On the night of US Election Day, on the other side of the Pacific, 7,000 miles from the US, millions looked at their screens, eagerly awaiting the results of the recent presidential election. Cheers broke out as anchors and experts saw Trump’s leadership in numerous states and concluded that Trump had won the election. The exuberance soon turned into anger. When many gave up their jobs that evening, most of the media proclaimed Joe Biden as the forerunner of the election. Welcome to Taipei, the capital of Taiwan.
Unlike Trump supporters in the US, the Taiwanese public likes Trump for an entirely different reason. Throughout history, the US has been the primary offshore balancer to aid Taiwan in fending off Chinese aggression. In Taiwan, memories are still alive when the United States dispatched two aircraft carriers to the strait in 1996 in the third strait crisis. In the past few years, Taiwan has flown under the radar, perhaps for good reasons – Chinese threats of violence have all turned out to be cheap talks. As the US eagerly immersed itself in the Middle East theater to spread democracy, national construction and the eradication of terrorism, Taiwan and Asia in general were left off the agenda of policymakers.
At the same time, China has steadily expanded its power as a strategic rival to the United States. US negligence on Taiwan issues allows China to harass Taiwan by blocking the island’s international involvement unless major strides have been made in uniting with the mainland. For example, Taiwan’s diplomatic allies have almost halved from 29 in 2000 to 15.
Things took a dramatic turn when Trump took office in 2016. During his presidency, Trump has proven to be the most supportive U.S. president to Taiwan over the past few decades, assuming there’s a debate about whether Trump’s intentions to help Taiwan are transactional. Decisions the Trump administration has made – such as answering a phone call from the Taiwanese president, authorizing ten major arms sales to Taiwan, organizing high-level official visits and bilateral talks, proposing and passing numerous important pro-Taiwanese laws – are unprecedented . Coupled with his strong anti-China policies, Trump has been the most popular American president among the public in Taiwan for decades. For this reason, it seems devastating to many in Taiwan that Trump has not received a second term. Citizens feel that Taiwan is about to take a back seat.
Now that Biden is president, it is appropriate to consider the possible impact of his administration on Taiwan. Judging by his experiences in the Obama administration, most believe that the prospects for US-Taiwan relations are poor. Most existing analyzes, however, argue differently. Some even go so far as to suggest that Biden could even continue Trump-style Taiwan policies in his administration.
In order to contribute to this discussion, let us make a few points to illustrate that future US-Taiwan relations may not be as confident. For starters, Taiwan is probably the most predictable one. The Tsai administration enjoys a high level of support. The Taiwanese public has increasingly identified themselves as Taiwanese. However, such a tendency does not lead to support for the declaration of independence. Taken together, we are likely to see Tsai’s second term repeat what she did in the first term.
As for the Biden administration, what worries observers is that the administration is simply trying to take in too much. In an essay he wrote this March, Biden’s foreign policy pursuits include ending wars forever, investing in diplomatic corps, uplifting women and girls around the world, and combating corruption, to name a few. Compared to Trump’s foreign policy, which is more focused on Asia and the Middle East, Biden has no geographical preference in our treaty alliances in Asia in hopes of renewing the “beginning of NATO”, maintaining commitment to Israeli security invest and do more to integrate our friends in Latin America and Africa into the broader network of democracies. “
It does not take a thorough diplomacy and international political training to carry out this plan, which is unrealistic. Herculean efforts are required to achieve any of these goals. Biden’s intentions to do anything could be real, and if so we will likely witness an overburdened United States accomplishing much in each goal and, worse, unable to respond to contingencies, that require immediate attention. Excessive exposure to international affairs will also reduce public approval of the administration. COVID-tired Americans today, more than ever, want a government to focus more on what’s going on in their country than abroad.
The United States, ubiquitous in various regions, also diminishes its ability to manage and offset China’s rise. The China Biden is facing now is different than it was in 2008. Excessive exposure to a variety of issues further hinders the administration from doing so effectively. Unfortunately, the new government has not yet developed a clear strategy for responding to China. For example, in responding to recent human rights violations in Hong Kong, the Biden administration appears to be reacting arbitrarily, if not subdued, to China’s ongoing challenges to US hegemony and its devastating behavior in the destruction of human rights and democracy in Hong Kong. Similar to China’s human rights violations against Uyghurs, the US must play a leading role in defending global human rights standards.
If indecision in responding to China’s behavior becomes the norm for the new administration, it could encourage the CCP to take risky action, knowing that an overloaded US is unlikely to respond effectively. Such a condition is favorable for China to test the waters about the US engagement with Taiwan in an armed conflict. Ultimately, if the growing Chinese aggression against Taiwan is not addressed by the new administration, it could lead China to attempt a surprise attack, knowing that the US will not react like it did in 1996. This won’t be the first time China has been testing the waters. China’s militarization of the South China Sea has also demonstrated its ambition to continue to question the bottom line of the US and international society.
If the waters are tested while the PLA launches its forces in Taiwan, there will be no return to existing peaceful but controversial trilateral relations between the US, Taiwan and China. The cross-strait conflict will cause enormous losses on the Taiwanese side. China may also suffer badly, but if the conflict leads to a quick victory, the CCP can justify its costs. The US will have the most to lose here. Not only is it losing a strategic ally to rebalance China, but the inability to defend Taiwan in distress will tarnish the US’s reputation among its allies.
Losing Taiwan would likely be the first step in the hegemonic transition from the United States to China, but there is a way to prevent it. Drop tying and keep focusing on China’s challenges. Whether the US can properly manage and contain China’s rise in the near future will determine not only the fate of Taiwan and the regional security of East Asia, but also the new world order and the future of humanity. The maxim less is more can also apply to international relations.
Further reading on E-International Relations