by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Public Domain
THE BIDEN ADMINISTRATION surprised over the weekend, issuing a statement on Taiwan through the US State Department on Sunday in response to an incursion of Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone by thirteen Chinese warplanes on Saturday. The statement expressed “concern” regarding “the pattern of ongoing PRC attempts to intimidate its neighbors, including Taiwan.”
Near-daily incursions by Chinese military aircraft into airspace near Taiwan have been ongoing over the last year, something that is thought to be a response to strengthening US-Taiwan ties and increased international attention on Taiwan due to its handling of COVID-19. The incursion that took place on Sunday was the largest incursion that has taken place over the past year—something that was likely deliberate, as the first incursion by Chinese military aircraft into airspace near Taiwan since the Biden inauguration.
Thirteen PLA aircraft (Y-8 ASW*1、H-6K*8、J-16*4) entered #Taiwan’s southwest ADIZ on Jan. 23, 2021. Please check our official website for more information: https://t.co/amqJjvHyAj pic.twitter.com/tE1XlHdWmO
— 國防部 Ministry of National Defense, R.O.C. 🇹🇼 (@MoNDefense) January 23, 2021
Tweet by the Ministry of National Defense about the incident
Consequently, the statement by the State Department “urge[d] Beijing to cease its military, diplomatic, and economic pressure, and [to] instead engage in meaningful dialogue with Taiwan’s democratically elected representatives.” The statement reiterated America continuing to stand with democratic allies in the Indo-Pacific and continued commitment to the “peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues,” with US-Taiwan commitments maintained on the basis of the Three Communiques, Taiwan Relations Act, and Six Assurances.
This response by the Biden administration has been interpreted as a sign of continued American support of Taiwan. With US-Taiwan ties having strengthened under Trump, with the passage of legislation supportive of Taiwan and diplomatic visits to Taiwan by high-ranking government officials, it has been a continual question as to whether the Biden administration would maintain strengthened US-Taiwan ties once in office.
At the same time, with many key foreign policy positions in the Biden administration occupied by China hawks, early signals are that the Biden administration will likely retain Trump-era policy intended to put pressure on China. However, the Biden administration is expected to pursue a more multilateral approach to doing so, in seeking to reestablish coordination with Asia Pacific allies to deal with China, rather than taking unilateral action against China in the manner of Trump.
Last-minute actions by the Trump administration, such as declaring Chinese mass imprisonment of Uighurs in Xinjiang to be genocide and lifting restrictions on diplomatic contacts with Taiwan, were probably intended to try and prevent the Biden administration from breaking away from precedents set by Trump.
It is still to be seen to what extent the Biden administration maintains Trump-era policies. Yet one notes that Hsiao Bi-khim, Taiwan’s representative to the US, was formally invited to Biden’s inauguration as the first representative of Taiwan to the US to receive such an invitation since 1979—Taiwan’s representative to the US usually instead attends American presidential inaugurations as the guest of a member of Congress. Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has stated that he also takes the view that China’s actions in Xinjiang are genocide.
Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, Antony Blinken. Photo credit: US State Department/Public Domain
But if the Biden administration maintains strengthened diplomatic ties with Taiwan or continues to strengthen ties between the US and Taiwan, it is more likely to articulate this as continuity with preexistent American policy such as the aforementioned Three Communiques, Taiwan Relations Act, and Six Assurances. This will differ from the Trump administration, which was more prone to articulate strengthening diplomatic ties with Taiwan as a break from prior policy precedents—one notes that when Pompeo lifted restrictions on diplomatic contacts with Taiwan, he claimed that he was breaking with policy precedents that previous administrations meant to appease China.
Yet precisely to contrast from the iconoclasm of the Trump administration, if the Biden administration aims to strengthen US-Taiwan relations, it will likely emphasize continuity with prior policy in order to avoid the appearance of rocking the boat. The Biden administration is also likely to be less flashy than the Trump administration in how it conducts Taiwan policy—that is, even when it strengthens US-Taiwan ties, it will seek to be low-key about it.
The Biden administration is not likely to conduct high-level diplomatic visits with Taiwan merely for political grandstanding in the manner of the Trump administration, for example. At the same time, one notes that some in Taiwan are likely to not perceive Biden as strengthening US-Taiwan ties because the Biden administration will likely do so in a less publicly visible manner.
Continued opacity regarding US-Taiwan trade relations under Biden could potentially have large effects in domestic Taiwanese politics, however. As stated by Biden’s nominee for Treasury Secretary, Janet Yellen, the Biden administration plans to prioritize fixing the American economy before pursuing free trade agreements with other countries. In signing a flurry of executive orders once in office aimed at reversing course from many of the actions of the Trump administration, the Biden administration will probably prioritize domestic policy in its early period in office, before addressing foreign policy issues.
This could prove troublesome for the Tsai administration, which lifted restrictions on imports of ractopamine-treated pork into Taiwan in the hopes of angling for a free trade agreement (FTA) between Taiwan and the US. Given recurrent controversies in Taiwan in the past two decades regarding ractopamine-treated pork imports, the Tsai administration staked much political capital on the issue, and the Tsai administration was likely hoping to swiftly sign an FTA with the US in order for the DPP to tout it as a policy achievement going into 2024 elections. With the US making it clear that it does immediately intend to pursue FTAs, this proves somewhat of a slap in the face for Tsai, who will need to defend her policy of allowing for ractopamine-treated pork imports, but not having any tangible progress in terms of pursuing an FTA with the US.
Either way, China is likely to continue with efforts to militarily intimidate Taiwan. Following the statement by the US State Department, on Sunday, China sent fifteen warplanes into airspace near Taiwan, breaking the record for the number of planes sent as part of flyovers this year that had been set on Saturday. The Biden administration subsequently deployed a US carrier group in the South China Seas, though such operations are usually scheduled in advance, and the timing may be coincidental.
The pattern of tit-for-tat escalation that one saw between the US and China under the Trump administration—with America primarily responding to Chinese flyovers or military drilling—is likely to continue under the Biden administration, then. China will target Taiwan as a proxy for America, to pressure the Biden administration, while the Biden administration will seek to avoid the appearance of weakness through moves defending Taiwan. The dilemma of being caught between escalatory moves by both America and China returns to Taiwan’s existential double-bind, as it is uncomfortably caught between America and China.