Upon entering the Oval Office, Joe Biden must stand up for Taiwan, the independent democracy increasingly under threat of force from China. If Biden makes it clear that he will not — as some progressives have advocated — sacrifice Taiwan’s freedom in order to appease and secure peace with China, he’ll not only be standing up for the island but also renewing America’s commitment to supporting its allies and opposing tyranny.
Unfortunately, Washington’s resolve on this subject has been at best questionable under President Trump, who has refused to push back on (and actually expressed support for) China’s persecution of the Uighurs and other Muslims, undermined democracy around the world, and repeatedly praised strongmen the world over. His administration’s hard line on China is welcome, but the president’s words have not come attached to meaningful support for our allies and partners, particularly in Asia.
On Oct. 23, meanwhile, the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, delivered a hawkish sermon proclaiming that his regime will “never allow any person or any force to violate and split the motherland’s sacred territory” and that “once such severe circumstances occur, the Chinese people shall deliver a head-on blow.” As if to match these words with action, China in October ramped up its aggression toward Taiwan, the republic that broke away during the Chinese civil war in 1949 and over which Beijing claims authority, even though it has never controlled the island. Chinese military aircraft, including fighter jets, repeatedly flew into Taiwanese airspace, Hong Kong air traffic controllers prohibited a civilian Taiwanese plane from entering airspace over the South China Sea, and China’s army beefed up its coastal forces.
Xi seems to be calculating that Washington, exhausted by forever wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, will for the foreseeable future be too focused on domestic unrest and COVID-19 to protect some far-away friend. If there were ever a time for an aggressive Xi to seize Taiwan and cement his legacy in hyper-nationalist China, it is now. But if China gets truly belligerent, Biden must step in to prevent Beijing’s seizure of the island, both for Taiwan’s benefit and to demonstrate the renewed value of America’s word in the post-Trump era.
Taiwan’s status as an independent island officially unrecognized by most of the world, including the United States, is a geopolitical absurdity. Yet Washington and Taipei enjoy a robust relationship; the United States’ implicit security guarantee for Taiwan has kept China restrained for decades.
Trump, to his credit, approved the sale of arms packages worth almost $4 billion to Taiwan in October. But these weapons are not enough, given China’s propensity to harass its neighbors in ways that fall shy of outright war. It has sunk civilian boats, captured, beaten, and coerced foreign fishermen into expressing support for Beijing’s geopolitics, and militarily interfered in neighbors’ offshore oil and gas exploration. More worryingly, Beijing could misinterpret Trump’s weapons sales as an indication that the United States expects Taiwan, a country of only 25 million people, to fight for itself.
Biden, therefore, should organize bilateral training exercises with Taiwan and help it form a territorial defense force to deter Chinese aggression, like the pacts that several NATO allies, including Estonia, Lithuania, and Poland, have created to deter Russian aggression. Washington has for years considered options like these but rarely acted on them for fear of aggravating Beijing. But with China bellicose and no longer even trying to play by the international system’s rules, the United States would be wise to recognize reality and fortify its support for Taiwan. Along these lines, Washington could also transit naval ships through the Taiwan Strait and fly B-52 bombers near Taiwan.
Moreover, Biden should deepen US diplomatic and economic ties with Taiwan, include Taiwan in regional trade deals (like the Trans-Pacific Partnership that Trump scrapped but Biden will likely resurrect in some form), and push for the reinstatement of Taiwan’s observer status in organizations like the World Health Assembly. He could maintain the traditional deftness of US support for Taiwan by pushing for the island’s participation, albeit not full-fledged membership, in the United Nations, something that Beijing adamantly opposes.
Biden will face manifest challenges at home, but he cannot forget Taiwan, which is perhaps our greatest foreign policy test today. If Washington fails to stand by Taipei, our word will lose its meaning and America’s Asian alliance system will unravel, effectively ceding the region to an illiberal China. Why would Japan or South Korea or Vietnam trust us if we sacrifice or forsake Taiwan?
With America’s image in tatters, Beijing could more easily claim regional hegemony, a springboard from which empires have historically launched global campaigns. If the United States fails Taiwan, China will find it easier to create an illiberal, anti-American, and Sinocentric global order.
Charles Dunst is a visiting scholar at the East-West Center in Washington and an associate at LSE IDEAS, the London School of Economics’ foreign policy think tank. Shahn Savino is a recent master’s graduate from the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, where he focused on international security in Asia.