Taiwanese officials and analysts expect U.S. President-elect Joe Biden to sustain most of the heightened political support that President Donald Trump’s administration has offered the Asian island, but with less taunting of Taiwan’s increasingly powerful rival China.
Biden, the projected winner of America’s Nov. 3 presidential election, wants a stronger U.S. relationship with Taiwan, while leaders in Taipei hope for the same as a bulwark against military threats from Beijing. But analysts expect fewer arms sales and nearby naval voyages and less anti-China language from a Biden administration.
“I think the basic stance will be about the same and the United States won’t back down in this regard,” said Huang Kwei-bo, vice dean of the international affairs college at National Chengchi University in Taipei, comparing Biden to Trump. But when it comes to China, Huang said, “the two sides for now will experience fewer verbal confrontations.”
China considers self-ruled Taiwan part of its territory. It objects to Washington’s strong support for the island’s government, a policy that has contributed to a decline in Sino-U.S. relations.
Biden is projected to become U.S. president on Jan. 20, 2021 based on what is deemed to be an insurmountable lead in the ongoing vote counting from the Nov. 3 election. The results remain subject to court challenges and recounts, and will not be official until certified by the individual states, which must happen no later than Dec. 8.
Biden’s comments on Taiwan shortly before the election suggest a continuation of a decades-old U.S. policy that casts Taiwan as one in a chain of Asian allies that Washington can turn to for help in countering Chinese economic and diplomatic expansion.
“We’re a Pacific power, and we’ll stand with friends and allies to advance our shared prosperity, security, and values in the Asia-Pacific region,” the president-elect wrote in a piece for the Chinese-language World Journal newspaper. “That includes deepening our ties with Taiwan.”
Biden tweeted in January that “the United States should continue strengthening our ties with Taiwan and other like-minded democracies.”
Taiwan waxed optimistic over the weekend.
“President Tsai [Ing-wen] and President Biden will definitely increase all means of improving Taiwan-U.S. relations,” Taiwan Premier Su Tseng-chang said in a social media statement Sunday. “We hope for a big leap ahead in Taiwan-U.S. relations.”
Trump’s government, enmeshed in a series of consular, trade and technology disputes with China, has stepped up its high-level visits and arms sales to Taiwan.
China has claimed sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s, when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists lost and rebased in Taipei. Beijing does not rule out the use of force to unify the two sides. Taiwan and China ended formal negotiations in 2016, when Beijing took issue with Tsai’s refusal to see both sides as part of a single country.
Biden, as a former U.S. vice president and one-time member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, will probably uphold existing U.S.-China policy, said Liu Yih-jiun, public affairs professor at Fo Guang University in Taiwan.
“Due to the fact that he has [an] extensive first-hand touch, in regards to the China policy, I just don’t see any reason at all he’s going to make a big swing,” Liu said. “Regional politics, particularly regards to the relations between China and the United States should be more stabilized than it used to be in the past four years.”
That stabilization could mean a thinning of sales of American-made, advanced weapons to Taiwan, Liu added. Trump’s administration has announced five arms deals so far this year, up from around one per year during prior administrations.
U.S. Navy passages through the Taiwan Strait, which serve as warnings to China, jumped in 2018 from occasional to routine. Two Trump cabinet members have visited Taiwan in 2020 as well, breaking more new ground.
China wants the United States to pare back ties with Taiwan, which Beijing’s leaders see as a domestic issue. People’s Liberation Army forces have increased flybys near Taiwan this year in what experts see as a bid to unnerve an island just 160 kilometers from the Chinese mainland.
Yun Sun, East Asia Program senior associate at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington, predicts that Biden, backed by both parties in the U.S. Congress, will maintain a Taiwan policy that lets the island feel “relatively safe and secure” but with fewer specific acts such as high-level visits.
“We probably would not see as overt and as frequent U.S. government actions on Taiwan,” Sun said. “I think U.S will still support Taiwan but not necessarily sending members of the cabinet to Taiwan to show that support.”
The level of U.S. military support for Taiwan under Biden will depend on whether China acts first, she said.
In Taipei, President Tsai Ing-wen congratulated Biden over the weekend and tweeted that “the values on which we have built our relationship could not be stronger.”
Premier Su welcomed advances in U.S.-Taiwan military, political and trade ties during the Tsai government’s four years in office. “I look forward to working together to further our friendship and contributions to international society,” Tsai tweeted.