Biden and Ing-wen’s Romance a game changer against Xi’s ambition

  • Biden and Ing-wen are deepening their country’s ties to deter the People’s Republic of China. 
  • U.S. House of Representative Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s August visit to Taiwan has deteriorated Beijing-Washington ties.
  • The war in Ukraine is changing the regional balance and raising concerns over Taiwan.
President Biden and President Ing-wen

Why is there a romance between Biden and Ing-wen?

Answer: Beijing’s rush to control the Taiwan strait deepened Biden and Ing-wen’s long-standing ties while highlighting Taiwan’s relevance in Indo-Pacific affairs.

The recent actions from the People’s Republic of China of sending planes into Taiwanese air defense zones, amidst the ongoing war in Ukraine and the parallels that can be drawn to Taiwan, have reinforced Taiwan’s relevance for U.S. strategy in the Asia Pacific region. Tensions between China and Taiwan heated up in August 2022, when  U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made an official visit to Taiwan. Consequently, President Joe Biden and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen have sped up and deepened their cooperation to coordinate an answer both to Pelosi’s sudden visit and Beijing’s recent moves.

The two presidents have found ways to foster a well-consolidated unofficial relationship between the countries without provoking Beijing. During these last four decades, U.S. diplomacy regarding Taipei has been shaped by the “One China policy.” This doctrine is framed within the 1980 Taiwan Relations Act in which Washington stopped officially recognizing Taipei, in favor of Beijing, and has no “commitment” to protect Taiwan in case of Beijing’s military intervention. 

Nevertheless, China’s assertiveness, growing nationalism, and authoritarian policy have greatly changed this perception. Since 2016, the U.S. has started to deepen its ties with Taipei, aggravating Beijing. To illustrate this move, in March 2018, the U.S. Congress passed the Taiwan Travel Act, opening the door for the exchange of official visits between the United States and Taiwan. The most important visit has been the U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s 2022 official trip to Taiwan. 

On security, there is no mutual defense treaty between Washington and Taipei and the U.S. has followed a “strategic ambiguity” towards the defense of Taiwan. However, Beijing’s growing anxiety and military assertiveness over Taipei is reshaping the U.S. stance over a potential invasion of this island nation. For instance, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan recently said a Chinese invasion of Taiwan remains a “distinct threat.” Additionally, President Joe Biden has confirmed U.S. military intervention against Beijing if mainland China invades this island.  

Despite the unofficial ties, the U.S. is a major supplier of weapons to Taiwan. In 2020, the US approved arms sales to Taiwan worth around $1.8bn. This deal comprised three weapons systems, including rocket launchers, sensors and artillery. In late 2022, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a $4.5 billion weapons deal to boost ties with Taiwan and give it more military hardware to deter a Chinese invasion.

Tsai Ing-wen and Joe Biden have consequently carried out a harsher tone against Xi and China and, at the same time, sped up a contingency plan to deter any move from Beijing to take control over Taiwan.

What does Ing-wen want?

Answer: Ing-wen is seeking to maintain Taiwan’s independence from China and avoid any Chinese military incursion over the island .

In her 2016 victory speech, Tsai Ing-wen stated that “the Republic of China constitutional order, the results of cross-strait negotiations, interactions and exchanges, and democratic principles and the will of the Taiwanese people, will become the foundation for future cross-strait relations.” Ultimately, Ing-wen refused to accept the 1992 consensus, irritating mainland China. During a 1992 meeting in Hong Kong between the KMT (the main political party in Taiwan) and the CCP, both sides reached an oral agreement that determined a mutually acceptable foundation on which cross-strait negotiations and agreements would be based.

As such, during the last decade, Taiwan has developed its own cultural, political, and even linguistic differences apart from mainland China. For example, according to a poll released in late May of 2016 by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation – 80% of respondents said they identified as Taiwanese, whereas only 8.1% identified as Chinese. 

President Xi Jinping’s authoritarian and nationalist fervor, commitment to the restoration of Chinese power, and more aggressive approach compared with his predecessors to achieve Beijing’s core foreign policy goal– gaining control over Taiwan- has raised concerns. One example is Beijing’s 2020 legislative assault on Hong Kong. These actions in Hong Kong have raised concerns that Taiwan could be next, increasing Taiwanese skepticism over mainland China. For instance, polls conducted by Taiwan’s National Chengchi University in 2019 and 2020 showed an uptick in support for moving toward independence and a decline in support for moving toward unification. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has provided an important lesson for Tsai Ing-wen. In the wake of the Ukraine conflict, Taiwanese government officials and national security experts are reassessing the island’s defense strategy. In addition, President Ing-wen imposed economic sanctions by cutting off semiconductor exports to Moscow. This move on semiconductor exports has increased foreign support for Taiwan. 

Prior to the Ukraine conflict, in 2021, the EU parliament backed a non-binding resolution urging the EU to deepen ties with Taiwan and start work on an investment deal with the island. Moreover, in August 2022, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s official visit to Taiwan underscored the United States’ commitment to democracy,” even as it angered China. These statements made by the EU and US represent a huge diplomatic win for Tsai Ing-wen’s goal to keep Taiwan’s independence. Nevertheless, Taiwan also has recently undertaken a new effort to enhance its position in international society through President Ing-wen’s New Southbound Policy (NSP). This strategy states that Taiwan will work with countries regionally (such as the US and its allies) and globally (such as the EU). 

What does Biden want?

Answer: Biden hopes to counter Xi and keep a leading role in the  semiconductor industry, in which Taiwan is a key global powerhouse.

Biden, like his Taiwanese counterpart, is seeking to deter Beijing. China has become considerably more aggressive over Taiwan, which threatens not just US core interests in the region, but also its leading technological role. 

Therefore, military cooperation with Taiwan is key for Washington, not only providing it with a key ally in the Asia-Pacific region, but also with one incredibly close to China geographically. As such, both leaders praise a free and open Indo-Pacific. For instance, Ing-wen’s steps in the Indo-Pacific are largely supportive of the goals of the U.S. “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy (FOIP). Moreover, Taipei has openly expressed willingness to partner with Washington. Taiwan would make a key partner for Biden’s FOIP strategy due to its geographical location in the South China Sea. A potential Chinese control over Taiwan would enable Xi to dominate the Pacific region and thus pose security threats to Biden’s partners in the Philippines, South Korea and Japan, as well as US territory Guam and US state Hawaii. 

At the same time, a successful Chinese annexation of Taiwan would also undermine Japan and South Korea’s economic security. For instance, over forty percent of Japan’s maritime trade passes through the South China Sea. Thus, taking over Taiwan would give Beijing expansive (and expensive) influence over the United States’ tenth largest trading partner. As U.S. Defense analyst Loren Thompson wrote in 2020 in Forbes: “If Taiwan fell under the sway of Beijing, either peacefully or by force, the strategic balance in the Western Pacific would be irreparably changed,” in Beijing’s favor.  

Fear of the above scenario has increased after the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the parallels that have been drawn for Taiwan in China. Beijing is watching and taking notes on the US and EU response to the invasion in Ukraine to assess opportunities it may have with Taiwan. These concerns have increased after the U.S. House Speaker Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan was followed by a Chinese military drill near Taiwan’s shores. Thus, an effective U.S. cross-strait deterrence is becoming key for Washington’s force projection capabilities in the region. Beijing’s growing military might against Taiwan is weighing on Biden to enact sanctions against China to deter it from invading Taiwan.

Last but not least, Biden’s diplomatic romance with Tsai Ing-wen blossoms at a time when the U.S. is seeking to avoid China’s plans to dominate key areas of emerging technology. Within this technological race, Taiwan is a key powerhouse. The Taiwanese company TSMC accounts for more than 90% of global output of semiconductor chips, according to industry estimates. For Washington, allowing an increasingly powerful China to overrun TSMC’s factories in a conflict would threaten U.S. military and technological leadership. 

In sum, Taiwan is a critical ally for Washington as both a semiconductor powerhouse and a key partner to maintain U.S. leadership in the economic, technological and military field in the Indo-Pacific. 

What is Biden doing?

Answer: The US president is deepening ties with Taiwan to counter China and secure technological supply chains.

President Biden and his foreign policy team is prioritizing the rebuilding of U.S. partnerships to strengthen Washington’s global leadership and one key region has been the Indo-Pacific. Before becoming the current US president, Biden was one of the longest-serving senators in US history. In 1979, during his career as a senator, the United States adopted the “One China Policy” as a precondition for establishing full diplomatic relations with Beijing. In addition, the U.S. Congress passed in 1980 the Taiwan Relations Act. This law promotes the maintenance of economic linkages and “unofficial” political ties between Washington and Taipei, which neither confirms nor denies U.S. support regarding Taiwan’s security. 

Over these many decades since, the Taiwan Relations Act has been the key driver of Washington-Beijing ties and U.S.-Taiwan ties. Nevertheless, China’s growing clout in the international sphere and Chinese leaders’ explicit threats to take over the island by military means has encouraged the now U.S. President Biden to end the “strategic ambiguity” policy. For instance, in May 2022, President Biden stated that the US would be prepared to defend Taiwan if the island nation came under attack from China. It’s important to note, however, that a White House spokesperson emphasized Biden was not announcing any change in U.S. policy. Furthermore, President Biden approved the largest arms sale to Taiwan under his administration, greenlighting over $1.1 billion in arms sales to Taiwan.

Over these last 4 decades, Taiwan has been losing influence as it has been excluded from most global organizations such as the WHO—an organization with increased relevance due to the Covid19 pandemic. Consequently, in 2022, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed legislation calling on the State Department to submit a plan to help Taiwan regain its observer status at the WHO. 

As mentioned earlier, Taiwanese companies like TSMC make the majority of the world’s most advanced semiconductor chips, which are key to the U.S.-China’s growing technological dispute. To secure these chips, in 2021, US Congress passed the CHIPS for America Act. This law authorizes a series of programs to promote the research, development, and fabrication of semiconductors within the United States. Additionally, US politicians such as Biden have persuaded Taiwan to build and open a semiconductor factory in the U.S.

What does this mean for you?

Answer: Strengthening Taiwan-US ties that counter China could avoid any regional and global escalation. But they could also become the catalyst for escalation.

Both Ing-wen and Biden share the same concern over the probability that Beijing will try to use its growing military strength to take over Taiwan. As a result, since late 2021, the United States has doubled its unofficial military presence in Taiwan. Additionally, current US president Joe Biden has indicated the U.S. will “support” Taiwan if it is attacked, reshaping the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. This document, which marked US policy regarding Taipei for decades, states that the US will “make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services” to allow it to defend itself from any potential attack from Beijing.

The ability of Biden and Ing-wen to take countermeasures has been calculated with their important trade ties with China in mind; while also seeking to keep top notch technology, mostly semiconductors, out of Beijing’s control. For example, in late 2020, TMSC stated that it will build a semiconductor factory in Arizona, as concerns grow in Washington about the security of the technology supply chain which is largely centered in Taiwan.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has raised concern about the future state of Taiwan. The current status quo over Taiwan has been increasingly fragile as US lawmakers toe the line of “strategic ambiguity.” To avoid any further miscalculation, Washington has ramped up discussions about sanctions options to deter Beijing of any wrong step concerning Taipei. 

The increasing ties between Biden and Ing-wen will be paramount for two reasons: First of all, this romance will greatly impact and reshape global technological leadership. Second, it will determine whether Xi Jinping will achieve his long lasting aim of control over Taipei, redefining the current world order or maintaining the status quo.