In the latest presidential primary debate of the Democratic Party, on February 25, former Vice President Joe Biden showed his assertiveness toward Xi Jinping, the head of state of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Biden blasted Xi as a “thug” who “has a million Uighurs in ‘reconstruction camps,’ meaning concentration camps.” He also spoke critically of Xi’s handling of protests in Hong Kong, saying, “This is a guy who is — doesn’t have a democratic, with a small D, bone in his body.”
Biden also played up his toughness toward China during his time as vice president. When China set up a “no-fly zone,” Biden told Xi, as he put it, that “we’re going to fly right through it. We flew B-1 bombers through it. We’ve got to make it clear. They must play by the rules… Period! Period! Period!”
When it comes to China recently, one of Biden’s catchphrases could well be “make it clear.” In another debate, Biden “made it clear” that the United States should not tolerate China’s human rights violations and should be moving 60 percent of its sea power to the Western Pacific to “rebuild our alliances” and “protect other folks.” Given Senator Bernie Sanders’ recent remarks that he will not “sit by and allow invasions to take place” in the case of Chinese invasion of Taiwan, Biden’s call for the continuation of the Obama-era “Pivot to Asia” signifies a convergence on Asia policy in the Democratic Party in the face of the looming threat China poses to the international order.
In addition to the eight years he spent as vice president, Biden has ample foreign policy experience thanks to his leadership on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Compared to his Democratic competitors, Biden has much more experience in U.S. foreign policy, including both China and Taiwan.
Entering the Senate in 1973, Biden has witnessed and sometimes taken part in many turning points in U.S.-China and U.S.-Taiwan relations. After the end of the official U.S.-Taiwan diplomatic relationship in 1979, Biden was one of the 90 Senators voting in favor of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), a law that stipulates the U.S. commitment to Taiwan’s security and the continuation of unofficial U.S.-Taiwan ties. The TRA has also become a plank of Biden’s foreign policy legacy, something he often points to in his speeches, along with other legislation seeking the development of the U.S.-Taiwan relationship.
Biden’s critical views on China today, however, may be surprising to many because he used to be a true believer of the “engagement with China” doctrine. That was embodied in his support for granting China Most Favored Nation trade status. On a trip to Taiwan in 2001, Biden explained the rationale behind this doctrine: “The more they [meaning China] have to lose, the more they are likely to begin to accommodate international norms.” As late as last May, Biden mocked President Donald Trump’s trade war with China by downplaying the threat. “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man… they’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what: they’re not competition for us,” Biden said.
One fundamental element of Biden’s engagement policy is U.S. “strategic ambiguity” on cross-strait affairs. In a 2001 op-ed on The Washington Post titled “Not So Deft On Taiwan,” Biden questioned then-President George W. Bush’s self-imposed “obligation” to defend Taiwan as a “policy of ambiguous strategic ambiguity.” “Strategic ambiguity,” as Biden defines it in the article, refers to a policy where “we reserved the right to use force to defend Taiwan but kept mum about the circumstances in which we might, or might not, intervene in a war across the Taiwan Strait.” The implication in this strategic mindset is that the United States should not cede its decision-making ability automatically to Taiwan, which would risk being drawn into a war should Taiwan act “provocatively” toward China, regardless of how legitimate the action may be.
Over the years, Biden has been consistent in his strong preference for the cross-strait status quo, especially when it comes to the normalization of Taiwan’s status and U.S.-Taiwan relations. When Taiwan’s former President Lee Teng-hui contended that cross-strait affairs were a form of “special state-to-state” relations in 1999, Biden said the statement had “rattled Beijing and injected a measure of uncertainty about Taiwan’s future into the cross-strait dynamic.” When explaining the nature of the U.S. “One China Policy,” Biden noted that the two pieces of the equation are providing military means, in terms of materiel, to prevent forceful unification, and stopping Taiwan from declaring independence. In a 2001 warning to Taiwan, Biden said it clearly: “we are not willing to go to war over your unilateral declaration of independence.”
When reviewing the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act (TSEA) in 1999, which called for further U.S.-Taiwan military cooperation and arms sales, Biden squarely opposed the legislation. Arguing that the objectives of TSEA could be achieved with TRA, Biden said that the introduction of TSEA was “ill-timed” considering the rapprochement in the U.S.-China relations. Taiwan’s security, as Biden saw it, is based on its democracy, its growing interactions with China, and the United States’ “abiding commitment to a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan question.”
Far from being a maverick in foreign policy circles, Biden represents generations of U.S. policymakers who believed in the “China engagement” policy and strategic ambiguity on the “Taiwan question.” On the matter of the TSEA, former Senator John Kerry also argued that the act was “at least provocative and potentially dangerous.” Even former House Representative Tom Lantos, who had contributed to President Lee’s unprecedented visit to the U.S., spoke critically of the TSEA, saying that “in public diplomacy, ambivalence and ambiguity have a long-established and distinguished place.”
Such an understanding seemed to have been passed down to younger politicians like former President Barack Obama. In his end-of-year news conference in 2016, Obama noted that “for China, the issue of Taiwan is as important as anything on their docket.” He also warned that “you have to have thought through what the consequences are” should the understanding of the cross-strait status quo and no declaration of Taiwan independence be upended.
Biden’s past positions on Taiwan’s status and future may not be encouraging to many Taiwanese. Nevertheless, Biden has showed his commitment to the TRA throughout his career with the legislation he introduced or cosponsored. For instance, Biden supported the transfer of weapon systems, including Kidd-class guided missile destroyers and Osprey-class minehunter coastal ships, to Taiwan. Both platforms have been critical to Taiwan’s maritime defense. In 2005, China’s National People’s Congress passed an anti-secession law that gives a legal framework for the possible use of force against Taiwan. In response, Biden co-sponsored a resolution that urges the U.S. government to express its grave concern and encourages dialogue between China and Taiwan on an equal footing and without preconditions.
All these supporting gestures were presaged by Biden’s early understanding of Taiwan’s importance to U.S. strategic interests. In a 1979 hearing on the TRA, Biden, then a 36-year-old Senator, noted that “it seems to me that our security interests… have not been that the physical property of Taiwan was in our security interests… But that if Taiwan were physically overrun by Mainland China, the psychological effect of that on our security interests, as opposed to the strategic value of Taiwan, is what is at stake.”
Earlier this year when President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan was reelected, Biden was the first Democrat presidential candidate who extended congratulations to President Tsai and urged the strengthening of U.S.-Taiwan ties. Since then, Tsai her reiterated her status quo policy on cross-strait relations even as China showcased its hostility, when a People’s Liberation Army aircraft flying near Taiwan locked its radar onto a Taiwanese fighter jet. As a presidential frontrunner with the longest foreign policy resume in decades, Biden can surely “make it clear” that he would be both a capable and willing potential commander-in-chief in a new era of U.S.-China competition – including showing his continued commitment to Taiwan.
Kuang-shun Yang is a co-founder of US-Taiwan Watch.