China-US Rivalry: The Taiwan Factor

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China-US Rivalry: The Taiwan Factor

Insights from Russell Hsiao.

China-US Rivalry: The Taiwan Factor
Credit: Office of the President, ROC (Taiwan)

The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Russell Hsiao – executive director of Global Taiwan Institute, senior fellow of The Jamestown Foundation, and adjunct fellow at Pacific Forum – discusses the U.S. approach to Taiwan, and how it factors into the China-U.S. relationship.

Compare and contrast the Trump and Biden administration’s approach to Taiwan.

Despite President Trump’s unpredictability and indifferent attitude toward Taiwan, there were many substantive advances in U.S.-Taiwan relations under his administration. These advances are primarily a function of the fundamental bipartisan shift in the U.S. approach to China toward competition and recognition of Taiwan’s strategic importance in the Indo-Pacific region. Although senior personnel appointments do matter, there are more consistencies than change in the two administrations’ fundamental approach to Taiwan in large part due to these macrolevel changes—even though the means do differ.

The Biden administration has for now maintained many of the features of the previous administration’s approach to Taiwan such as visible support for and measures to expand contacts with Taiwan to push back against the PRC’s growing pressure campaign. The most distinguishable feature between the two administrations’ approach is in President Biden’s focus on strengthening ties with allies and partners based on shared values and thereby collectively restraining Chinese malign behaviors rather than seeking to counter the PRC through unilateral exertion of U.S. military and economic power.

Explain the rising stakes of the “Taiwan factor” in China-U.S. rivalry and global affairs.

U.S.-China rivalry is growing in tandem with increasing cross-strait tensions, so the stakes are clearly increasing. However, we should also be careful not to overstate the pace of change or assume overly deterministic outcomes based simply on current trends. The dangers of overreacting could stoke a crisis and be potentially as destabilizing as not responding to China’s increasingly aggressive behaviors. The fact of the matter is that growing U.S.-China rivalry will increasingly make Taiwan a factor in overall U.S.-China strategic competition and increasing cross-strait tensions are naturally creating more alignments between Washington and Taipei.

As the points of friction over the Taiwan Factor increase, the risk of miscalculation also increases. The culmination of events could lead to deepening resentments that are already apparent, which would make it very difficult to find off-ramps on either side should a crisis erupt. Yet, competition does not necessarily have to lead to conflict. In order to prevent such an outcome, Beijing should engage in faithful dialogue with the democratically elected leaders of Taiwan before views on the island harden ever more so against Beijing.

Assess the impact of the Taiwan Factor on the G-7 Summit.  

Taiwan is increasingly seen as the canary in the coal mine for China’s neighbors and particularly democracies for the corrosive effects of China’s growing military, economic, and political influence on the world stage. Beijing’s aggressive tactics such as its intensifying gray zone activities against Taiwan in the economic, political, and military sphere are now being increasingly felt by other countries and businesses. This has laid bare the fact that China’s militarization, coercion, and intimidation may not end with Taiwan.

These perceptions have been amplified manifold against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, in which the G-7 governments – bound by shared values as open, democratic, and outward-looking societies – have taken note of democratic Taiwan’s exclusion from international health efforts as a result of authoritarian China’s recalcitrance, which prevents the strengthening of cooperation on issues of global concern that is vital to ensure inclusive processes in international organizations.

Explain Taipei’s strategic calculus in engaging the Biden administration to mitigate cross-strait crisis or conflict.

Without endogenous deterrence capabilities like nuclear weapons, Taiwan on its own will have no choice but to fight a losing battle or be coerced to accept Beijing’s terms for negotiations on unification. Washington therefore plays a critical role as a balancer and provides Taipei with the confidence it needs to engage China in cross-straits relations.

While there are growing and compelling calls for Washington to move toward “strategic clarity,” there is little that Taipei can do to force a change in this consideration barring a unilateral move to radically move away from the status quo – it hasn’t done so and arguably need not do so now, since there is greater alignment of interests between Washington and Taipei than ever before since the change in diplomatic ties in 1979.

What is the impact of anti-Asian American and anti-China sentiment on U.S. policymakers’ decision-making process on Taiwan policy and the U.S.-China competition? 

The changes in the U.S. approach toward Taiwan have been primarily driven by a fundamental bipartisan shift in the U.S. approach to China and the recognition of Taiwan’s strategic importance in the Indo-Pacific region. This shift in mindset was underscored by Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs David Stilwell in 2020 when he stated: “While they may be interrelated, our relationship with Taiwan is not a subset of our bilateral relationship with the PRC.”

U.S. policymakers need to be mindful of the potential effects of anti-China sentiments and negative externalities resulting from its conflation to anti-Asian American sentiments. It is critical that when the U.S. government externally communicates its policy of strategic competition with China, it is properly focused, precise about the malign behaviors, and conscientiously referring to the party-state led by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). And, most importantly, at the same time as it is talking to its allies and like-minded partners, it should also try to communicate with the people within China, and even more importantly with the domestic audience at home so that the people can have a better understanding about the nature of the challenge.