Commentary November 11, 2020

Biden Will Speak Softer but Act Stronger on Taiwan

U.S. support will be strengthened, but Trump’s provocations will disappear.
An Asian woman waring a face mask standing among a crowd gesturing with her hands
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen gestures in front of the Presidential Office in Taipei on Oct. 10, 2020. Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images

This article originally appeared in Foreign Policy.

Last week, the world was waiting to see whether U.S. President Donald Trump would be reelected. Four days later, the verdict was in. Joe Biden, winning more overall votes than any other candidate in U.S. history, will be the 46th president of the United States.

While the United States was fixated on the final days of campaigning, China didn’t miss a beat in its aggression toward Taiwan. The day before the U.S. presidential election, Chinese aircraft flew into Taiwan’s airspace eight separate times. These military maneuvers are part of a disturbing trend of increased Chinese military activity over the past two months. Since Sept. 9, Beijing has flown near-constant sorties into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), sometimes conducting as many as 30 in a day. On Sept. 21, China claimed that the median line, the boundary between the airspace of Taiwan and China that both sides had generally respected for decades, no longer existed.

These are the tense cross-strait circumstances a newly elected Biden will step into when he takes the oath of office in January. The decisions he makes concerning Taiwan will shape the future of the self-governing island, a democracy of nearly 24 million people and the 21st- largest economy in the world, as well as the tenor of U.S.-China relations regional stability.

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So what can we expect from the next president on Taiwan? We can already see some differences emerge. For example, when Trump won the 2016 election, he received congratulations from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen via phone. This made him the first president or president-elect to speak directly to the president of Taiwan since the United States normalized relations with Beijing in 1979. On the occasion of Biden’s election, no such phone call took place. Instead, Tsai sent her congratulations via Twitter, avoiding direct contact between the two.

This is just one anecdote. But does it suggest that Biden’s approach to Taiwan will differ greatly from that of the Trump administration?

Yes and no. The cornerstones of U.S. Taiwan policy—arms sales and strategic ambiguity—will change little under a Biden administration. The big difference will be in how Biden tries to maintain stability across the Strait.

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