The United States has been making serious moves toward upending a balance between its support of Taiwan and its fragile relations with China — and it could lead to places Washington is not necessarily prepared to go.
In his last days in office, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced “self-imposed” limitations on diplomatic contact with Taiwan were null and void, allowing for deeper and more direct communication between American and Taiwanese officials. This decision was the culmination of the Trump administration’s abandonment of a decades’ long balance with China, a status quo that was first breached when Donald Trump received a congratulatory call from Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen after the 2016 election. The phone call marked the first contact between a leader of Taiwan and an incoming U.S. president in almost 40 years.
In those four years, the administration effectively abandoned the “One China” policy, the recognition since 1979 that the communist People’s Republic of China (PRC) is the official Chinese government, rather than the Republic of China (ROC), Taiwan’s official name — and that there is only one sovereign state of “China,” an implicit repudiation of Taiwanese independence.
Right now, Biden has two paths: reverse course and ratchet down the Trump administration’s new policy toward Taiwan, or continue in his predecessor’s path by implicitly promoting Taipei’s independence and engaging in deeper bilateral relations with the ROC. The former option, while potentially politically troublesome for Biden, could deescalate U.S.-China tensions. The latter, while scoring Biden political points at home, especially with China hawks, would certainly intensify the growing rift between Washington and Beijing, leading the United States down a dangerous path that could end in war with a nuclear power.
Should Biden choose to further ties with Taipei, he’ll be praised for supporting democracy and self-determination and standing up to the communist regime in Beijing. It’s clear from the recent cabinet confirmation hearings that both Congress and the new administration favors a tough stance on China. However, Beijing will respond with increased animosity toward both Taipei and Washington. Chinese sanctions on U.S. officials over “nasty behavior” on the Taiwan issue are just the latest in a series of back-and-forth sanctions between Washington and Beijing. Trump’s tariffs throughout his presidency set off a trade war that hurt both the American and Chinese economies.
On the military side, the PRC and Taiwan have both increased military exercises in the region, and the United States has started training Taiwanese military forces for the first time since 1979 (the U.S. military denied those reports back in November).
If this pattern of escalation did lead to a Chinese invasion, the United States cannot expect it would win in a war over Taiwan. War game simulations conducted by officials from the Pentagon and the RAND Corporation show the United States losing in such a situation, and quite badly, according to David A. Ochmanek, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for force development and current defense analyst at Rand. “It's had its ass handed to it for years,” he said, of the American side. Ochmanek revealed that for years, the U.S. team “has been in shock because they didn't realize how badly off they were in a confrontation with China.”
The best option for the American people is for the Biden administration to reaffirm strategic ambiguity toward Taiwan. If Biden chooses this course, a bipartisan attack from China hawks may ensue, accusing Biden of weakness on the issue and appeasement of the authoritarian PRC regime. This backlash would be especially strong given increasing American outrage over mass arrests in Hong Kong, and the recent U.S. declaration of Chinese actions against Uyghurs as genocide. Many might call for a stronger pledge to Taiwan to signal America’s commitment to protecting civil society and human rights, and to express an overall dissatisfaction with the PRC. Nevertheless, Biden has to play the long game here.
The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act requires America to sell Taiwan defensive weapons and to consider any measures to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means “a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific.” Washington should continue to sell defensive arms to Taipei — something Beijing won’t like, but won’t fundamentally undermine U.S.-China relations. The United States should also encourage Taiwan to build up its own defenses to deter and protect against Chinese aggression.
At the same time, Washington should maintain its longstanding recognition of the “One China” policy and avoid any actions that might suggest the United States would take an explicit stance on Taiwanese sovereignty, especially given the uncertainty of whether the United States could decisively defeat a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.