The United States presidential election has seized attention in Taiwan, revealing sharp splits in opinion within the country and digging up old anxieties about the Democratic Party’s commitment to defending Taiwan against aggression from China.
Officially, President Tsai Ing-wen and her ruling government have insisted they feel confident in the future of U.S.-Taiwan relations regardless of whether Democratic candidate Joe Biden defeats President Donald Trump. At the time of publication, Biden holds a razor-thin lead over Trump and has gained ground in crucial swing states, which have not yet counted all ballots.
Public reaction to the election, however, has shown a Biden administration would have work to do before gaining the trust of skeptical Taiwanese who feel jilted by perceived slights by past Democratic administrations.
Many Taiwanese are not overly fond of Trump as a president, but they’ve grown comfortable with his administration’s friendliness toward Taiwan and its cultivation of an image of being tough on China.
It has led to a groundswell of support for Trump, which has neglected the incumbent’s volatility and his reported personal ambivalence toward Taiwan. John Bolton, Trump’s former national security advisor, famously described Trump as “particularly dyspeptic” about Taiwan and said Trump referred to Taiwan’s economy as a pen in comparison to that of China, which he described as the Resolute desk used in the Oval Office.
Both the United States and Taiwan have touted the strength of ties between the two countries since Tsai and Trump won their elections in 2016.
In the past three months, Taiwan has hosted U.S. Health Secretary Alex Azar and Under Secretary of State Keith Krach in high-level visits. Taipei and Washington are moving closer to negotiating a bilateral trade agreement. The U.S. also recently announced several arms sales to Taiwan which could push the value of U.S.-Taiwan weapons sales to over $15 billion during Trump’s four years in office.
Trump skeptics in Taiwan frequently point out the island’s utility to Washington during its trade war with China and wonder whether the strong support is being built to last. The U.S. Congress, for its part, has maintained strong bipartisan support for Taiwan for decades. Taiwan-related legislation is almost always sponsored by representatives from both major parties and generally passes unanimously, as does the approval of arms sales to Taipei.
Observers have also pointed out that Democratic U.S. administrations have never fully overlapped with Taiwanese presidents from Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). When Barack Obama was president, his Taiwanese counterpart was Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang (KMT), who prioritized warmer ties with China and did not have Tsai’s desire for robust relations with Washington.
Biden’s campaign platform and public statements, along with the Democratic party’s own platform, indicate he will maintain strong support from Taiwan if he assumes office. But this hasn’t assuaged all fears in Taiwan.
Tsai’s camp, as Gerry Shih of the Washington Post writes in a recent article, felt slighted after meeting with Obama officials in late 2011 during her unsuccessful 2012 presidential run against Ma. Hours after the meeting, the White House told reporters it had “concerns” about Tsai’s candidacy, fearing she could antagonize Beijing and lead to destabilization in the Taiwan Strait.
A lot has changed since then. For one, Xi Jinping now leads China rather than Hu Jintao, and Tsai has proven willing to maintain the status quo rather than pushing for formal independence. Those factors almost certainly indicate Biden would be willing to maintain Washington’s currently strong ties with the Tsai administration – but that hasn’t alleviated all worries within the DPP or among its supporters.
Taiwan has been awash in disinformation about the election, including with rumors about Hunter Biden, Joe Biden’s son. That’s likely due in large part to the presence of influential Chinese-language far-right media on the island, such as the Falun Gong-backed Epoch Times and the media network of Chinese dissident Guo Wengui and former Trump chief of staff Steve Bannon.
All these factors have led to Taiwan sharing in the world’s election anxiety – although while many in Taipei hope for four more years of Trump to maintain ties between the U.S. and Taiwan, it’s unlikely a Biden administration would give Taipei much to worry about.