With the inauguration of US President Joe Biden on Wednesday last week, the people and government of Taiwan can breathe a sigh of relief. For the next four years, they will not have to worry about being used as a “bargaining chip” in US-China relations.
Immediately after former US president Donald Trump took office in January 2017, there was a flurry of worry and debate about whether Trump would somehow use Taiwan as a bargaining chip for a better “deal” in his administration’s dealings and negotiations with Beijing. Four years later, the Biden administration has much to achieve when it comes to Taiwan-US relations, but the bargaining chip fears can go away.
Would Trump use Taiwan as a bargaining chip in trade negotiations? Would Trump give China a free pass over military escalation? These questions and others undoubtedly kept government officials in Taipei up at night.
The pages of the Taipei Times and other newspapers consistently had articles wondering whether and how Taiwan could be used as bargaining chip. Whenever there was a development over the US-China trade dispute, the next conversation was almost always about how Taiwan might be used as a bargaining chip.
We may never know how seriously Trump considered using the “Taiwan card” with China. The fears may have been overblown.
However, former US national security adviser John Bolton gave some insight into Trump’s thinking over Taiwan in his book, The Room Where It Happened. According to Bolton, Trump compared Taiwan to a marker tip and China to a desk in terms of importance.
Thankfully, Taiwan was never used as a bargaining chip. Trade negotiations between Washington and Beijing failed, and Taiwan continues to enjoy bipartisan support in the US Congress.
US lawmakers from both sides of the aisle as well as key US military figures supported Taiwan’s importance to US national security whenever the bargaining chip fears returned. Taiwan is a US foreign policy issue in which Democrats and Republicans hold similar views — a rare thing in Congress these days.
While Trump has often been hailed as Taiwan’s “greatest friend” for his administration’s pro-Taiwan policies and the passage of pro-Taiwan laws, the bargaining chip question never went away. No matter what a policy document may have said, that fear never subsided.
The Trump administration’s final days perhaps demonstrate where it really stood: performative support for Taiwan to shove in China’s face. It announced that then-US ambassador to the UN Kelly Craft would visit Taipei in the administration’s final days — only for the trip to be canceled after the Trump-inspired insurrection at the US Capitol.
Then-US secretary of state Mike Pompeo also announced the lifting of US government restrictions on contacts with Taiwanese officials after the insurrection, a major foreign policy move and one that generally is not made in an administration’s final days.
Pompeo’s decision opens the door for the Biden administration to carry out regular contacts with Taiwanese officials if it chooses to do so — and there is much for the Biden team to do with Taiwan.
The first order of business should be to engage in discussions over a bilateral trade agreement (BTA). Despite the obvious failure of the US-China trade deal, Robert Lighthizer, the Trump administration’s US trade representative, did not sit down with Taipei to begin negotiations for a BTA — despite calls from Democrats and Republicans to do so.
President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) opened herself to much criticism at home over the decision to lift restrictions on the importation of US pork.
Unfortunately, that goodwill gesture was not reciprocated. The two sides did launch the Taiwan-US Economic Prosperity Partnership Dialogue, but that was a different track from a BTA.
Hopefully, Katherine Tai (戴琪), Biden’s nominee for trade representative, will move ahead with what Lighthizer would not. Considering the importance of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC) in almost every facet of life and security in the US, it would be wise for Tai to make a trade deal with Taiwan a priority.
This week’s news of chip shortages makes TSMC even more important as countries and companies around the globe scramble.
The Biden administration will undoubtedly focus on the US-China relationship and how to proceed in a post-Trump era. There are many decisions to be made on which policies to keep and which ones to nix.
No matter what the future holds for Taiwan-US and US-China relations, one certainty is that Biden will not use Taiwan as a bargaining chip to leverage negotiations.
Given US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan’s criticisms of Beijing over its crackdown in Hong Kong and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s agreement with the Trump administration’s last-day designation of Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang as genocide, it would be hard to imagine the new administration acquiescing to China’s demands over Taiwan.
As a matter of history, when Biden served in the US Senate, he voted in favor of the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979.
He has been in public life for nearly five decades. His views on Taiwan are known and have been relatively consistent; they have evolved when the situation dictates. He expressed concern about then-US president George W. Bush’s position on Taiwan in 2001, but the world of 2021 is not that of 2001 — and Biden is aware of that.
This is not to say that Biden will have a perfect record on Taiwan, or any other policy area. A trade deal has vexed Democratic and Republican presidents. It might not materialize under the Biden team. The motivation and the will for it are there, but it still might not happen.
Whether or not a trade deal is signed, the Biden administration has started off on the right foot by inviting Representative to the US Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴) to the inauguration.
Hsiao’s official inaugural invitation was the first since the US severed ties with Taiwan in 1979.
During its first weekend in the White House, the Biden administration issued a strong statement of support for Taiwan after a military incursion into Taiwan’s southwestern air defense identification zone by Chinese People’s Liberation Army aircraft. While Chinese military aircraft regularly breach Taiwan’s airspace, it increased the number of aircraft in what can only be described as a test of Biden’s administration.
The US Department of State’s statement was quite direct about blaming Beijing and expressing support for Taipei, saying: “The United States notes with concern the pattern of ongoing PRC [People’s Rebublic of China] attempts to intimidate its neighbors, including Taiwan. We urge Beijing to cease its military, diplomatic, and economic pressure against Taiwan and instead engage in meaningful dialogue with Taiwan’s democratically elected representatives. We will stand with friends and allies to advance our shared prosperity, security, and values in the Indo-Pacific region — and that includes deepening our ties with democratic Taiwan.”
In terms of signaling how the Biden administration might approach Taiwan, it could not get much better than that.
However, an inauguration invitation is only a signal, and the statement is just that — a statement; the Biden team must now develop a sound Taiwan policy that fully understands Taiwan’s importance in the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy and calls for substantive actions, and public and private collaboration with Taiwan.
Taiwan’s place in the Indo-Pacific region is just as important as other US allies, such as South Korea, Japan and the Philippines.
While this year will be full of uncertainty as the world continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, one thing is certain: We can remove the term “bargaining chip” from our trilateral diplomatic vocabulary.
Thomas Shattuck is a research associate in the Asia program and managing editor at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
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