Taiwan in Geopolitical Crossfire as Biden Formulates China Policy

With tensions high on many issues as former president Trump reluctantly left the White House last month, strained relations between Washington and Beijing are showing no signs of a quick thaw under a new U.S. president. From the campaign trail last year, Joe Biden himself wrote of the “need to get tough with China,” and since coming to power his administration has pledged to continue pushing Beijing on issues such as the ethnic crackdown in Xinjiang, trade, and toughness towards China-based tech giants. While the Biden administration has yet to lay out a comprehensive strategy concerning China (indicating repeatedly since inauguration that “strategic patience” is in order as policy strategists jockey in D.C.), the Taiwan issue is sure to be on the agenda as Beijing continues to ramp up its rhetoric and issue military threats to the island nation.

Sticking to a pattern that defined his administration’s approach to the before he was even inaugurated, drew two final blasts of condemnation from Beijing with a last minute Taiwan policy shift just before leaving office. Secretary of State Pompeo on January 8 announced the relaxation of restrictions on interactions between Taiwanese and American officials, a largely rhetorical move signaling a further warming in relations with Taipei and raising the stakes for then-incoming president Biden. Days later, the short-lived scheduling of a trip to Taiwan for Kelly Craft, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, again drew Beijing’s anger.

Last month at Foreign Policy, Jack Detsch and Christina Lu noted unease in Taiwan about the approach the new U.S. administration would take to China, and the role Taiwan would play in that approach:

Taiwanese officials and lawmakers have been playing out the same worst-case scenario in their head for years now: China attacks the island across the Taiwan Strait, and officials in Taipei call for backup from the United States and other allies. With Joe Biden now sitting in the Oval Office, Taiwan wants to know: How would the United States respond?

[…] Many experts expect Biden to hold off on the saber-rattling and use of U.S. policy toward Taiwan as a way to push back at China that typified the Trump approach.

[…] In recent years, the Trump administration has redoubled U.S. military support for the island, extending over $5 billion in arms sales last year, including drones, coastal defense systems, missiles, and artillery. […]

While Wang [who co-chairs the foreign affairs and defense committee in Taiwan’s parliament] and others have hoped to see Taiwan’s representation in Washington upgraded, the relationship is likely to remain more low-key.

“My guess is the Biden administration just decides to go back to the practice of being less public. And that is because there is no perceived need to use Taiwan as a weapon against China—that’s harmful to Taiwan’s interests,” said Bonnie Glaser, a senior advisor for Asia and the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. “I think that using Taiwan as a card or weapon to poke Beijing in the eye … that practice will disappear.” [Source]

In an unprecedented move, President Biden invited Taiwan’s top U.S. envoy (the nation’s de facto ambassador) to his inauguration, the first presidential invite since the U.S. stopped recognizing Taipei as China’s legitimate seat of government and normalized relations with Beijing in 1979. Last month at Focus Taiwan, Yeh Su-ping and Emerson Lim reported on her attendance as a positive sign:

In a video clip posted on Facebook, Hsiao said she was honored to attend the event on behalf of the people and the government of Taiwan, adding that she looks forward to working with the Biden administration to advance the mutual values and interests of Taiwan and the U.S.

Observers in Taiwan regard the attendance of a Taiwanese delegation at a U.S. presidential inauguration as an important gauge of Taiwan-U.S. relations, due to the complicated tripartite relations between Washington, Taipei and Beijing.

[…] This is the first time a Taiwanese top envoy to the U.S. has received an invitation from JCCIC since 1979, when the U.S. severed formal ties with Taiwan, the source said, adding that it demonstrates the close and friendly relationship between Taiwan and the Biden administration.

It also shows that maintaining the relationship is a trend that has bipartisan support in the U.S., the source said. [Source]

In his highly anticipated first foreign policy address, President Biden told the nation on February 4 that “America is back, diplomacy is back,” as he pledged to work on “reclaiming our credibility and moral authority” on the international stage. Regarding China, he labeled China the U.S.’ “most serious competitor” and promised to hold Beijing to account on a host of issues, but also to “work with Beijing when it’s in America’s interest to do so.” At the South China Morning Post, Owen Churchill reports on Biden’s comments, noting optimism in Beijing’s official reception of them:

[…] Beijing said on Friday that there were inevitably differences between China and the US, but their common interests “outweigh their divergences”.

“China hopes that the US will conform to the opinions of people of the two countries as well as the trend of the times, treating China and China-US relations objectively and rationally, adopting a positive and constructive policy towards China,” foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said.

“We hope the US can meet China halfway and focus on cooperation while managing divergences,” he said. [Source]

With Taiwan retaining a degree of international focus unheard of before its exemplary response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its role in the Trump administration’s serial norm-breaking, the Xi administration has worked to significantly ramp up pressure since Biden’s inauguration. On January 25, Taiwan’s Defense Ministry reported that dozens of Chinese warplanes entered the island’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in a two-day period, prompting defensive measures. CNN reported on the move as an early test for the Biden administration, and put it into the context of other recent moves by Beijing to isolate Taiwan and put pressure on the U.S.:

According to Taiwan’s Defense Ministry, Chinese military planes made more than 380 flights into the island’s air defense identification zone last year. The US Federal Administration defines an ADIZ as “a designated area of airspace over land or within which a country requires the immediate and positive identification, location, and air of aircraft in the interest of the country’s national security.”

[…] The US showed a strong commitment to Taiwan’s defense during the Trump administration, approving the sale of advanced military hardware to Taipei, including F-16 fighter jets, while sending high-level envoys to the island, both moves that angered Beijing.
In an early show of support from the Biden administration toward the island, Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to the US, Hsiao Bi-khim, attended Biden’s inauguration last week. It was the first such official invitation to a representative of the Taipei government since 1979, when Washington established formal diplomatic ties with Beijing. On the same day, Beijing announced sanctions against outgoing US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and 27 other high-ranking officials under Trump, accusing them of “prejudice and hatred against China.”

[…] In a display of that solidarity [expressed by Biden’s state department towards all military allies in the region], a US Navy aircraft carrier strike group entered the South China Sea at the weekend, the first deployment during the Biden administration of one of the 100,000-ton warships with its contingent of more than 60 aircraft. [Source]

The Financial Times described the move as Beijing simulating an attack on a nearby U.S. carrier, which “highlight[s] that the intense military competition between the two superpowers around Taiwan and the South China Sea has not eased.” Days later, China’s rhetoric spiked sharply when the Chinese defense ministry’s explanation of the maneuvers included the warning “independence means war.” Reuters’ Tony Munroe and Yew Lun Tian report:

“The military activities carried out by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in the Taiwan Strait are necessary actions to address the current security situation in the Taiwan Strait and to safeguard national sovereignty and security,” [Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Wu Qian] said.

“They are a solemn response to external interference and provocations by ‘Taiwan independence’ forces,” he added.

[…] “We warn those ‘Taiwan independence’ elements: those who play with fire will burn themselves, and ‘Taiwan independence’ means war,” he added.

While China has never renounced the use of force to bring Taiwan under its control, it is unusual for Beijing to make such overt, verbal threats of conflict. […] [Source]

On January 31, Taipei reported that more Chinese aircraft had entered its ADIZ, and also took uncharacteristically public note of the presence of a U.S. military plane. From Reuters:

Taiwan’s Defence Ministry said a total of seven Chinese aircraft flew into the same waters near the Pratas Islands on Sunday – two J-10 fighters, four J-11 fighters and a Y-8 reconnaissance aircraft.

It added that a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft was also present in the same southwestern part of the defence zone, but neither named the aircraft type nor provided details of its flight path, which it does for all Chinese flights.

It was the first time Taiwan had mentioned the presence of a U.S. aircraft since it began near daily reports of Chinese activity in its defence zone in mid-September.

Taiwan rarely speaks publicly about U.S. activity near it, normally when U.S. warships sail through the Taiwan Strait, though diplomatic and security sources say there are frequent U.S. air and naval missions close to the island. [Source]

At The Financial Times, Kathrin Hille and Demetri Sevastopulo analyzed Beijing’s increasingly belligerent  rhetoric and military posturing over the last year, culminating in the additional spike since Biden’s inauguration, as a clear attempt to draw Washington a red line in the region:

The escalation in Chinese air force activity has been widely interpreted as a sign of the unprecedented level of tensions between Beijing, which claims Taiwan as part of its territory and retains a threat to take it by force, and Taipei.

But defence experts believe two bigger forces are at play: the open military rivalry between Washington and Beijing; and the Chinese military’s need for a location to train for ambitious and far-flung missions and practise with increasingly sophisticated equipment.

Taiwan, however, is at greater risk because China, its main enemy, and the US, its unofficial security guarantor, have drifted towards confrontation — a course that analysts believe the Biden administration will struggle to alter. […] [Source]

At Slate this week, Joshua Keating assessed the risks of a major crisis arising from the “strange and hypocritical arrangement […] that has benefited both the U.S, and Taiwan” since 1979. After providing a brief history of U.S. ties to Taipei up to the recent culmination of Beijing’s sharpening cross-strait rhetoric and military posturing, Keating looked at the complicated potential implications of the ambiguous U.S. Taiwan Relations Act that has fostered the “strange and hypocritical” relationship:

[…] The dark question hanging over U.S. Taiwan policy is the question of what the U.S. would do if China actually tried to take over Taiwan by force. While Taiwan has gotten less media attention than other Asian flashpoints like North Korea and the South China Sea in recent years, an invasion could be a nightmare scenario that should be taken seriously, if only because it’s the most likely place where the two most powerful countries in the world would go to war.

The Taiwan Relations Act states that any threat to Taiwan is a “grave concern to the United States” and that in the event of such a threat, “The President and the Congress shall determine, in accordance with constitutional processes, appropriate action by the United States.” This is pretty vague, and some say it doesn’t go far enough.

The problem with such a policy of “strategic clarity” [advocated by some U.S. policy thinkers and opposite to the current ambiguous relationship] is that it would put Tsai in a position of having to pursue independence more aggressively. Tsai is a member of the Democratic Progressive Party, which is often referred to as the more “pro-independence” of the country’s two main political parties. Taiwan is already de facto independent, but it has not formally declared independence under the name Taiwan, which would likely provoke an aggressive response from China. The convenient fiction that the Taiwanese government is the “Republic of China” allows Taiwan to have its cake and eat it too: It’s for all intents and purposes a separate country but doesn’t call itself one. […] [Source]

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