US President-elect Joe Biden will quickly be confronted with how to deal with rising Chinese aggression towards ally Taiwan. Image: Getty/AFP

Except for Gurkhas, the Taiwanese may be the most cheerful people on the planet.

But they’ve also got a keen sense of danger and that’s not surprising since for the last 70 years the Chinese communists – only 90 miles away across the Taiwan Strait – have threatened to seize the self-governing island. And now the People’s Liberation Army just might be able to do it.

Last year this writer was in Taipei and puzzling over a street map outside a subway station. A young Taiwanese woman asked if she could help. Since my destination wasn’t far she offered to take me there. After setting off, the woman asked where I was from? 

“America.” Her reply: “Please don’t let us become part of China.”

I mumbled that we would do our best. But I didn’t have the heart to tell her that US officials of all stripes had been trying to deliver Taiwan unto the PRC for many years. And only Donald Trump’s surprise election in 2016 – and the presence of some key advisors who understood Taiwan’s value – put the brakes on the handoff. 

Remove Trump and bring back the former crowd and support for Taiwan becomes far less certain. That’s not unthinkable under President-elect Joe Biden.

In 2019, a small group of American “thought leaders” and China experts reflecting pre-Trump status quo thinking came through Taipei. They addressed a group of Taiwanese officials and analysts at a government-affiliated defense think tank. The subject: Taiwan-China relations.

One of the visitors noted without any apparent sense of irony said that: ‘The PRC treats Taiwan better when the US and China are getting along well.” In other words, when America is accommodating or appeasing Beijing, the Chinese relax their grip on Taiwan.

Taiwanese naval officials stand at attention in a file photo. Image: Facebook

Whether it is better to be strangled slowly or quickly is perhaps open for debate. Another key takeaway: “China is big, so Taiwan should cut the best deal it can.”

As for the notion that support for Taiwan has overwhelming bipartisan support in the US House of Representatives and Senate, the visitors pointed out that congressional calls for more support for Taiwan – such as bilateral training as stated in National Defense Authorization Acts since at least 2016 – are just the “sense of the Congress.” 

In other words, the State Department, the Defense Department and even the White House are not required to actually do anything. So pay no attention to those starry-eyed people on Capitol Hill. They don’t understand nuanced “realpolitik” and how to manage the PRC.

As for you, Taiwan, don’t get your hopes up when Congress speaks. Judging from the audience’s muted reaction, the Taiwanese are not only the world’s most cheerful people, they are also the world’s most polite people.

At another earlier think tank meeting with a different group of Asian affairs luminaries, mainly Democrats’ displaced by Donald Trump’s surprise victory, this writer asked what more the US should do to bolster Taiwan, beyond what the Barack Obama administration had done? The reply: a somewhat dumfounded “things are fine as they are.”

On that trend line Taiwan was finished, and the audience knew it.

Biden and his team’s Taiwan policy is uncertain. That’s not so surprising. When any new administration is in the wings, the clipped foreign policy statements on any number of topics don’t reveal much.

Figuring them out is sort of like divining meaning from a Hallmark greeting card message.  So far they neither encourage the Taiwanese nor discourage the Chinese.

President-elect Joe Biden addresses the media on November 10 at the Queen Theater in Wilmington, Delaware. Photo: AFP/Joe Raedle /Getty

But most of the candidates for Biden’s foreign, defense and Asia policy positions do have track records, and some have held government positions before. It is difficult to ascertain who on the roster frightens Beijing.

When the Chinese start howling, threatening and pounding on the table it takes a certain type of person to handle it. 

And such people are rare in any administration – Democrat or Republican. The instinctive response is to give the Chinese concessions just to calm them down. That never works, as the process inevitably repeats itself.

A semester abroad in Paris and an MA (or even a PhD) in international relations, or having been a deputy assistant of such-and-such by itself means little.

One experienced veteran of US government Asian affairs battles commented after reviewing the candidate list:

“If we have these people’s number, so too, do the Chinese. Putting them out against a team led by Yang Jiechi [China’s highest-ranking diplomat] is like putting a middle school basketball team on the court against the Lakers.”

It is easy to be pessimistic, but one should be hopeful. No administration or political party has ever cornered the market on good people. Nor cornered the market on boneheaded people. 

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Yang Jiechi in Hawaii, November 2018. Image: AFP

There are good people around if Biden is smart enough to employ them. And sometimes those who have not previously produced much of note will perform better in different circumstances. Of course, sometimes they just fail once again.

But ultimately it is the guy at the top – the President – who sets the direction. If his inclinations and priorities call for a softer approach towards the PRC, or if he prefers or is forced to prioritize domestic matters, then that is what US foreign policy will be.

If that’s the case, it doesn’t matter how many secretaries, assistant secretaries, deputy assistant secretaries, representatives and senators want to stand up for Taiwan or claim to be able to sink all Chinese ships in the South China Sea in 72 hours.

The Taiwanese pretty much knew where President Trump stood.  And they appreciated it. They won’t say it now, but they worry a Biden administration may once again consider Taiwan as the dispensable irritant in the larger US-China relationship. 

Biden has the chance to prove them wrong. And the stakes are high. Let Taiwan and its 24 million free people go under and the US is finished as an Asian power.

So what would I tell the young woman who helped me out in Taipei should I run into her again? “Little sister, I’m sorry, we’ll know before long. We did at least try.”

Grant Newsham, a retired US Marine Corps officer and former US diplomat, currently is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies and the Center for Security Policy.

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