Amidst the still murky outcome of the US presidential election, Brian Hioe at New Bloom has revisited the question of what’s at stake for Taiwan if either candidate prevails. I’ve copied the relevant parts below. Be warned: this goes on for a while! But admit it, you’re looking for something to read while we wait for the election results to be confirmed.
What will the stakes be for Taiwan, in the event of a Biden or Trump victory? The Trump presidential administration saw frequent flip-flops on foreign policy, including abruptly withdrawing from Syria and abandoning Kurdish allies of the US, and demanding billions in payment from Japan and South Korea in return for continuing to maintain an American military presence there. Trump has demanded that Japan pay 8 billion USD and South Korea pay 5 billion USD in return for maintaining an American troop presence, historically a bulwark against Chinese military threats directed at both American allies.
Yet Trump came to be thought of as tough on China because of the US-China trade war and rhetoric lashing out at China on the world stage, resulting in a highly positive image for Trump in Taiwan. In reality, Trump’s foreign policy vacillated between periods of harsh actions against China and conciliatory foreign policy toward China, including high praise of Xi by Trump, both for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and on other occasions. Trump’s willingness to break from long-standing diplomatic precedent has included boosting ties with Taiwan, starting from the historic December 2016 Trump-Tsai phone call—the first direct phone call between an American president and a Taiwanese president in decades—as well as arms sales, supportive legislation, and high-ranking diplomatic visits to Taiwan by individuals such as Secretary for Health and Human Services Alex Azar and Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment Keith Krach.
But one notes that the initial reaction to Trump’s election victory in 2016 in Taiwan was, in fact, anxiety. Nevertheless, such views rapidly inverted after the Trump-Tsai phone call, leading to an increasing idealization of Trump as a “friend of Taiwan”, in line with traditional Republican supporters of Taiwan that backed Taiwan because of opposition to China and other nominally Communist countries dating back to the Cold War. In spite of Trump’s unorthodox political actions, Trump came to be thought of in line with such traditional Republican supporters of Taiwan, whose harsh rhetoric against China has been relatively consistent over past decades.
Indeed, Republicans have traditionally been thought of in Taiwan as more politically supportive than Democrats, though arms sales to Taiwan have occurred consistently under both Democratic and Republican presidential administrations and legislation supportive of Taiwan being bipartisan in nature. Namely, pan-Green political actors remain rattled by past actions under Democratic administrations, such as the Obama administration sabotaging Tsai Ing-wen’s 2012 presidential campaign through statements from the White House that it was concerned that Tsai might antagonize Beijing, and nixing arms sales to Taiwan due to fear of incurring China’s wrath.
More generally, the Obama administration is seen as having been soft on China and blamed for having failed to prevent the political and economic rise of China. The change in America’s diplomatic recognition from the ROC to the PRC also occurred under the Carter administration, and China’s entrance to the WTO took place under the Clinton administration, both Democratic presidential administrations.
As such, there has much anxiety regarding what a Biden administration could mark for Taiwan. In election campaigning, the Trump administration sought to depict Biden as soft on China, while the Biden administration struck back by insisting that it was, in fact, the Trump administration that had taken little action against China despite its escalation of political rhetoric. Advisors of the Biden campaign include noted China hawks such as Ely Ratner and Biden has suggested that he would be bipartisan in his administration appointees. Though attempts by the Trump administration to attack Biden on issues related to China included circulating claims that Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, had murky ties to China, such claims later came under scrutiny.
The attempt of the Biden campaign to hit back at Trump over China could reflect that consensus that the US should take a stronger stance against China is increasingly bipartisan in nature, due to structural socioeconomic factors pushing the US and China into conflict. It is possible that a Biden administration may not undo the tariffs imposed by the Trump administration and could, in fact, inherit its diplomatic playbook for pressuring China, unexpectedly reaping the benefits of prior actions by the Trump administration.
At the same time, it is also possible that Biden is signaling a strong anti-China stance only for the sake for election campaigning, and that he will drop the issue once he takes power—if this happens peacefully without resistance from Trump and his supporters—in order to focus primarily on domestic issues. As recently as in May 2019, Biden stated in public comments, “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man. I mean, you know, they’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what? They’re not competition for us,” drawing the ire of Republicans and Democrats alike, and suggesting that China was far from Biden’s primary concern.
Either way, as a senior politician whose politically coming of age took place during the Cold War, Biden is unlikely to break from diplomatic precedents in as radical a manner as Trump, but instead to rely on previous models. Consequently, Biden is unlikely to pursue unilateral action by America against China, but to rely on a containment strategy drawing on the international alliance system constructed by America during the Cold War.
Diplomatic ties between the US and China could still be boosted if Taiwan is included in such an alliance. At the same time, many in Taiwan perceive Taiwan as having been left out of previous efforts by America under Democratic presidential administrations to cement economic and political relations in the Asia Pacific to counter China’s rise, such as the Obama administration’s Pivot to Asia. Taiwan could be left out of US containment strategies directed toward China, and though Taiwan is less likely to face the prospect of abrupt abandonment to China under the Biden administration—as was possible with Trump—this is still a very real fear.
That being said, a recent article in the Washington Post reporting that the Tsai administration favored a Trump victory led to a furor in Taiwan, as well as concerns that Taiwan had not built sufficiently strong ties with the Democratic Party, and instead put all of its eggs in the basket of the Republican Party. One expects a Trump victory to lead to a renewing of ties with Republican Party politicians, with a return to the view that only Republican politicians back Taiwan and that only they are worth engaging with, instead of attempts to diversify Taiwan’s ties with American politicians by building ties with Democratic politicians. Ironically for the DPP, Trump’s actions in declaring a premature victory remind of past stolen elections by the KMT during the authoritarian period.
However, much as verdicts of Trump rapidly inverted following the 2016 Trump-Tsai phone call, if Biden were to win, Biden’s image in Taiwan would likely see sudden rapid improvement if he were to signal a strong stance supportive of Taiwan after his victory. Biden was notably quite early among American political leaders to congratulate Tsai on her election victory and this has been taken as a hopeful sign of support for Taiwan by some.
But, at the same time, the wariness of Democratic presidential administrations in Taiwan stems from a fundamental fear of being unpredictably thrown under the bus by America, and the rather dubious belief that Republican presidential administrations such as Trump’s are less likely to do so. It is important to remember that the political relationship between the US and Taiwan has always been a political relationship of convenience, with Taiwan liable to be discarded as a geopolitical chess piece once no longer useful—a threat that could take place under either the Democratic Party or Republican Party.
This would not have changed with a Biden or a Trump administration, with only shifts in the odds of immediate danger faced by Taiwan between the two choices. Even while the future direction of American foreign policy and US-Taiwan policy remains unclear, with no clear presidential winner as of yet, the fundamental dilemma faced by Taiwan will be the same under either president.