Former President Donald Trump bolstered U.S. political and military ties to Taiwan throughout his term, a move that helped set the stage for the United States’ blistering feud with China, which claims the self-ruling island as its own.
But while President Joe Biden promises to find areas of both competition and cooperation with the People’s Republic, his alliance-oriented approach to the issue could elevate Taipei’s international status and raise further tensions with Beijing.
Taiwan currently counts diplomatic ties with only 14 U.N. member states as well as the Vatican. Other countries, including the U.S., have recognized the Chinese government ruling the mainland as the sole representative of China, blocking its rival’s access to most international organizations.
Washington, however, has maintained informal diplomatic and defense ties with Taipei that were expanded under the previous administration.
In a statement sent to Newsweek, the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in New York detailed a number of ways in which the U.S. “has been very vocal in supporting Taiwan’s international participation.” These included the 2015 signing of Taiwan under the Global Cooperation Training Framework (GCTF), and last year’s Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act.
With these achievements in place, the office said “Taiwan and the U.S. can certainly build on these broad efforts” under the Biden administration.
“For example, more like-minded countries could join the GCTF at the U.S.’s invitation,” the office said. “The U.S. could assist Taiwan in its negotiation to join the CPTTP should the Biden administration decide to rejoin the block. Taiwan could also play a bigger role in the US’s Indo-Pacific strategy to expand its cooperation with like-minded partners in the region.”
Should Biden proceed with his planned global “Summit for Democracy,” the New York representatives of Taipei said “Taiwan would be a valuable participant in President Biden’s Summit for Democracy if it goes ahead.”
“It is important to note that Taiwan’s role needs to be seen on its own merits,” the office said, “as Taiwan has proved time and again that it is a reliable and trustworthy partner of the international community.”
While Taiwan aspires for a greater role among the international community, China has been vigilant in opposing what it considers to be separatist currents out of a breakaway province.
The issue came up during the first call between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday.
The two leaders found common ground in the need to combat COVID-19 and climate change and the necessity to work together on shared challenges, but Biden affirmed the U.S. would pursued its own interests and that of its allies in the region, including on issues deemed geopolitically sensitive to China.
“President Biden underscored his fundamental concerns about Beijing’s coercive and unfair economic practices, crackdown in Hong Kong, human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and increasingly assertive actions in the region, including toward Taiwan,” a White House readout stated.
Xi, for his part, emphasized the importance of improving U.S.-China relations, not only for the sake of two top powers, but for the world.
He also drew a line on issues China considers to be domestic matters.
“The Taiwan question and issues relating to Hong Kong, Xinjiang, etc. are China’s internal affairs and concern China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Xi said, “and the U.S. side should respect China’s core interests and act prudently.”
But that same day, the Biden administration took things further by inviting Taiwan’s top envoy at the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office, Hsiao Bi-khim, to the State Department.
“The U.S. is deepening ties with Taiwan, a leading democracy and important economic and security partner,” the State Department’s East Asian and Pacific Affairs Bureau said.
While Trump demonstrated an early affinity for Taiwan by taking the unprecedented step of accepting Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s congratulatory call shortly after the election, Biden appears to be building off this momentum in his first weeks.
In fact, Hsiao’s presence at Biden’s inauguration last month was the first time a Taiwan diplomat had attended such an event since 1979.
That year, which marked the death of People’s Republic founder Mao Zedong and the beginning of an opening to the West pioneered by Deng Xiaoping, saw the U.S. switch its diplomatic relations from Taipei to Beijing.
This process was accompanied by the signing of what’s known as the Three Communiques between 1972 and 1982, serving as the basis for new U.S.-China ties, which acted at the time as a buffer to Cold War tensions between Washington and Moscow.
Today, observers on both sides warn of a new Cold War, with Taiwan on the frontline.
Both U.S. and Chinese officials view their bilateral relationship as the most important in the world, but major differences exist in trade, human rights and geopolitics.
Taiwan tops the list of these points of contention, and Chinese Communist Party Central Foreign Affairs Commission Director Yang Jiechi emphasized this during his first call with Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday.
“Yang Jiechi said that the Taiwan question, the most important and sensitive core issue in China-U.S. relations, bears on China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry readout said. “The United States should strictly abide by the one-China principle and the three Sino-U.S. joint communiques.”
Blinken, on other hand, “reaffirmed that the United States will work together with its allies and partners in defense of our shared values and interests to hold the PRC accountable for its efforts to threaten stability in the Indo-Pacific, including across the Taiwan Strait, and its undermining of the rules-based international system,” according to the State Department readout.
During this call as well, the Chinese side focused far more on the need for cooperation than those of the U.S. Despite political differences among administrations, Washington’s tone toward Beijing appears to have undergone a fundamental shift since Trump, who Blinken has said “was right to take a tougher approach to China.”
But Biden has promised to abide by the longstanding “one-China policy” by which the U.S. “recognizes the Government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal Government of China,” but only “acknowledges the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China.” The latter Chinese position is referred to as the “one-China principle.”
International attitudes toward the issue are largely governed by the 1972 passing of U.N. General Assembly resolution 2758.
This resolution saw the People’s Republic of China secure the seat given to Taiwan—officially the Republic of China—at the U.N. and take its place as a permanent member of the Security Council for the first time since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949.
Taiwan to this day argues that the international community has misunderstood the decision.
“We’d also like to point out that the fact many international organizations are hesitant to include Taiwan is due to their erroneous interpretation of UNGA resolution 2758,” the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in New York told Newsweek. “They misconstrue Taiwan to be a part of the PRC; and one must also note that this view [‘Taiwan is a part of the PRC’] is not universally held by UN member states.”
China’s embassy in Washington did not respond to Newsweek‘s request for comment, but Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin recently sounded off on the failed bid by Taiwan and its leading Democratic Progressive Party to foster diplomatic ties with Guyana.
He claimed DPP officials “deliberately seek ‘Taiwan independence’ and expand ‘international space’ under the pretext of carrying out unofficial economic and cultural activities, in an attempt to hide the truth and deceive the world.”
Wang again asserted the validity the “one-China principle,” and mocked Taiwan’s government.
“Facts have once again proved that the one-China principle is a widely recognized norm for international relations and universal consensus of the international community,” Wang said. “The Taiwan authorities’ secessionist behavior and clumsy performance are unpopular, and their ugly face has been fully exposed, making themselves a laughing stock.”
He also took aim at the U.S. for cheering on the move, viewed as yet another provocation just shortly after Biden sent a warship through the Taiwan Strait, potentially setting the stage for further antagonisms to come.
“Relevant U.S. officials have made seriously wrong remarks in breach of the principle of international law and norms governing international relations, to which China is firmly opposed,” Wang said. “The Taiwan question concerns China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. It is purely China’s internal affair and allows no interference by any external forces.”