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Washington and Taipei have drawn closer under presidents Donald Trump and Tsai Ing-wen, pictured. Taiwan is now bracing for the outcome of the election between Trump and Democratic rival Joe Biden in November. (Nikkei montage/Source photo by Getty Images)
Asia Insight

Taiwan pins hopes on US election winner staying tough on China

Trump's support welcomed as Biden fights perception Democrats are soft on Beijing

NICK ASPINWALL, Contributing writer | Taiwan

TAIPEI -- Days after Taiwan rolled out the red carpet for the highest-level American visitor in decades, President Tsai Ing-wen said she would ease import restrictions on U.S. meat products, clearing the way for U.S.-Taiwan trade agreement talks.

The moves last month highlight what Taiwanese officials hail as the strongest ties between the two governments in decades. That has given Taiwan the momentum to strengthen its fragile geopolitical position and stand up to China's aggressive moves to further isolate it.

But they have also left the self-governing island separated from the mainland by the Taiwan Strait wondering how far the administration of President Donald Trump, currently firmly at odds with Beijing, will go to protect its interests -- and whether relations with Washington would remain strong should Democratic nominee Joe Biden win November's U.S. presidential election.

The U.S. leader has proved an odd strategic partner for Taiwan.

On the one hand, the real estate magnate and reality television star admires Chinese President Xi Jinping and, according to former national security adviser John Bolton, has expressed a willingness to sacrifice support for Taiwan to secure a trade deal with the mainland. Trump, Bolton wrote in his recent book, once compared Taiwan to the tip of a Sharpie pen and China to the historic Resolute Desk in the White House.

But Trump's tenure has also seen passage of a wave of bipartisan congressional legislation deepening ties with Taiwan and reaffirming existing defense commitments, including an act promoting high-level official visits. His administration has approved nearly $12.5 billion in arms sales to Taiwan, winning admirers in Taipei after predecessor Barack Obama scrapped a sale of F-16 fighter jets in 2011 and gained a reputation as being lukewarm on committing to the island's defense.

The Financial Times reported last week that Trump officials have discussed reviewing U.S. "strategic ambiguity," a long-standing refusal to publicly state whether its military will defend Taiwan should China attack it.

But Taiwan has had to keenly consider the depth of the ongoing engagement with Trump, meaning it must also "hedge against the possibility that the U.S. might dangle the island as a pawn in great power competition against China," said Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst focused on Indo-Pacific security issues at the RAND Corporation think tank.

The approach to Taiwan by the unorthodox president comes as he has radically shaken up broader U.S. foreign policy norms.

Trump has, for example, taken soft stances on human rights abuses in China's far western region of Xinjiang and the erosion of guaranteed freedoms and autonomy in Hong Kong to protect a trade deal with Beijing. He is also pressuring security allies, including Japan and South Korea, to cough up billions of dollars more in support for American bases in those countries.

Biden's approach, meanwhile, emphasizes a commitment to the traditional U.S. multilateralism that the transactional business owner occupying the Oval Office has spectacularly abandoned.

The two candidates have each spent time bolstering their own "tough on China" credentials. Advisors to both Trump and Biden, including former Obama administration officials said to have roles in Biden's campaign, have their own histories of being hawkish on China and supportive of Taiwan's democratic government.

Thus, if Biden, who was Obama's vice president, wins the election, he will inherit an assertive China policy that has received bipartisan support and brought, through a raft of significant developments, clear benefits to Taiwan.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, right, meets U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar at the presidential office in Taipei on August 10. Azar's trip was the highest-level American official visit since Washington broke diplomatic ties with Taipei in 1979.

U.S. Health and Human Services secretary Alex Azar led a delegation on a three-day trip to the island in August, marking the highest-level American official visit since Washington broke diplomatic ties with Taipei, officially the Republic of China, in favor of the People's Republic of China in Beijing in 1979.

But that visit is just the latest symbolic gesture in a series that began when Trump, then president-elect, threw protocol to the winds and picked up a congratulatory phone call from Tsai in December 2016.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Stilwell announced last week that the U.S. and Taiwan would launch a new annual economic dialogue to strengthen trade between the two sides. That came days after Tsai decided to open Taiwan's market to U.S. pork and beef -- a move long seen as the primary obstacle to reaching a bilateral trade agreement.

Also last week, the U.S. declassified cables explaining its so-called six assurances for Taiwan security agreed in 1982 under the administration of then President Ronald Reagan. They said that the U.S. had not set a date for ending arms sales to Taiwan, would not pressure it to negotiate with China, would take no position on the island's sovereignty despite Beijing's attempts to convince the global community that the U.S. recognizes its claim, and would not mediate between Beijing and Taipei.

"U.S.-Taiwan relations are closer than ever, are poised to only get closer, and the U.S. is caring less and less about China's response," Grossman said. Declassifying the cables "sends an important message to Beijing that Washington has the assurances front and center in its approach to Taiwan these days."

Trump's gestures have been well appreciated in Taiwan and are seen as giving the Tsai administration more breathing room as Beijing attempts to further curtail the island's international presence, such as by pressuring countries that still recognize Taiwan diplomatically to break ties and opposing the island's participation in international bodies such as the United Nations and World Health Organization.

Still, Taiwan has remained open to working with Biden, currently leading Trump in national polls. In May, foreign minister Joseph Wu said Taiwan is "very comfortable" that it will retain U.S. support if there is a change in administration.

As a U.S. senator, Biden supported maintaining the cross-strait status quo and warned Taiwan against pursuing independence -- a position that, at the time, was in line with political consensus to engage with Beijing and reap benefits for U.S. business from China's growing economy.

But as that consensus has shifted in recent years, so has Biden's public stance. He called Xi a "thug" in a February primary debate, blasting his policies in Hong Kong and Xinjiang and saying the Chinese leader "doesn't have a democratic... bone in his body."

Chinese President Xi Jinping and then U.S. Vice President Biden toast during a luncheon at the State Department in Washington on Sept. 25, 2015. In its 2020 platform, Biden's Democratic Party omitted the words "one China" from its Asia-Pacific policy for the first time in 20 years.   © Reuters

While Biden has opposed some Taiwan-friendly legislation during his long Senate tenure, he has been a consistent backer of the Taiwan Relations Act, passed after Washington broke ties with Taipei in 1979 and which serves as the basis governing Washington-Taipei interaction. During a hearing on it that year, Biden, then 36, warned that "if Taiwan were physically overrun by mainland China, the psychological effect of that on our security interests, as opposed to the strategic value of Taiwan, is what is at stake."

Biden's Democratic Party has made sure to offer its own olive branches to Taipei. In its 2020 platform, the party omitted the words "one China" from its Asia-Pacific policy for the first time in 20 years, a departure from previous references to the phrasing that leaves no room for the possibility of an independent Taiwan.

To be sure, neither Democrats nor Republicans have imminent plans to support a Taiwanese declaration of independence. Nor does Tsai, who said in January that Taiwan has no need to formally take such a step as it is "an independent country already."

Some, however, see the removal of the "one China" wording as a major recognition of the reality of Taiwan's existing sovereignty and an invitation to a new approach for resolving the question of the island's future.

"Its absence is quite significant," said Roselyn Hsueh, an associate professor of political science at Temple University in the U.S. "Taking out 'one China' leaves a lot of room for flexibility, for creativity on what a U.S.-Taiwan relationship will look like."

And while that may not mean support for an officially independent Taiwan, Hsueh said it could lead to the U.S. supporting Taiwan's inclusion in international organizations it is currently barred from joining.

A graduate waves the Republic of China flag of Taiwan in the crowd during commencement ceremonies at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, U.S. on May 30, 2019.   © Reuters

Historically, the Democratic Party and Taiwan have had a fraught relationship. Taiwanese have perceived it as being dangerously soft on a Chinese government that asserts sovereignty over them, while Democrats have associated Taiwan with overseas military entanglements, said Jeffrey Ngo, a doctoral student at Georgetown University and former researcher for Hong Kong activist political group Demosisto.

But Ngo says such distrust may be melting. The language in the new Democratic platform, which also reiterates the party's commitment to respond to Chinese aggression if necessary, is "very strong" and "a breakthrough for Taiwan," he said.

The document creates space for Democrats to confront China while supporting Taiwanese society through nonmilitary means, focusing on issues such as Taiwan's landmark achievements in rights for LGBT+ and the island's Indigenous peoples, he added.

The upcoming U.S. election has also led to a rift between people in Taiwan and Taiwanese-Americans, as influential organizations both on the island and in the U.S. have thrown themselves behind different candidates.

Biden will have better odds of attracting Taiwanese-American voters if he can "make direct statements supporting Taiwan and clarify his China policies," said Chieh-Ting Yeh, vice chairman of the Global Taiwan Institute, an independent Washington-based policy research organization.

"Biden and the Democrats have certainly made a few optimistic statements, but it is also true that Taiwan has benefited during Trump's first term," Yeh said, making it "reasonable to favor the current course over untested campaign promises."

"On the other hand, Trump can be unpredictable and divisive," he added. "In the long run, a United States that is too mired in internal political turmoil will be less capable of tackling global challenges abroad."

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