US and Taiwanese flags blow in the wind juxtaposed against a Chinese temple. Photo: iStock

When the Biden administration deployed a sitting American ambassador to Taiwan, marking the first time such a senior US envoy visited the self-governing island in over 42 years, the move clearly aimed to send a signal to China.

Last weekend, US Ambassador to Palau John Hennessey-Niland accompanied Palau President Surangel Whipps to Taiwan, ostensibly as part of ongoing efforts to expedite pandemic-era travel between Taiwan and Palau. The small island nation is one of the few remaining countries to maintain official diplomatic ties with Taiwan.

Yet the broader geopolitical significance of the much-vaunted Hennessey-Niland visit wasn’t lost on China, which almost immediately doubled down on its intimidation tactics against the island, which Beijing considers a renegade province that must be incorporated with the mainland.

The day before the US envoy’s visit, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) deployed as many as 20 fighter jets into Taiwanese airspace, the largest incursion of its kind in recent memory. Just days later, the PLA sent 10 other aircraft, including Shenyang J-16 fighters and Chengdu J-10’s, into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ).

The Donald Trump administration came under fire for its unilateralist and protectionist policies, an approach that degraded US alliances in Asia and Europe.

But from Taiwan’s perspective, the Trump years were a golden era for bilateral ties, as Washington rapidly expanded defense assistance to and high-level contacts with the self-governing island, highlighted by the visit last year of then-health secretary Alex Azar.

At one point, even former US ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft and then-secretary of state Mike Pompeo, who dramatically loosened legal restrictions on bilateral diplomatic exchanges with the island, contemplated visiting Taiwan in their twilight days in office.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen (2nd R) gestures to a US official (L) as then-US Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar (R) and director of the American of Institute in Taiwan Brent Christensen (2nd L) look on during their visit to the Presidential Office in Taipei, August 10, 2020. Photo by Pei Chen/Pool/AFP

Now firmly in office, the Biden administration has made it clear that it won’t abandon Taiwan in any bid to reset relations with China. During his confirmation hearing, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, also known as Biden’s “alter ego”, went so far as to describe Taiwan as a “country” and vowed to create “more space for contacts” with Taipei.

When China recently pressed Paraguay, among few countries to maintain formal ties with Taiwan, to shift its diplomatic stance in exchange for Chinese-made Covid-19 vaccines, the US quickly made a call to the Latin American country to maintain a united front.

As early as January, the new US administration signaled its commitment to maintaining robust ties with Taiwan by making the unprecedented decision of inviting de facto Taiwanese ambassador to the US Hsiao Bi-khim to Biden’s inauguration.

Soon thereafter, Joseph Young, the US acting ambassador to Japan, held a meeting with his Taiwanese counterpart in Tokyo, which was prominently announced on Twitter.

The deployment of US ambassador to Palau Hennessey-Niland to Taiwan was just the latest manifestation of the Biden administration’s proactive efforts to secure maximum possible diplomatic space for the self-governing island.

A veteran diplomat with more than three decades of service in the US State Department, Hennessey-Niland has been a staunch supporter of greater diplomatic support for Taiwan.

During his confirmation hearing in 2019, he publicly supported the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI), which calls on the US and its allies to mitigate Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation amid China’s rising intimidation.

US Ambassador to Palau John Hennessey-Niland speaks at a press conference on enhancing the cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region in Taipei, Taiwan on March 30, 2021. Photo: Annabelle Chih/NurPhoto via AFP

“I know that here in Taiwan people describe the relationship between the United States and Taiwan as real friends, real progress and I believe that description applies to the three countries – the United States, Taiwan and Palau,” said Hennessey-Niland during his meetings with top Taiwanese officials, where he likewise referred to Taiwan as a “country.”

He met prominently with Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu de facto US ambassador to Taiwan Brent Christensen, among other top Taiwanese officials.

“What a triumvirate! Minister Wu, President Whipps & Amb Hennessey-Niland are as one when it comes to trilateral cooperation. are forces for good working together in promoting peace, security & prosperity in the ‪#IndoPacific & around the world,” Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry tweeted as the three officials beamed before the cameras.

Last month, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi demanded the Biden administration to revisit its predecessor’s “dangerous practice” of proactively supporting Taiwan, reiterating that Beijing’s claim over Taiwan is an “insurmountable red line.”

Wu Qian, a spokesperson for China’s Defense Ministry, warned that China won’t “renounce the use of force and reserve the right to take whatever measures are necessary,” echoing earlier threats by top Chinese officials including President Xi Jinping.

The US State Department quickly fired back by declaring, “Our support for Taiwan is rock-solid.” 

In that direction, the Biden administration has deployed several warships to the Taiwan Straits and conducted dual aircraft carrier exercises in the nearby South China Sea, which embraces Taiwan’s southern and western coastlines.

The US is also stepping up maritime security and coast guard cooperation with Taiwan in addition to less-publicized joint defense activities to boost Taipei’s self-defense capabilities and enhance interoperability in the event of a contingency, including the prospect of a Chinese amphibious invasion.

Taiwan regularly scrambles its US-made F-16 fighter jets like these to intercept planes from the mainland in its airspace. Photo: AFP/Sam Yeh

Washington is also soliciting support from regional allies, especially neighboring Japan, which has maintained strong ties with its former colony of Taiwan throughout the decades.

During their “two-plus-two” meeting last month, Blinken and Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi “underscored the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait” in a solid show of joint support for the besieged self-governing island.

During an upcoming summit in Washington, Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga are expected to discuss rising cross-strait tensions and ways to jointly support Taiwan.

Taiwan, for its part, appears to be emboldened by the US and its allies’ support. Last month, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen visited a naval facility, where she averred how Taiwan has “demonstrated the determination…to defend the sovereignty of our country.” 

“We can’t yield any single inch of our land,” she added, as the island quickly becomes the hottest and most prominent frontline of what some see as an undeclared “New Cold War” between the two superpowers.