TAIPEI – U.S. President Donald Trump has made cultivating closer ties with Taiwan a critical part of his efforts to counter China’s rising influence. He has significantly increased weapons sales to Taiwan’s military, vowed to step up economic cooperation, and generally bolstered relations with the self-ruled democratic island — even in his waning days.
His successor, President-elect Joe Biden, will most likely continue on a similar path, albeit without Trump’s characteristic pugnacity.
As concerns grow about China’s increasingly aggressive behavior on the global stage, Biden will face pressure from Democrats and Republicans to strengthen ties with Taiwan, which Beijing considers part of its territory.
While Biden said little about Taiwan on the campaign trail, he has said the United States should get “tough with China” and described its top leader, Xi Jinping, as a “thug.” His transition team has already reached out to Taiwanese officials.
“If China continues to put military and economic pressure on Taiwan, Biden will have to demonstrate he will not sit by while China bullies Taiwan,” said Bonnie S. Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
His approach, though, is expected to be less confrontational than his predecessor’s. “I don’t think Biden is looking to use Taiwan to poke Xi Jinping in the eye and make him look weak,” Glaser added. “There won’t be a deliberate effort to make Taiwan a point of friction.”
With less than two months left in his term, Trump is working to leave a legacy of severed ties between the United States and China, including a series of last-minute actions focused on Taiwan.
The U.S. government last week held economic talks in Washington with officials from Taiwan, drawing a rebuke from Beijing. Next month, the White House is planning to send the leader of the Environmental Protection Agency to Taiwan’s capital, Taipei, the latest in a series of high-profile visits by U.S. officials that have rankled the Chinese government.
Trump has attracted a loyal following in Taiwan because of his administration’s criticism of the Chinese Communist Party on issues such as trade, the coronavirus and the crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong. He has garnered praise in Taiwan for moving swiftly to approve weapons sales, including more than $4 billion worth last month. He is also widely lauded for his decision, as president-elect in 2016, to take a telephone call from President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan, breaking with decades of diplomatic practice.
“Trump’s actions have been very solid,” said Tsai Yi-yu, a lawmaker from southern Taiwan. Tsai has fervently supported Trump, going so far as to wear a “Keep America Great” face mask to meetings with Taiwan’s leaders.
“Maintaining Trump’s Taiwan policies will be best for Taiwan,” he said, citing Trump’s support for weapons sales.
In Taiwan, Biden’s ascent has been greeted with some anxiety, especially in the ruling party, the Democratic Progressive Party, which is critical of China.
Many politicians and activists in Taiwan have grown increasingly concerned in recent years by Xi’s creeping authoritarianism. They have called on world leaders to more forcefully push back against efforts by Beijing to bring the island under its control, and to treat Taiwan as an equal.
Biden is seen in Taiwan as more risk averse. He is best known for his time as vice president under President Barack Obama, who has been criticized in Taiwan for not doing enough to stand up to Xi. As a senator, Biden helped bring China into international groups like the World Trade Organization, which gave the country an edge as it sought to expand its economy and exert influence in the global system.
Biden has resisted the idea that he would give in to pressure from Beijing. As evidence of Biden’s commitment to Taiwan, his advisers have cited his support as a senator for the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which obligates Washington to provide weapons to Taiwan. More recently, he has signaled his support for Taiwan in other ways, having his choice for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, for example, speak this month with Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to the United States.
“He will continue to support a peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues consistent with the wishes and best interests of the people of Taiwan,” an official with Biden’s transition team said in a statement. “He has long said that American support for Taiwan must remain strong, principled and bipartisan.”
Some politicians in Taiwan, including members of the opposition party, the Kuomintang, believe Biden’s more restrained approach could help ease tensions and prevent a military conflict between the United States and China.
“He is neither a reckless politician nor a person who wants to achieve something remarkable in a short period of time,” said Cheng Li-wun, a Kuomintang lawmaker.
Despite Biden’s calls for greater cooperation, China’s leaders are wary about his leadership. They worry that he will try to unite U.S. allies in Europe and Asia to thwart Beijing’s global agenda, according to analysts in the mainland, and that he will continue to seek closer ties with Taiwan.
“The basic Taiwan policies, even during Biden’s term, won’t see any upending changes,” said Xin Qiang, a scholar who studies U.S.-China relations and Taiwan at Fudan University in Shanghai. “With regard to both strategy and tactics, the mainland has concerns about both Biden and Trump.”
Chinese officials often accuse the United States of encouraging Taiwan to seek full independence, a move that Xi has repeatedly warned could be met by armed force. A rising sense of nationalism in China has fueled concerns that the mainland could react harshly if tensions escalated.
“I fear that one day the mainland will be forced to take actions because of the Taiwan issue that would cause a crisis or even a military conflict between China and the United States,” Xin said.
During his final weeks in office, Trump and his advisers appear to be intent on testing China’s limits on Taiwan.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has escalated his taunting of Beijing, saying during a recent interview that Taiwan was not a part of China. His remarks drew a furious response from Chinese officials, who said Taiwan was an inalienable part of China, denounced Pompeo and vowed to retaliate.
Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, is leading a visit to the region as part of an effort to reassure U.S. allies, after Beijing this month signed a trade agreement with 14 countries in the region, a move seen as a check to American power in the region. O’Brien said in Manila on Monday that the United States would continue to support Taiwan and would not cede its status as a Pacific power to China.
“We’re going to fight for a free and open Indo-Pacific region with all of our partners,” O’Brien said in a conference call with reporters.
When he takes office in January, Biden will face growing frictions and also tough policy choices, including questions about arms sales and economic investment. Taiwan has long pressed U.S. officials to sign a bilateral trade treaty, an idea that Beijing opposes. Tsai Ing-wen lifted a long-standing ban on U.S. pork and beef imports in August, a decision seen as an attempt to open the door to formal trade talks.
As the pandemic rages, Taiwan is also seeking to take part in international groups like the World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of the World Health Organization, despite objections from China.
Many Taiwan residents say the island can maintain its legitimacy on the global stage and deter an invasion by the mainland only with strong support from Biden.
“Taiwan can’t face the might of China alone,” said You Ying-long, a former politician for the governing Democratic Progressive Party. “We can’t fight China on our own.”
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