In August 2020, the Trump administration sent Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to visit Taipei for a meeting intended to discuss COVID-19 and Taiwan’s role in global health. This marked the highest-level visit of an American cabinet official to the island since the United States switched its diplomatic relations with China from Taipei to Beijing in 1979. In response to the visit, Beijing Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin stated that the United States should cease all official contacts with Taiwan if it wants to avoid “severe damage to China-US relations.” This clearly implied that unlike other points of disagreement, these actions risked crossing a red line and threatened both cross-strait peace and the U.S.-China relationship. While Azar was in Taipei, Chinese jets crossed over the median line in the Taiwan Strait in a relatively rare display of anger.
Just a month later, Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth Keith Krach was sent to represent the United States at a memorial service for Lee Teng-hui, Taiwan’s former president. China’s Foreign Ministry once again reiterated its stance that the United States should end all official exchanges with Taiwanese authorities in accordance with the Three Joint Communiques, but it also warned that China would have a “necessary reaction” to the visit. The day after Krach landed, Taiwan reported that eighteen Chinese aircraft had entered its southwest ADIZ zone in an unusually large incursion. Another high-level Trump administration official, U.S. ambassador to the UN Kelly Craft, was also scheduled to visit Taipei in January 2021, but the trip was canceled at the last minute to aid with the transition to the Biden administration. Predictably, the announcement of the planned visit angered Beijing, which warned that the United States would “pay a heavy price” if the visit took place.
Finally, another significant development in U.S. policy was revealed when unnamed Trump administration officials leaked that, since 2020, the United States had secretly deployed forces to the island to train Taiwan’s defense forces. China reacted by demanding that the United States abide by its 1972 commitment to withdraw all U.S. forces from the island, again invoking the fundamental basis for cross-strait peace.
Any single example of the Trump administration’s heterodox approach to Taiwan relations might have been ignored as ignorant, insignificant, or purely symbolic. However, seasoned policy hands recognized early on that the Trump administration may indeed have desired to fundamentally undermine the One China Policy of past administrations, perhaps as a means of brinksmanship or bargaining against China. In any case, the Trump administration introduced a number of clear changes in the practice of U.S. relations with Taiwan. This was made undeniable when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo officially revoked limitations on meetings between U.S. and Taiwan diplomats in the final days of the Trump administration.
President Biden has largely continued the Trump administration’s approach toward Taiwan, forging increasingly direct cooperation between U.S. government offices and officials and Taiwan’s authorities. In an early official gesture, President Biden invited Taiwan’s de facto ambassador, Hsiao Bi-khim, to his inauguration. Instead of reversing Pompeo’s changes to State Department policy, the Biden administration held course and implemented new guidelines allowing U.S. officials to invite Taiwan’s representatives into government buildings and attend working-level meetings at the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office. As a result of this move, a publicized meeting between diplomats from the United States and Taiwan in France provoked the local Chinese embassy to again accuse Washington of violating the One China Principle and call on the U.S. to cease “official exchanges” with Taiwan.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has also strayed from traditional U.S. diplomatic practice by repeatedly referring to Taiwan as a “country” in public remarks and official testimony. For instance, in two different Congressional hearings, Blinken referred to Taiwan as a “country,” even though the United States does not recognize it as such. When asked about the United States’ support for Taiwan in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Blinken said the United States stands by its “commitments to both countries,” referring to Ukraine and Taiwan. The Biden administration also resumed the Trade Investment and Framework talks that had stalled since 2016, despite warnings from China’s foreign ministry to “stop any form of official exchanges with Taiwan, handle the Taiwan issue cautiously, and refrain from sending any wrong signals to Taiwan independence forces.”
In an apparent gaffe last August, President Biden listed Taiwan among U.S. treaty allies. White House officials later tried to walk back Biden’s statements, saying that U.S. policy “has not changed.” But when questioned last October if the United States would protect Taiwan in case of an invasion, President Biden said, “Yes,” seemingly contradicting the United States’ long-standing policy of strategic ambiguity. Moreover, the number of U.S. troops conducting training missions on Taiwan increased roughly twofold during President Biden’s first year in office.
While any of these actions might be dismissed as mere gaffes or minor adjustments if taken in isolation, in aggregate they are indicative of a broad change in America’s approach to its relationship with Taiwan, belying President Biden’s rhetorical commitment to the “Taiwan agreement.”
Is Taiwan Safer?
Last year, when asked about repeated Chinese incursions into Taiwan’s ADIZ, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said, “The United States is very concerned by the People’s Republic of China’s provocative military activity near Taiwan, which is destabilizing, risks miscalculations, and undermines regional peace and stability.” If this concern is genuine, it is important for the administration to reflect on the causes of China’s increasingly aggressive military signaling around Taiwan. China has made clear that these actions are directly related to changes in U.S. behavior, if not stated policy.
The United States’ long-standing aim is to maintain peace in the Taiwan Strait and prevent China from seeking to resolve Taiwan’s status by force of arms. A conflict over Taiwan would have terrible consequences for the island and would likely be quite destabilizing for the region. Knowing this, U.S. leaders have historically focused on preventing changes to the political status quo through the careful combination of deterrence and reassurance on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. They accomplished this by gently, though at times actively, discouraging any moves toward formal independence by Taiwan’s leaders, while sending them arms, technical support, and trade revenue to strengthen them against any possible attack by China. As the war in Ukraine has underscored, robust U.S. military aid is a potent and reliable source of security and deterrence for Taiwan. The United States has also signaled its strong support for Taiwan by conducting presence operations and military exercises with allies in the region to deter any Chinese aggression, especially in times of acute tensions.
While it may be necessary to signal strong support for Taiwan in the context of current tensions with China, some American actions—public remarks by officials that directly challenge the One China Principle, military deployments, and high-profile visits by U.S. officials to the island—are obviously perceived by Beijing as “deliberately provocative” and have “led to further escalation in the Taiwan Strait.” While China’s incursions into Taiwan’s ADIZ are essentially routine at this point, they are not without cost to Taiwan’s defense forces, nor are they without risk of escalation, intentional or otherwise. More importantly, China’s military actions around Taiwan are intended to signal Beijing’s resolve to escalate further when its interests are threatened.
With all of this in mind, the crucial question for the Biden administration and Congress is this: does the ongoing shift in U.S. policy toward Taiwan actually make the island safer, or does it make a conflict with China more likely? It can’t do both.
There is a real danger that the actions the United States is taking in an effort to signal support for Taiwan will actually spur a conflict over Taiwan by crossing China’s red lines about overt threats to China’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, as China understands it. U.S. policy should continue to support Taiwan in line with the Taiwan Relations Act and the Six Assurances, and it should continue to respond to provocative actions by China. At the same time, the best way that policymakers can protect Taiwan and uphold the cross-strait status quo would be to bring their conduct back into line with long-standing U.S. policy and practice while being sober and intellectually honest about engaging in actions that clearly provoke China to take military action.
James Siebens is a fellow with the Defense Strategy and Planning program at the nonpartisan Stimson Center, and an editor of Military Coercion and U.S. Foreign Policy: The Use of Force Short of War (Routledge 2020). He is currently conducting a study on the role of military and paramilitary coercion in China’s foreign policy. Siebens holds a master’s degree in International Affairs: Global Security from American University’s School of International Service and is a term member at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Spencer Dingman is an intern with the Defense Strategy and Planning program at the nonpartisan Stimson Center, and an undergraduate at American University’s School of International Service. He previously interned with the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies at their Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs.