How Biden is Building on Trump's Legacy in Taiwan

By Hannah Grothusen

On August 5, 2021, President Biden approved his administration’s first arms sale to Taiwan: a ​​$750 million weapons package. The sale represents yet another step in a series of moves that point to the expansion of U.S.-Taiwanese relations. Since severing diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 1979, every administration, except for President Trump’s, did not test China on its ‘One China Policy.’ However, despite Chinese warnings and threats, Trump pushed back and took several unprecedented steps to deepen the U.S.-Taiwanese relationship. Now, unlike in other countries where President Biden is looking to reverse or move past Trump-era diplomatic policies, the Biden administration has continued pursuing closer relations with Taiwan. Instead of reverting to a less inflammatory position of strategic ambiguity, the Biden administration risks further antagonizing China, as it looks to deter Chinese incursion and strengthen critical supply chains.

Leading up to the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election, Taiwan was one of the only Asia-Pacific countries that favored a Trump reelection. From when he accepted an unprecedented congratulatory phone call from President Tsai Ing-wen, to his final days in office when he lifted the rules forbidding senior-level contact between the executive branch offices and their Taiwanese counterparts, Trump earned Taiwanese praise for strengthening diplomatic ties. His administration also increased arms sales to Taiwan and stepped-up military activity around the island nation. Under his direction, the U.S. Navy sailed through the Taiwan Strait thirteen times in 2020. By comparison, under President Obama, the U.S. Navy sailed through the Strait one to three times a year. The United States also exported $15 billion worth of arms to Taiwan in the second half of the Trump presidency, including an $8 billion sale of F-16 fighter jets that the Obama administration previously blocked. Beyond the expanded quantity of arms sold, the strategic value of the weapons also increased. In 2020, the United States sold Taiwan 100 Harpoon Coastal Defense Systems anti-ship missiles and $1.8 billion worth of extended-range land attack mobile missiles, which would be critical if Taiwan needed to defend itself from China.

Faced with increasing pressure and threats from mainland China, President Tsai’s government craves security and reassurance from the United States, and thus, reacted positively to these efforts and Trump’s ‘tough on China’ stance. During the 2020 U.S. election, Taiwan feared that a Biden victory would mean the return of Obama administration foreign policy officials who were seen as softer on China. The pro-Trump sentiments in Taiwan were so strong that following the November election, private citizens held Trump rallies in Taipei.

In the short time since his election, Biden has made it a central goal to repair diplomatic relations around the globe by reversing Trump’s policies. The exception to the rule appears to be Taiwan, as well as the PRC where Biden has continued a hardline approach. In line with Trump’s expansion of diplomatic relations, Biden invited Bi-khim Hsiao, Taipei’s top representative in the U.S., to his inauguration. Likewise, Biden used harsh rhetoric to admonish Chinese military activity around Taiwan saying, “We urge Beijing to cease its military, diplomatic, and economic pressure against Taiwan,” and that the U.S.’s “commitment to Taiwan is rock-solid.” Biden has kept the Trump-era policy that liberalized the rules of engagement with Taiwanese officials, and has gone one step further in building the relationship by reopening Trade and Investment Framework Agreements (TIFA) talks. Taiwan is optimistic that the TIFA talks could eventually lead to a full trade deal, although that outcome would be far down the road, if at all. 

The Trump administration avoided pursuing a free trade deal with Taiwan because it feared that it would jeopardize the U.S.-China trade deal it was negotiating in late 2020. Given that Taiwan is currently the U.S.’s ninth largest trading partner and the world’s largest exporter of semiconductors, securing a free trade deal with Taiwan, now, could appear advantageous for the United States. Broadening the economic partnership and diversifying Taiwan’s economy away from China could also make Taiwan less susceptible to Chinese political and economic leverage. However, Taiwan’s history of currency intervention and large trade surpluses, against a backdrop of trade skepticism at home, would make a trade deal between the U.S. and Taiwan unlikely. Given the high hurdles to clear, pursuing fruitless trade conversations could needlessly antagonize Beijing, and provoke economic retribution. 
Likewise, in sustaining Trump’s military support for the island, Biden walks a fine line between dissuading and provoking Chinese aggression. Former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy has written that, with regards to Taiwan, the United States needs to strengthen its deterrence either by “denying the PLA’s ability to achieve its aims or by imposing costs so great that Chinese leaders ultimately decide that the act is not in their interest.” It appears that Biden, following in Trump’s footsteps, is hoping that increased military support will deter Chinese aggression. However, the Trump and Biden pushes to expand U.S.-Taiwanese relations have greatly strained U.S.-China relations, leaving many to wonder if a military clash over Taiwanese autonomy is inevitable. In a speech to mark the centennial of the Chinese Communist Party, President Xi Jinping called the reunification of Taiwan a “historic mission.” China, in the last year, has increased its use of gray zone tactics such as incursions of Taiwanese airspace, sailing naval vessels around Taiwan, and using cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns to incite fear and create instability. As Xi enters his third term, his emboldened rhetoric and demonstrations of military force suggests that he may want to use reunification to cement his legacy.

Given Taiwan’s evident economic and geopolitical relevancy, U.S. policymakers are right to make it a priority. Any sustained semiconductor supply chain disruption caused by a Chinese invasion could cripple the U.S. economy and threaten national security. The linkage between technological advantages and national security is on display in the bipartisan support for legislation that supports government investment in leading technologies, including semiconductors. Overall, the United States’ vested interest in Taiwanese autonomy underscores the importance of a sound, sustainable plan for engagement with the island nation. Biden’s willingness to support Taiwan shows that the legacy of Trump’s policies has radically reshaped U.S. engagement. However, continuing on its current path, the Biden administration risks further damaging the U.S.-Chinese relationship. Going forward, Biden should carefully weigh the merits and risks of its engagement with Taiwan in order to create a sustainable balance that neither overcommits the United States nor ignores the potential benefits of a partnership.

Hannah Grothusen is an intern with the CSIS Economics Program.