While the incoming Biden Administration looks unlikely to reverse the move to great power competition made by his predecessor, in fact with his emphasis on alliance building he may reinforce it, it is uncertain whether or not his officials will continue America’s recently friendly advances towards Taiwan.
Recently, China Central Television treated its viewers to footage of Chinese battle tanks rolling through streets which were supposed to resemble urban Taiwan. It was reminiscent of the fiery scenes also broadcast by the state-run station, only two months earlier, showing China’s military simulating a large-scale amphibious invasion of its neighbour. They serve as a reminder, albeit a gentle one, that the Communist Party of China believes that Taiwan belongs to them.
Of course, the Taiwanese people disagree. This is why they have continually resisted, or ignored, repeated threats from across the strait. Including over a hundred incursions into their country’s airspace since mid-September 2020. They have also shown great resilience in the face of Beijing’s successful attempts to isolate them on the world stage. Efforts which have involved poaching Taipei’s few remaining formal diplomatic allies and pushing their delegates out of international bodies, like the World Health Organisation.
Unsurprisingly, all of the above has failed to convince the Taiwanese people of the merits of a one-country-two-systems arrangement with Beijing. Neither, one strongly suspects, has recent events in Hong Kong whose people are supposed to be enjoying the liberties afford to them by their city’s “autonomous” status within the People’s Republic of China. No wonder then polling points to growing sense of a distinct Taiwanese-identity, not Chinese, amongst Taiwan’s population, and with it a declining interest in unification with China.
General Secretary Xi Jinping has made clear his desire not to see the “Taiwan question” pass on to another generation of Chinese leaders. The rest of the world should take note. This is not a dispute they can sit-back and observe, care-free, from afar. Especially given China’s growing military might, which it has never ruled out using to achieve its expansionist ambitions. Defenders of the post-1945 liberal international order ought to recognise the need to uphold the principle that countries cannot be allowed to go about annexing their neighbours.
Old interests ought to encourage continued outsider interest in cross-strait affairs. Namely, the desire to prevent Beijing from turning Taiwan, as General Douglas MacArthur feared they could, into an unsinkable aircraft carrier. One which could be used to project Beijing’s power into the Western Pacific. New interests ought to matter too such as Taiwan’s critical link, as a world-class producer of computer chips in the global supply of technology. While, of course, there always is the moral imperative to support Taiwan due to it being, since the 1990s, an increasingly vibrant liberal democracy.
Whatever the reasons the outgoing Trump Administration has taken significant steps to strengthen US-Taiwan ties. Steps spurred on by both Democrats and Republicans in Congress. Over the past four years’ arms sales to Taiwan have become more regularised and messages of support stepped up. Most recently the US has sent two high-profile officials, including one cabinet minister, to visit Taipei. Regardless of who sat in the White House at the time these developments in Washington have been welcome.
Yet in other capitals across the free world leaders are slower in responding to China’s challenge to peace in the Taiwan Strait. In some respects, understandably so given only the United States can credibly commit to defending the island from invasion.
Last year when it came to standing up for Taiwan’s right to participate in the World Health Organisation members of the European Union and Five-Eyes did vocalise their opposition. Yet such events are notable for their infrequency and leave many wondering what else can be done. After all there are plenty of other bodies Taiwan is excluded from and more areas for these countries to deepen bilateral ties in. Sometimes it feels like all the bold initiatives are left to local leaders, like Prague Mayor Zdenêk Hřib whose visit to Taipei in September 2020 attracted much fanfare, not national ones.
However, there is a sea change afoot. From the United Kingdom to Australia countries are reconsidering their approaches to Beijing. Yes, even Britain who only five years ago clambered for a “Golden Era” with the People’s Republic has turned towards China-proofing itself with, to take just one example, the banning of Huawei. This turn could give fellow liberal democracies, once fearful of aggravating Beijing, space for more engagement with Taiwan.
To some extent this will depend on Washington. While the incoming Biden Administration looks unlikely to reverse the move to great power competition made by his predecessor, in fact with his emphasis on alliance building he may reinforce it, it is uncertain whether or not his officials will continue America’s recently friendly advances towards Taiwan.
Biden and leaders in the rest of the free world have many interests in supporting Taiwan and maintaining peace in the straits. In the coming years they will have the opportunity to demonstrate their resolve and they will need to because Xi Jinping will certainly be demonstrating his.
Gray Sergeant is a Research Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society’s Asia Studies Centre.