In edging toward Taiwan, the US should make liberal democracy the focus of its rhetoric rather than dangling the possibility of supporting the nation’s independence.
The administration of US President Joe Biden has failed to send a clear message on the US’ Taiwan policy. For years, the matter of whether the US supports Taiwanese independence has been controversial. After the virtual summit between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) earlier this month, the question has continued to haunt.
One day after the summit, Biden told reporters in New Hampshire that Washington would not endorse Taiwanese independence.
“I said that they have to decide, ‘they,’ Taiwan. Not us. And we are not encouraging independence, we’re encouraging that they do exactly what the Taiwan Act requires,” Biden said.
“It’s independent. It makes its own decisions,” he added later.
US officials downplayed Biden’s statement by saying that Washington does not support Taiwan’s independence and opposes unilateral actions to change the status quo.
However, this is not the first time that Biden has confused pundits with his remarks on Taiwan. When asked last month whether the US would defend Taiwan in an attack launched by Beijing, Biden said: “Yes, we have a commitment to do that.”
He made a similar comment in August, and in both cases, the White House had to clarify that Washington’s policy toward Taiwan had not changed.
Biden’s gaffes came at a delicate time, as China has become more assertive toward the possibility of Taiwan becoming independent. The US’ attempts to encourage or support independence “are extremely dangerous, just like playing with fire,” Xi was quoted as saying in the state-run Global Times.
Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, said that Washington should not underestimate Beijing’s menacing language, as “Xi Jinping’s rise as the paramount figure within the communist pantheon suggests he has greater ambitions than his recent predecessors.”
A series of mixed messages by Biden has left international relations observers perplexed. Such blurry messages could weaken Washington’s commitment to Taiwan, although the statement released by the White House on Nov. 16 stated that the US “strongly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”
President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) is not an advocate for independence, nor has she performed any action toward de jure independence. Taiwan’s priority is maintenance of the status quo across the Taiwan Strait.
“We will do our utmost to prevent the status quo from being unilaterally altered,” Tsai said at the 110th Double Ten National Day celebration.
Taiwan has also refrained from provoking China and demonstrated no action that would entirely distance itself from Beijing.
Instead of dragging itself into seemingly never-ending quarrels with China over an “independent” Taiwan, Biden should stop sending contradictory signals about where the US stands on its relationship with the nation.
Instead, he should embrace articulate and consistent messaging in his speeches.
The US should make supporting Taiwan’s liberal democracy a prime component of its strategy. Making clear connections between Washington’s commitment to upholding democracy and Taiwan’s adherence to liberal values and democratic governance should be the “strategic clarity” of the Biden administration.
More liberal democracy and less independence in Washington’s political narrative would help frame Taiwan’s reputation as a democratic shield in its struggle against authoritarian China. By raising the importance of the democratic resilience of Taiwan, the Biden administration could frame the issue as Taiwan’s liberal democracy being an inseparable part of global values. Therefore, supporting Taiwan should be geared toward moral obligations and practical considerations.
The US should marshal the international community to defend Taiwan comprehensively. Tsai last month raised the alarm about the need to support Taiwan when she said: “If Taiwan were to fall, the consequences would be catastrophic for regional peace and the democratic alliance system.”
The US should work more closely with its allies and like-minded countries to bolster Taiwan’s international standing as a global democratic beacon. When great and middle powers see eye to eye with Taiwan and recognize that democratic freedoms are in peril, they would be more willing to show their support.
China’s accelerating pressure has posed an enduring challenge to its neighbor across the Taiwan Strait. An omnidirectional approach to embed Taiwan in multifaced dialogues and working schemes with Washington and like-minded partners would help. Holding regular dialogues with Taiwan on the economic and defense fronts should be among viable choices.
Huynh Tam Sang is a lecturer in the Faculty of International Relations at Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities, and a research fellow at the Taiwan NextGen Foundation.
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