Editor’s Note: Lanhee J. Chen is a regular contributor to CNN Opinion and the David and Diane Steffy Fellow in American Public Policy Studies at the Hoover Institution. He has also spoken at events convened by The Project on Taiwan in the Indo-Pacific at the Hoover Institution, which is supported by the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office. Chen is an affiliated faculty member of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinion on CNN.
This week, President Joe Biden sent a bipartisan group of former senior government officials to Taiwan as a “personal signal” of his support for and commitment to the self-governing island. The move comes after weeks of escalating tensions between the governments of China and Taiwan, including earlier this week the largest breach of Taiwan’s airspace by Chinese military jets since at least September of last year.
Biden’s actions may seem controversial from a national security perspective, but he’s on sound political ground in his support for Taiwan. In recent years, this is the rare policy position that has broad appeal in both major US parties – and the current state of US-China relations may only enhance this support.
The challenge for the Biden administration will be whether it can continue America’s strong support for Taiwan while also trying to mend relations with China. One senior US military official recently warned that China could take Taiwan by force within the next six years, precipitating a military showdown in the Indo-Pacific. That may require the US to choose between the two – something that no president has wanted, or will ever, want to do.
Taiwan (officially called the Republic of China) is a democratic society of nearly 24 million people that sits just 80 miles from the Chinese mainland. While it has a popularly elected president and legislative branch, the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) considers Taiwan a renegade province. Beijing has insisted that the United States observe the so-called “One China” policy, which holds that the US recognizes the PRC as the sole legal government of China and “acknowledges” the PRC’s claim that Taiwan is part of China. This has resulted in a formal diplomatic relationship between the US and the PRC and only informal ties between America and Taiwan.
Yet, during a time when bipartisanship in Washington, DC, has been virtually nonexistent, support for Taiwan is the rare issue that has brought together Republicans and Democrats. In fact, members of the US House of Representatives and US Senate joined together in 2020 to unanimously pass the TAIPEI Act, which seeks to expand American support for Taiwan’s participation in international organizations.
Caucuses in both the House and Senate dedicated to promoting closer ties between the US and Taiwan enjoy robust – and bipartisan – memberships. Former President Donald Trump deepened relations between the US and Taiwan, while Biden administration officials have emphasized America’s commitment to ensuring that Taiwan can defend itself from potential Chinese aggression.
What makes US support for Taiwan unique amongst issues in its ability to attract support from policymakers in both parties?
First, Taiwan is perhaps the strongest example of a vibrant, successful democracy in the Indo-Pacific region. It has free, fair and transparent elections for officials at all levels of government, has undergone peaceful transitions of power between institutionalized political parties with divergent views, protects political rights including the freedom of assembly and association, and features a vibrant and free press. The rule of law is both valued and promoted. In many ways, Taiwan is seen as a model for how democracies can mature and develop, since the island itself went through a transition from authoritarian rule over 30 years ago to the free society that it is today.
Taiwan’s current president, Tsai Ing-wen, is a member of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has generally sought closer relations with the United States, often times instead of with the PRC. In fact, many saw her reelection campaign in 2019-2020 as a referendum on whether Taiwan would continue to draw nearer to the US or, in the alternative, look to deepen economic and other ties with its neighbor across the Taiwan Strait. Tsai’s resounding victory in the January 2020 presidential election was seen by many analysts as a sign that the Taiwanese people believed that the island’s future would be more closely tied to the fate of the United States.
Second, rising sentiments of unease and (in some cases) hostility about the actions of Chinese leader Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have created an opening for Taiwan. The contrast between China’s authoritarian system and Taiwan’s democratic one could not be clearer – particularly so in light of China’s continued suppression of the Uyghur minority in the Xinjiang province (which Beijing denies) and its forceful denunciation of pro-democracy forces in Hong Kong.
The bipartisan support for Taiwan is almost certainly related to how voters and policymakers in both parties see the PRC skeptically. The Pew Research Center regularly measures public opinion about China and, in March 2021, reported that a strong majority of both Republicans and Democrats view China negatively, with nearly identical shares of respondents from both parties expressing the view that the US should work to promote human rights in China, even if it damages economic ties. The fact that Taiwan is so physically proximate to the PRC only emphasizes how different their political systems are, and how much more closely aligned Taiwan is with the US on a number of these core values.
Finally, Taiwan remains an important trading and economic partner for the US, particularly in light of heightened tensions between Washington, DC and Beijing. America’s goods and services trade with Taiwan totaled almost $104 billion in 2019, and it was the US’ 10th largest goods trading partner that year.
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Perhaps more significant than these macro-level statistics is the fact that Taiwan will play an important role as the US seeks to create a China-free supply chain for critical supplies like semiconductors, batteries and rare-earths. Biden signed an executive order earlier this year emphasizing the importance of creating safe, reliable supply chains, and Taiwan’s government has sought to strengthen its bilateral relationship with the US in support of this goal.
Taiwanese industry has also stepped up to support the effort – the world’s largest semiconductor foundry, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Inc., will reportedly invest $35 billion to build a plant in Arizona that should be operational by 2024 and bring manufacturing of these critical supplies back to the US.
It should be no surprise, then, that policymakers from both parties are clamoring to express their support for Taiwan. At the same time, relations between the China and the US remain fraught, due in no small part to how close Taiwan and the US have become.