Taiwan-US relations warmed to an unprecedented degree during Donald Trump’s presidency despite Beijing’s repeated protests, but it remains to be seen if this can be maintained under Joe Biden.
The first shift in Taipei’s favour happened even before Trump took office, in December 2016, when he took a call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen to congratulate him on his election victory and discuss the two sides’ economic and security ties.
The 10-minute phone conversation was the first of its kind since Washington switched diplomatic recognition to Taipei from Beijing in 1979.
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Though Trump initially tried to act prudently in managing US-Taiwan relations in the face of Chinese wrath, he later made an all-out effort to elevate ties with Taiwan after starting a trade war against mainland China and a series of confrontations over issues such as security, technology and human rights.
“Since that phone call, Taiwan-US relations have continued to skyrocket as evidenced by various bills Trump has signed in Taiwan’s favour,” said Lai I-chung, president of the Prospect Foundation, a government-funded think tank.
In December 2017, Trump signed into law the National Defence Authorisation Act for Fiscal Year 2018, which for the first time urged the US to invite the island to participate in military exercises, and exchange port calls between their navies.
The Taiwan Travel Act he signed in March 2018 gave the green light to visits by high-level officials of the two sides despite strong protests by Beijing, which considers the island part of its sovereign territory which must be reunified with the mainland by force if necessary.
In August Health Secretary Alex Azar became the highest ranking US official to visit the island since 1979, followed by undersecretary of state Keith Krach a month later.
The Taiwan Assurance Act of 2020, which was included in the US government spending bill, calls for normalisation of regular arms sales to strengthen the island’s self-defence capabilities. It also stresses US support for Taiwan’s meaningful participation in the United Nations, affiliated organisations such as the World Health Assembly and other international groups.
Despite Beijing’s repeated warnings, Trump approved some $18.3 billion worth of arms sales to Taiwan 11 deals in the past three years and more than the $14 billion Barack Obama sold to Taiwan in eight years.
Most noteworthy for Taiwan was the recent announcement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo of the removal of all restrictions on official interactions, which he described as designed to “appease” Beijing.
“Today’s statement recognises that the US-Taiwan relationship need not, and should not, be shackled by self-imposed restrictions of our permanent bureaucracy,” Pompeo said in a statement issued by the State Department on January 9.
Two days later, US ambassador to the Netherlands Peter Hoekstra welcomed Taiwanese representative Chen Hsing-hsing to the US embassy, in the first publicly announced visit to a US government office.
“All these indicate US-Taiwan ties have been at their best during Trump’s time in office,” Lai noted.
Wen-Ti Sung, a visiting scholar at the Australian National University, said the elevation of US-Taiwan ties was a result of Trump’s political manoeuvres as he wanted to use Taiwan as a bargaining chip.
“From the book of former national security adviser John Bolton, it was evident that Trump was ready to trade Taiwan’s interest with that of Beijing, but because of the Covid-19 pandemic and his re-election campaign, he was unable to find the most appropriate time to do so before he has to bow out of office,” Sung said.
In his book published in late June, Bolton cites an incident in which Trump compared the size of Taiwan and China’s economies saying that Taiwan is only the tip of a ball-pointed pen in comparison to the Resolute desk used in the Oval Office. Bolton also suggested that Taiwan ranked high on the list of American allies that Trump would be willing to abandon.
Alexander Huang Chieh-cheng, a professor of international relations and strategic study at Tamkang University in Taipei said no future relationship was guaranteed but would always have room for enhancement.
“US-Taiwan relations today are not defined by presidents or senior officials only, but more largely by the structure of growing power competition between Washington and Beijing,” he said.
“Future relations with the Biden Administration will continue to be primarily determined by two factors: the state of the US-China strategic competition and the wisdom of Taiwan in dealing with the US.”
Things may sour if Taipei mishandles the cross-strait relations and appears to be a “troublemaker” when Washington tries to reformulate its relationship with Beijing, Huang said.
He said Taiwan’s pro-US political and military policies will offer a solid foundation for enhancing the relationship with the Biden administration.
Sung said he expected Taiwan to play an increasingly important role during the Biden era as the island is the key in linking Southeast and Northeast Asia, an important part of the US Indo-Pacific strategy to counter the growing expansion and influence of Beijing.
Huang also expected the frosty relationship between Taipei and Beijing to continue during the Biden administration.
Tsai’s refusal to accept the one-China principle since she was elected in 2016 has prompted Beijing to suspend official exchanges with Taipei and poach seven of the island’s allies and stage war games to intimidate Taiwan.
“If not ‘flogging a dead horse,’ there might be a period for exploiting the possibility of resuming dialogue, especially during the time when the Biden team is figuring out new approaches to deal with Beijing,” he said.
Before local elections in Taiwan and the 20th Congress of the CCP next year, Tsai and President Xi Jinping might be willing to re-engage for the sake of their own domestic prestige or political calculation, Huang said.
“Tsai has always believed that ‘if there is a will, there is a way,” he added. “I’d keep my fingers crossed for that.”