Biden, Trump: Beyond the ‘strategic ambiguity’ towards Taiwan?

Biden, Trump: Beyond the ‘strategic ambiguity’ towards Taiwan?


14 | 06 | 2024


In a second term, the Democratic president may keep his promise of a US military intervention; the Republican candidate, although hostile to Beijing, may resist such a move

In the image

Taiwan military monitors the whereabouts of the PLAN aircraft carrier ‘Shandong’ and a formation of vessels when they passed through the Bashi Channel alongside the southeast waters of Taiwan, in April 2023 [ROC Defense]

The United States has a close and interconnected relationship with Taiwan, an issue which is closely tied to its overall relationship with China. The partnership with the United States is vital for Taiwan in order to get important support for defending itself against diplomatic and military pressure from China.

The Republic of China, which was founded in mainland China in 1912, received substantial assistance from the United States both during and following the Chinese Civil War, where it fought against the Chinese Communist Party. After the Communist Party achieved victory in 1949, the government of the Republic of China and its supporters fled to Taiwan in search of refuge. When in the mainland the Communist Party of China formed the People's Republic of China (PRC), the United States chose not to recognize the new government and only kept ties with the exiled authorities in Taiwan as representatives of the whole China.

In the 1970s, in the midst of the Cold War, Washington sought to establish normalized diplomatic relations with Beijing as part of President Nixon’s ‘détente’ strategy towards the Soviet Union. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter put into place a policy that included the opening of complete diplomatic relations with the PRC and the discontinuation of official diplomatic ties with the government of the Republic of China (ROC) in Taiwan.

The United States government has maintained a policy of adherence to the ‘one-China policy’ regarding Taiwan since 1979, as it has been demanded by Beijing. But Washington has developed a close relationship with the island, which is just one step away from formal diplomatic recognition. The Biden Administration has asserted that this policy is grounded in the principles delineated in the Taiwan Relations Act, along with the joint communiqués of the United States and the PRC from 1972, 1978, and 1982. Moreover, it is based on the ‘Six Assurances’ that were communicated by President Ronald Reagan to the government of Taiwan in 1982.

‘Strategic ambiguity’

The Taiwan Relations Act encompasses the critical elements of the special relationship, including that the United States and Taiwan will work together through the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), an organization independent of the government, to maintain diplomatic relations. AIT Taipei, similar to US embassies in normal countries, carries out various roles and responsibilities.

The United States is committed to maintaining Taiwan’s capability to protect itself against any attempt by any country to use force or coercion that could endanger the security, societal, or economic welfare of the island. The United States promises to supply Taiwan with the appropriate defense materials and services to ensure that aim.

The Taiwan Relations Act employs a strategy known as ‘strategic ambiguity,’ whereby it intentionally refrains from using clear language about the United States’ commitment to directly safeguard Taiwan in case of aggression from the People's Republic of China. This approach aims to create uncertainty and prevent provocation while making the US’ stance on the issue deliberately vague.

The United States and Taiwan share robust economic relations that are mutually advantageous. Since 2020, the Economic Prosperity Partnership Dialogue has been conducted between the United States and Taiwan and instrumentally facilitated by the AIT and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO). The objective is to improve economic and commercial ties, with a specific emphasis on supply chain security, investment screening, healthcare, science and technology, and the digital economy. In the year 2021, the US Department of Commerce initiated the establishment of the Technology, Trade, and Investment Collaboration framework with Taiwan aimed at fostering a platform for commercial initiatives and enhancing supply chains.

Ensuring peace and stability in Taiwan and in the Indo-Pacific region is a shared priority for both Washington and Taipei. The significance of this has also been emphasized in the cooperative statements issued by the United States in conjunction with Japan, Korea, the G7, and other similar-minded allies.

The collaboration on security matters between Taiwan and the United States has played a critical role in safeguarding Taiwan’s national security as well as maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan is committed to collaborating with the United States in order to enhance its capabilities for self-defense. With sufficient self-defense capabilities, Taiwan will remain indispensable in upholding peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and bolstering regional security.

In 2021, the US State Department issued a statement supporting Taiwan’s participation in the United Nations system. Both Taiwan and the United States regularly hold Working Group Meetings on International Organizations. The United States has once again expressed its strong support for Taiwan’s meaningful participation in international organizations, alongside its allies, through direct and collaborative dialogues.

Biden’s extra commitments

The most significant move by President Biden regarding Taiwan has been his commitment to use US military force to help Taiwan in the case of an attack. Since 2021, Biden has reiterated the United States’ willingness to protect Taiwan using US military force on six separate occasions. White House officials have confirmed this approach each time (ruling out a possible Biden’s ‘lapsus linguae’), while insisting that there was no alteration in US policy and that the ‘strategic ambiguity’ remains the official policy, even though it is obvious that Biden has gone beyond it.

The United States’ readiness to a military intervention to defend Taiwan in the event of substantial military aggression by China is a stance previously absent. This constitutes an uncommon and unmistakable statement from the United States concerning its position amidst escalating tensions with Beijing.

In a 2022 interview with 60 Minutes, Joe Biden was asked about the potential intervention of the US military in support of Taiwan. Biden responded that in the case of an “unprecedented assault,” the United States would intervene. In a recent interview with Time magazine, the US leader was questioned about the possibility of the United States defending Taiwan in a particular situation. The US leader acknowledged the difference between ground, air, and naval deployment, and indicated that any decision to defend Taiwan would be contingent upon the specific circumstances at hand.

Biden stated that he has communicated the established US policy of not supporting Taiwanese independence to Chinese President Xi Jinping, emphasizing that he would protect the island in the event of unilateral attempts by China to alter the current situation. He also mentioned that the United States has been in discussion with its regional allies regarding this matter. Biden, however, refrained from explicitly stating whether the United States would conduct military strikes from its bases in Japan or the Philippines.

China’s response

Due in part to Joe Biden's increasingly direct statements regarding Taiwan and the progressive deterioration of relations between the People's Republic of China and the United States, China has become increasingly assertive, both towards the US and Taiwan. China continues to exert its influence on Taiwan after the island elected Lai Ching-te, a politician with close ties to the United States, as its new leader on January 13th.

China altered a civil aviation pathway without seeking input from Taiwan, prompting a response from Taiwan consisting of a “powerful objection” to Beijing. The decision serves to establish a standard practice for the flight patterns of Chinese commercial aircraft in the vicinity of the island.

The People’s Liberation Army frequently conducts deployments of military aircraft to strategically significant areas near Taiwan and has organized significant military drills near the island on two occasions since August 2022 in response to meetings of Taiwanese authorities with high-ranking US officials.

China expressed its dissatisfaction openly during the recent Shangri-la dialogue in the presence of numerous Asia-Pacific leaders, articulating its stance unequivocally. In that forum, Chinese Defense Minister Dong Jun emphasized the significance of Taiwan as a central issue for Beijing and criticized the United States for its role in causing tensions through its backing of the island.

A special military collaboration was revealed in October 2021, when the ‘Wall Street Journal’ published that US troops had been deployed in Taiwan for a least a year as military trainers. This military presence has reportedly become permanent in the last years.

Washington is the primary advocate for Taipei’s military, and in late 2022, it approved up to $10 billion in arms sales to Taiwan over a span of five years. In reaction to the weapons sales, Beijing has imposed symbolic sanctions on US defense companies.

Biden / Trump

Regardless of who is the next president of the United States, the relationship between Washington and Beijing will not be easy, with the Taiwan issue in the middle of the fight.

During President Trump’s administration, the United States’ stance towards Taiwan shifted from being ambiguous to becoming openly and more explicitly supportive.
This was primarily attributed to the worsening diplomatic ties between China and the United States. Trump bolstered military assistance to Taiwan, which consisted of naval activities in the Taiwan Strait, and dispatched high-ranking officials to the island. Furthermore, his Secretary of State eased constraints on interactions between US diplomats and representatives from Taipei.

Last May, a former US ambassador appointed by Donald Trump expressed his belief that the former president would once again extend his support to Taiwan should he be re-elected to the presidency. Nevertheless, China suggests that if Trump wins the presidency again, he would abandon Taiwan, portraying the United States as an unreliable ally for Taiwan: Beijing’s intention is undermining the island’s confidence in its ability to resist an invasion with the help of Washington.

Based on their previous actions, it is likely that both candidates for the US presidency will continue to show support for Taiwan in the case they secure a second term. Biden has shown stronger and more direct support for the island, and no changes are expected in a second mandate. In the case of Trump, it is clear that during his past mandate the United States and Taiwan openly collaborated and took actions that were criticized by Beijing. However, one could argue that these actions were motivated by deteriorating relations with China, rather than a genuine desire to support Taiwan. Advisors with strong ties to the former President have conveyed the administration’s lack of concern and disengagement regarding Taiwan.

Evan Medeiros, who served as the National Security Council senior director for Asia explained that it was generally understood in Washington that throughout most of the Trump administration, there was a lack of emphasis on Taiwan from President Trump. During conversations with Chinese officials, there were rumors that he had brought up this topic.

In his memoir ‘The Room Where It Happened,’ published in 2020, John Bolton, who served as national security adviser, revealed that President Trump had a habit of drawing a comparison between Taiwan and China using a pen. According to Bolton, Trump would use the tip of the marker to indicate Taiwan and the Oval Office Resolute desk as representing China.

In the early stages of its tenure, the relationship between the United States and China experienced challenges, evident in the trade wars and the American backing of the protesters in Hong Kong. It can be argued that, during the Trump administration, the United States’ support for Taiwan was intricately linked to a power struggle with an increasingly assertive People's Republic of China.