Joe Biden and Taiwan: Continuity or Change?

Last year marked the 40th anniversary of the 1979 Taiwan Regulation Act (TRA). Since then both sides have made significant advances in bilateral relations by reinforcing political, economic and military ties. In the absence of a formal diplomatic treaty, the TRA provides the guiding principles for US-Taiwan bilateral relations. There are also six policy assurances the US has given to Taiwan in 1980 that determine the overall US-Taiwan relations. The US manages its relations with Taiwan through the American Institute of Taiwan (AIT) which is a private, nonprofit corporation and provides consular services. In June 2018, the US upgraded the AIT with an investment of USD 250 million. The US has also signed three communique with China: (a) Shanghai Communique (1972); (b) Communique on Normalisation of Relations with the PRC (1979); and the August 17 Communique on Arms Sales to Taiwan (1982).

In recent times, US-Taiwan relations have witnessed an unprecedented upward trajectory. Under President Donald Trump, the US passed important bills and legislations such as the Taiwan Travel Act, Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative Act of 2019 (TAIPEI Act) and bills supporting Taiwan’s inclusion in the WHO that further strengthen the relations. The US has also integrated Taiwan in the Indo-Pacific region.

US-Taiwan bilateral trade is doing well and Taiwan is the 10th largest trading partner of the US. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen is also advocating US-Taiwan Free Trade Agreement. The US has held first high-level meetings under the new economic dialogue, signed a five-year agreement, and pledged future cooperation on health, technology and security.

As far as defense and security is concerned, the US military sales under President Trump have been extraordinary. On 30 June 2017, the first arms sale package was worth USD 1.4 billion; the second deal in October 2018 totaled USD 330 million; and in July 2019, the US supplied M1A2T Abrams tanks, Stinger missiles and related equipment. This deal is worth around USD 2.2 billion. Under President Trump, the US also approved the sale of 100 Harpoon coastal defense systems to Taiwan worth USD 2.3 billion. Reportedly, the Trump Administration has been advocating sale of seven large weapon packages to Taiwan to include long-range missiles which will help Taiwanese jets to hit Chinese target with precision. Under Trump, in four-years, there were 18 defense sale deals to Taiwan as against 17 arms sale deals in the eight years of the Obama administration. These have been a major irritant in the Cross-Strait relations. Besides, the US has been upping the ante against China since President Trump came to office.

As far as election of Joe Biden as the next President of the US is concerned, President Tsai Ing-wen congratulated him on Twitter - “the values on which we have built our relations could not be stronger. I look forward to working together to further our friendship and contributions to international society.” Earlier, Biden had tweeted congratulating President Tsai Ing-wen on her re-elections in 2020. The foreign office of Taiwan is already having “good interactions” with the US President-elect team. In all probability, Taiwan will continue to play a vital role for the US regionally and globally.

At this juncture, Joe Biden has not spoken much about Taiwan; but his views can be gleaned from the broader ideas and perceptions he has articulated on global politics. In 2001, in an article in the Washington Post “Not so deft on Taiwan”, he indicated that the US should retract from defending Taiwan. With the changing global scenario, in sharp contrast to his earlier view, in 2020, a few weeks before the elections, he wrote in the World Journal about his approach towards the Taiwan issue. He specifically praised Taiwan as a leading democracy, a major economy, and a major technological centre. He has further commended Taiwan for its exemplary performance in handling the coronavirus. Biden said Taiwan is “a shining example of effective control of the new Coronavirus” and observed that the US should get tough on China. He can be expected to support Taiwan and deal the security, economic and diplomatic issues separately when it comes to managing the US relations with China and Taiwan. It is also widely believed that “Biden administration will continue arms sales to Taiwan, but he knows how to seek a balance”.

In the given scenario, it is unlikely that Joe Biden will be soft on China. He could continue to play the Taiwan card against China. There have been two high-level visits from the US to Taiwan. Meanwhile, the US is planning to send the leader of the Environmental Protection Agency to Taipei; “we might see US-Taiwan relations go from great to good. But still good”. Biden may not be as aggressive as Donald Trump, but the momentum built under the previous Administration will see further impetus and US-Taiwan relations will remain unchanged.

Dr Teshu Singh is Research Fellow at the Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi.

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