When Mao Zedong categorically told Henry Kissinger that the settlement of Taiwan could wait for a hundred years in 1973, no one expected that China would move from the periphery to the center of U.S. foreign policy. Today, in a period of American democratic crisis and increasing geopolitical challenges posed by an aggressive China, the Taiwan sovereignty issue has been highlighted by partisan arguments within U.S. domestic politics. Especially in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, politicians from the two parties both exploit Taiwan issues to score points with voters, a strategy of playing the “Taiwan card.”
Who Owns the Card?
Compared to Democrats, whose national agenda gives more weight to domestic issues, Republicans have “owned” foreign policy and national security as electoral issues since the 1970s. A study conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2022 shows that 40 percent of Republicans view China-Taiwan tensions as a very serious problem for the United States, compared to 32 percent of Democrats who hold similar opinions.
Therefore, it is practical for Republicans to mobilize their base by playing the Taiwan card when cross-strait relations intensify in order to shift electoral contests away from the domestic issues that benefit Democrats. In addition, Republicans’ greater average libertarianism makes support of Taiwan an effective way to demonstrate their ideological antipathy toward communist China.
Democrats, on the other hand, also play the Taiwan card, although in a relatively more defensive manner when compared to Republicans. The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act was passed by the Democrat-controlled House and Senate as a countermove to Democratic President Jimmy Carter’s unilateral termination of diplomatic relations with Taiwan. In 2010, President Barack Obama, in response to the upcoming mid-term election and criticism from Congress about his weak stance on China, announced $6.4 billion in arms sales to Taiwan.
It might be hard to pinpoint how many ideological, realpolitik, or domestic political elements are involved every time the Taiwan card is played, but it is likely that both parties are more likely to go out on a limb with the self-governing island as partisan polarization deepens.
Partisan Doubling Down
The strategies underlying the use of the Taiwan card by both parties have arguably led to a dynamic in which U.S. lawmakers have greater electoral incentives to confront China. Republicans have electoral incentives to be tough on Taiwan Strait issues, given their desire to distract attention from domestic issues, and Democrats have an interest in upping the ante when Republicans play the Taiwan card, a strategy known as issue uptake.
This may partially explain House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan this year, especially given her announcement that she would run for another term. It is possible that she went to show “commitment and resolve” in the face of an increasingly authoritarian world – she has a track record to prove it. But it doesn’t fully explain why the Democratic leader visited Taiwan now, especially when China-U.S. relations have been so unstable.
It is difficult to directly link Pelosi’s as a reaction to Republican use of the Taiwan card, but there are signs of Democrats calling and raising Republican bets. For instance, Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican, introduced the Taiwan Relations Reinforcement Act back in 2020 while COVID-19 ravaged Florida, even though a similar bill had already been passed into law the year prior. Rubio also uses rhetoric to appeal to voters who have higher than average insecurity about China and communism in general, such as calling for the renaming of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (Taiwan’s de facto embassy) in February 2022, which was couched in language of fighting the Chinese Communist Party. This strategy is consistent with survey evidence from Pew, showing that 76 percent of Cuban American voters, one of Rubio’s key constituent bases, find foreign policy issues to be “very important” compared with 45 percent of non-Cubans.
Soon after, Pelosi decided on her visit to Taiwan – originally planned for April on the anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act.
Is Biden Playing the ‘Taiwan Card’?
In a recent interview, President Joe Biden, for the fourth time, reaffirmed that the U.S. military would defend Taiwan if it experienced “an unprecedented attack,” signaling symbolic support similar to Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August. However, the White House then stated that the U.S. Taiwan policy has not changed and still retains the approach of “strategic ambiguity.” Unsurprisingly, Biden’s comment led some observers – including those in the Chinese government – to accuse him of playing the Taiwan card ahead of the coming mid-term elections in the United States.
Based on this narrative, Biden is trying to shore up the Democrats’ base by taking a strong leadership position in response to Chinese threats. After all, both Democrats and Republicans have turned more negative toward China and most Americans support getting tough on China economically and diplomatically. However, the first time that Biden expressed his position on defending Taiwan militarily was after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, way before the U.S. mid-term elections of 2022. At the same time, Biden has commented on a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan several times during the period of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, as part of his emphasis on Washington’s firm commitment of military support to its allies.
Moreover, Biden’s comments on Taiwan signal a clear message to Beijing that the U.S. is willing to defend Taiwan if China breaks the status quo first, as effective diplomatic deterrence without paying any substantial costs.
Biden doesn’t face the same constraints as those in Congress up for re-election. His strategy and interests hint at genuine balancing behavior against China’s increasing aggression and ambitions to acquire Taiwan. Congresspeople, however, have a limited impact on foreign policy compared with the president. Thus, the consequences of a president playing the Taiwan card would certainly be sharper.
Implications for the Future U.S.-China-Taiwan Triangulation
When Pelosi’s delegation eventually made it to Taiwan, it only included other Democratic lawmakers. Given that U.S. delegations to Taiwan are often bipartisan, this was a deliberate choice. Pelosi may have also aimed to reassure voters before the mid-terms that a vote for Democrats will not seal the fate of Taiwan.
This partisan dynamic in the United States, with Republicans and Democrats competing to show greater support for Taiwan, might promote an infinite back-and-forth of tough talk. That would have real implications for China-U.S. relations, leading to riskier and riskier foreign policy bets made in the name of winning elections. Given Xi Jinping’s sharper rhetoric regarding Taiwan at the 20th National Party Congress, it seems likely that U.S. politicians will be playing the Taiwan card more in the upcoming weeks.
Taiwan, despite being caught between a rock and a hard place, can actually take advantage of the Taiwan card in U.S. politics to win itself more bargaining chips. For example, by enhancing its already deep technological cooperation with the U.S., the island can prove its strategic value not only to the U.S. promotion of international liberalism but to the amelioration of its escalating partisanship in foreign policies. The Taiwan card, if skillfully played by the island itself via building stronger ties with the U.S. on the technological, economic, and ideological front, will efficiently help Taiwan rise to legal and legitimate recognition on the global stage.