How will the Biden administration handle ChinaTaiwan relations?

Hannah Elyse Sworn and Hoo Tiang Boon

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Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen waves to assembled guests from the deck of the ‘Ming Chuan’ frigate during a ceremony to commission two Perry-class guided missile frigates from the US into the Taiwan Navy, in the southern port of Kaohsiung on November 8, 2018. Photo by Chris Stowers/AFP via Getty Images.

Amidst the whirlwind of celebration and protest surrounding Joe Biden’s electoral victory over Donald Trump, questions on the implications of the election for America’s foreign policy abound. One pressing challenge Biden will face is managing relations with China and Taiwan. America has played a crucial role in balancing tensions between Beijing and Taipei since 1950 through a longstanding policy of strategic ambiguity. By taking a deliberately ambiguous position regarding intervention in a potential conflict across the Taiwan Strait, the US discourages either side from actions that could ignite war. As reportedly one of the most pro-Taiwan presidents in American history, Trump appeared to have upset this precarious balance of strategic ambiguity by pivoting the US in support of Taiwan.

There is already talk of plans for a rapid reversal of Trump’s policies by the Biden administration, but how much change can we expect in Washington’s approach to cross-strait relations?

Identifying the sources of change and continuity that influence strategic ambiguity is key to understanding the future of this delicate relationship. The neo-classical realist framework in International Relations theory emphasizes that individual leaders and domestic politics interact with global power dynamics to influence a country’s foreign policy. Our recent article in International Affairs uses this framework to challenge assumptions about Trump’s approach to China-Taiwan relations.

Despite appearing to tilt American cross-strait policy in favor of Taiwan, Trump has arguably maintained a balance of ambiguity in the Taiwan Strait, although not necessarily by design. The paradoxical result was an unstable ‘Trumpian’ strategic ambiguity. Below, we employ the same neo-classical framework to sketch the trajectory of strategic ambiguity under Biden as influenced by key international, domestic and individual variables.

The USChina balance of power

For two decades a shift in the international balance of power has taken place, characterized by the relative decline of US power and rise of China. Resultant USChina competition has increased the strategic value of Taiwan as an asset to Washington for maintaining influence and stability in the region and restricting China’s power projection capabilities. Set against this backdrop, the importance of Taiwan to America’s regional position is a powerful force drawing any administration closer to Taiwan. This makes it more probable that Washington would come to Taipei’s aid in the case of Chinese aggression. However, domestic and individual factors also play an important role in shaping the US government’s cross-strait policy.

The US foreign policy elite and domestic politics

The US foreign policy elite within Congress and the executive branch have been longstanding supporters of Taiwan as a model of a democratic China. Throughout both Obama and Trump administrations, Congress passed a range of pro-Taiwan legislation. US foreign policy executives have also been increasingly supportive of Taiwan, having abandoned the belief that Chinese democratization would accompany economic growth. This pro-Taiwan position sharpened during the Obama administration, and despite Trump’s efforts to rid his administration of the bureaucratic foreign policy ‘blob’, messages of support for Taiwan from the White House continued. Biden’s foreign policy team will likely feature many Obama-era officials who will retain their pro-Taiwan outlooks. Moreover, this group’s position on China now encompasses more hardline attitudes, even as they disagree with the Trump administration on how to be tough on Beijing.

Secretary of State nominee Anthony Blinken speaking at Chatham House on the future of US foreign policy.

Domestic political trends will also matter. Speaking in part to populist sentiments, Trump’s vilification of China resulted in intensified US balancing through military activity around the Taiwan Strait and large weapons sales to Taipei. Yet Trump’s ‘America First’ approach, prioritizing narrow domestic interests while eschewing alliances and interventions in the name of democracy, called into question whether the US would truly support the defense of Taiwan. Biden cannot afford to fully ignore populist pressures given his victory over Trump was far from a landslide. Trumpism, or at least the beliefs associated with it, remains a formidable force in US politics. Domestic forces will therefore constrain a sharp departure from the current US hardline stance towards China, a scenario that risks Biden’s (and more generally Democratic legislators’) re-election prospects.

The man in the Oval Office

Trump exercised a personalized and transactional style of foreign policy, influenced by his corporate background and belief in his deal-making abilities. His personal whims imbued strategic ambiguity with a considerable degree of volatility. Trump undermined a broader, principled strategy for China-Taiwan relations driven by institutions like the State Department, which he underfunded and understaffed in an effort to overhaul the status quo in Washington. Moreover, his transactional approach implied that the US could use Taiwan as a bargaining chip with Beijing, an uncertainty exacerbated by Trump touting his close relationship with Xi Jinping as an indication of his successful handling of China.

In contrast, Biden will bring a more coherent approach to foreign policy, grounded in his experience on the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as a two-term vice president. Although Biden has stressed his private experience interacting with Xi Jinping, his administration will rely on the expertise of policy advisors who will have more scope to calibrate US cross-strait policy. This will be a relief to Taipei, who had previously urged the Trump administration not to use the island as leverage with Beijing. At the same time, Taipei will be wary of Biden’s previous belief in engaging China (as recently as early 2019 he downplayed the threat of China) and skepticism of a US obligation towards defending Taiwan.

Overall, strategic ambiguity under Biden will take a more traditional form reminiscent of the Obama administration, one that is not needlessly provocative or reckless. Yet this ambiguity will not necessarily be any less assertive towards China relative to the Trumpian version. Biden has already taken a tougher stance towards Beijing, especially on human rights issues. He is also likely to better leverage multilateralism and alliances to assert US interests in the Strait while reserving the option to cooperate with Beijing on select global issues when interests converge. What remains to be seen is how Beijing will respond, as Chinese misperception of Biden’s stance could trigger an escalation over Taiwan with grave consequences.

Hannah Elyse Sworn is a researcher based at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Hoo Tiang Boon is Assistant Professor and Coordinator of the Masters in Asian Studies Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Their article ‘Strategic ambiguity and the Trumpian approach to China–Taiwan relations’ was published in the November 2020 issue of International Affairs.

Read the article here.

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