong Kong hope Joe Biden will continue to enforce the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act passed by the Trump administration. | BLOOMBERG
A demonstrator in a Donald Trump mask. Activists in Hong Kong hope Joe Biden will continue to enforce the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act passed by the Trump administration. | BLOOMBERG

Claudia Mo, who was among the lawmakers who resigned Thursday in Hong Kong, said that while Biden was viewed as “more of a softie” and an advocate of “containment-lite,” she expected him to take a similar approach to Trump. “In diplomatic circles here, one message has been clear — that is that the American ‘China containment’ stance is bipartisan,” Mo said.

Although Biden’s promises — vowing to “stand with friends and allies to advance our shared prosperity and values in the Asia-Pacific” — have been more sweeping than specific, he has taken a tough line, calling Xi a “thug.” He has pledged to “fully enforce” the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act signed by Trump last year and labeled China’s mass detention and re-education program for the Xinjiang region’s predominately Muslim Uighur minority as “genocide.”

A list of transition advisers announced by Biden this week included several China experts who have also adopted a hawkish tone. Ely Ratner, who served as Biden’s deputy national security adviser and now is part of his Defense Department review team, has warned against “hopeful thinking” about China and promised that Taiwan would be at “the tip of top” of the president-elect’s agenda.

Such advisers, however, have made it clear they want to avoid a new Cold War. Antony Blinken, a former deputy secretary of state often discussed as a top candidate for a foreign policy job in the Biden administration, has said Washington needs to restore “balance” to its relationship with Beijing and Taipei. Another transition adviser, Brad Setser, has accused Taiwan of being a bigger currency manipulator than China.

Of course, Beijing’s critics in Taiwan and Hong Kong have few alternatives but to deal with the administration in the White House. Activists in Hong Kong hope Biden will pursue refugee and asylum programs for those seeking to flee the city and scrutinize companies that are complicit in eroding its autonomy, said Samuel Chu, founder of the Hong Kong Democracy Council, a U.S. think tank.

Taiwan wants Biden to follow through on sales of asymmetrical weapons systems that it believes are necessary to deter an attack by an increasingly powerful China and continue to build the “Quad” partnership among Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. Tsai, the Taiwanese president, is also hoping shared wariness of Chinese dominance can help her secure a trade deal with the U.S.

“Many people in Taiwan are worried about Biden’s victory because Trump did offer Taiwan many friendly arms sales and favorable bills,” said Simon Chang, a political science professor at National Taiwan University. “Whether the next government will continue the same policy is a question.”

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