US President-elect Joe Biden is expected to calm the waters in the Taiwan Strait somewhat, but will not stray far from current policy on Taiwan relations. Photo: AFP

With 98% of the vote counted in the US presidential election, Joe Biden is expected to be sworn in as the 46th president of the United States on January 20. Biden attracted some 79 million votes (51%), representing the highest vote count of any previous candidate. 

Incumbent President Donald Trump, whose mounting legal challenges look unlikely to change the outcome, has made a fair showing with some 73 million votes, representing some 47% of the voting public.  

Taiwanese are high on Trump

While the leaders of several countries have called to congratulate the presumptive president-elect, the prospect of a Biden presidency has been met with some caution in Taiwan, where the Trump administration’s anti-China rhetoric and actions have been welcomed by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party and a majority of Taiwanese.

In a poll conducted on October 19 and 20 by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation (TPOF), 53% of Taiwanese supported the re-election of Trump, with 31.3% saying they would be “fairly happy” and another 22% “very happy” for him to assume a second term.  The poll showed Trump as the candidate more likely (42%) to improve US-Taiwan relations compared to Biden (14%).

Strong support for Trump among Taiwanese likely stems from the high value of arms sales (some US$18 billion) his administration has approved to Taiwan, the high level of bipartisan support for pro-Taiwan legislation shown in Congress, and the high-profile visits of his cabinet officials to Taipei. 

Most recently, in a move likely to please Taipei, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that “Taiwan has not been a part of China” in stark contrast to Beijing’s claim that “Taiwan has been an inalienable part of China’s sacred territory since ancient times.”

Not losing sleep over a Biden presidency

While Taiwanese may firmly back another term for Trump, the reality is increasingly clear, subject to any last-minute black-swan events, that Taipei will soon be dealing with Joe Biden for the next four years. And despite their pro-Trump leanings, that prospect may not matter much to Taiwanese, who remain optimistic overall concerning US-Taiwan relations.  

A poll conducted on November 5-6 by the Asia-Pacific Elite Interchange Association (APEIA) asked, “How do you think Taiwan-US relations will be in the next four years, assuming Biden wins the election?” The majority (52.8%) of those polled believe relations will remain unchanged, 24.3% said relations will deteriorate and 10.2% said relations will improve over the next few years. 

TPOF asked a similar question and found 53.6% said they were not worried if Biden is elected as US president. 

Will US-Taiwan relations improve?

In speaking with several Taiwanese, I found their support for Trump and fear over a Biden presidency appears to stem from a perception that Biden will be softer on China than Trump, whose use of Richard Nixon’s “madman theory” on Beijing has resulted in greater US support for Taipei. 

Biden is expected to strive for a calmer, less mercurial Tweet-driven approach than Trump, while pledging “to cooperate with Beijing on issues where our interests converge, such as climate change, non-proliferation and global health security.”   

Yet despite their fears of a soft Biden, according to the APEIA poll, some 47% of respondents believe China-US relations will improve under a Biden administration, with 33.5% expecting no change, and 11.2% thinking China-US relations will deteriorate.  

Taiwanese have reason to be optimistic under a Biden administration, having witnessed unparalleled support from both Republicans and Democrats in Congress of legislation backing Taiwan, which should continue.

And in the months leading up to the election, Biden appears to have adopted the anti-China stance of the Trump administration, mainstream media, and 73% of the American public.

He referred to the general secretary of the Communist Party of China, Xi Jinping, as a “thug” and argued in a Foreign Affairs article that “the United States does need to get tough with China.” In sharp contrast to Trump’s bilateral approach, he vowed to “build a united front of US allies and partners” – all in a multinational effort to “pressure, isolate and punish China.”  

Yet despite the expected tough approach to China, a Biden presidency should calm the recent turbulent waters of the Taiwan Strait and lead to a more stable relationship among Beijing, Taipei and Washington – while washing away anxiety among Taiwanese over being sacrificed as a pawn in a US-China geopolitical chess match.  

Gary Sands is a senior analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, US News and World Report, Newsweek, The Diplomat, The National Interest, EurasiaNet, and the South China Morning Post. He spent six years in Shanghai and four years in Ho Chi Minh City, and is now based in Taipei. Twitter@ForeignDevil666

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