TAIPEI, Taiwan – President Trump has made maintaining closer ties with Taiwan a vital part of his efforts to counter the growing influence of China. He has significantly increased arms sales to Taiwan’s military, pledged to intensify economic cooperation, and generally strengthened relations with the self-governing democratic island – even in its dwindling days.
His successor, President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., will most likely continue on a similar path, albeit without Mr Trump’s characteristic combative spirit.
Amid growing concerns over China’s increasingly aggressive behavior on the world stage, Mr Biden is under pressure from Democrats and Republicans to strengthen ties with Taiwan, which Beijing considers part of its territory.
While Mr. Biden said little about Taiwan during the campaign, he said the United States should be “tough on China” and called its top leader, Xi Jinping, a “thug”. His transition team has already reached out to Taiwanese officials.
“If China continues to exert military and economic pressure on Taiwan, Biden must demonstrate that he will not stand by while China harasses Taiwan,” said Bonnie S. Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
However, its approach is expected to be less confrontational than that of its predecessor. “I don’t think Biden intends to use Taiwan to stab Xi Jinping in the eye and make him look weak,” added Ms. Glaser. “There will be no deliberate effort to make Taiwan a point of friction.”
With less than two months in his tenure, Mr Trump is working to leave a legacy of segregated relations between the United States and China, including a series of last-minute promotions focused on Taiwan.
The US government held economic talks with representatives from Taiwan in Washington last week and reprimanded Beijing. In the next month the White House plans to send the head of the environmental protection agency to Taiwan’s capital Taipei. This is the latest in a series of high-profile visits by American officials that have roused the Chinese government.
Mr Trump has attracted a loyal following in Taiwan because his administration has criticized the Chinese Communist Party on issues such as trade, coronavirus, and addressing dissent in Hong Kong. He was commended in Taiwan for swiftly approving arms sales, including more than $ 4 billion last month. He is also widely commended for his decision, as President-elect in 2016, to take a phone call from President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan that violates decades of diplomatic practice.
“Trump’s actions have been very solid,” said Tsai Yi-yu, a lawmaker from southern Taiwan. Mr. Tsai has fervently supported the president and even wore a “Keep America Great” face mask when meeting with Taiwan’s leaders.
“Compliance with Trump’s Taiwanese policies is best for Taiwan,” he said, citing Trump’s support for arms sales.
In Taiwan, Mr. Biden’s rise has been received with some concern, particularly in the ruling party, the Democratic Progressive Party, which is critical of China.
Many politicians and activists in Taiwan have become increasingly concerned about Mr. Xi’s creeping authoritarianism in recent years. They called on world leaders to take a stronger stand against Beijing’s efforts to bring the island under their control and treat Taiwan as an equal.
Mr. Biden is seen as a risk averse man in Taiwan. He is best known for serving as Vice President under President Barack Obama, who was criticized in Taiwan for not doing enough to stand up to Mr. Xi. As a senator, Mr. Biden helped China get involved in international groups like the World Trade Organization, which gave the country an advantage as it tried to expand its economy and influence the global system.
Mr. Biden has resisted the idea of giving in to Beijing’s pressure. As evidence of Mr. Biden’s commitment to Taiwan, his advisers have cited his support as Senator for the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which obliges Washington to provide arms to Taiwan. More recently, he has signaled his support for Taiwan in other ways, including his election as Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, who speaks to Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to the United States this month.
“He will continue to support peaceful cross-strait resolution that meets the wishes and interests of the Taiwanese people,” an official from Mr. Biden’s transition team said in a statement. “He has long said that American support for Taiwan must remain strong, principled and non-partisan.”
Some politicians in Taiwan, including members of the opposition Kuomintang party, believe Mr. Biden’s more cautious approach could help ease tension and prevent a military conflict between the United States and China.
“He is neither a ruthless politician nor a person who wants to achieve something remarkable in a short period of time,” said Cheng Li-wun, a Kuomintang lawmaker.
Despite Mr. Biden’s call for greater cooperation, China’s leaders are concerned about his leadership. They fear he will try to unite American allies in Europe and Asia to thwart Beijing’s global agenda, mainland analysts said, and that he will continue to seek closer ties with Taiwan.
“Basic Taiwan’s politics will not change during Biden’s tenure,” said Xin Qiang, a scholar who studies US-China-Taiwan relations at Fudan University in Shanghai. “In terms of strategy and tactics, the mainland has concerns about Biden and Trump.”
Chinese officials often accuse the United States of encouraging Taiwan to seek full independence. A move that Mr. Xi has repeatedly warned about could be taken by armed forces. A growing sense of nationalism in China has raised concerns that the mainland could react harshly if tensions escalate.
“I fear that one day the Taiwan issue will force the mainland to take action that would create a crisis or even a military conflict between China and the United States,” said Professor Xin.
During his final weeks in office, Mr Trump and his advisors appear intent on testing China’s borders for Taiwan.
Foreign Secretary Mike Pompeo has escalated his mockery of Beijing, saying in a recent interview that Taiwan is not part of China. His remarks met with angry reactions from Chinese officials who said Taiwan is an inalienable part of China, denounced Mr. Pompeo and vowed to take revenge.
Mr Trump’s National Security Advisor Robert C. O’Brien is currently on a visit to the region to reassure American allies after Beijing signed a trade agreement with 14 countries in the region this month to control American power in of the region. Mr O’Brien said in Manila on Monday that the United States would continue to support Taiwan and would not cede its status as a Pacific power to China.
“We will fight with all our partners for a free and open Indo-Pacific region,” said O’Brien in a conference call with reporters.
When Mr Biden takes office in January, he will face increasing friction and difficult political decisions, including issues related to arms sales and economic investment. Taiwan has long pushed American officials to sign a bilateral trade agreement, an idea Beijing opposes. President Tsai lifted a long-standing ban on American pork and beef imports in August, a decision seen as an attempt to open the door to formal trade talks.
As the pandemic rages, Taiwan is also trying to participate in international groups such as the World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of the World Health Organization, despite objections from China.
Many Taiwanese say the island can maintain its legitimacy on the global stage and prevent an invasion of the mainland only with strong support from Mr. Biden.
“Taiwan cannot face China’s power alone,” said You Ying-long, a former politician with the ruling Democratic Progressive Party. “We cannot fight China alone.”
Albee Zhang contributed to the research.