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Vice President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping toast during a luncheon hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry in 2015. Photo: PAUL J. RICHARDS / AFP

If Taiwan Calls, Will Biden Answer? A Pro-Trump Democracy Braces for Uncertainty

Why Taiwan is fretting about a Biden administration.

On a Friday morning in December 2016, President-elect Donald Trump did what no sitting or incoming American presidents had done in almost four decades: He picked up a phone call from Taiwan’s leader. 

The ten-minute call upended the longstanding U.S. practice of keeping the self-ruled island at an arm’s length, and Taiwan loved it.

“Trump is different from other American presidents. He is an atypical American president that has brought the world a lot of peace and change,” said Tsai Yi-yu, a lawmaker from southern Taiwan, in an interview with VICE World News.


“He picked up immediately when Tsai called,” he said, referring to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. (The lawmaker and the president are unrelated.)

The call began what would be four years of unofficial but strengthening ties between Taiwan and the United States, which in 1979 cut diplomatic relations with Taipei and began recognizing the Beijing government.

While the shift has angered the Chinese government, it has won Trump a large fan base in Taiwan. Beijing, which claims Taiwan as its territory and has threatened an invasion, has long sought to push the island nation out of the diplomatic arena. At a time when Taipei is losing allies, the Trump administration has given Taiwan’s status an international boost.

But for these Taiwanese, the election of Joe Biden has threatened to put Taiwan back in a position where it plays second fiddle to its powerful neighbor.

“The fact that such a great president wasn’t re-elected makes me quite sad,” said Tsai, the lawmaker, who is known for occasionally wearing a face mask embroidered with Trump’s name. “I’m so sad that to this day I don’t really have an appetite.” 


Taiwanese people closely follow the results of the US presidential election. Photo: Ceng Shou Yi/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Trump fever

Tsai wasn’t an outlier. According to a YouGov poll conducted prior to the election, Taiwan was the only place among eight Asia-Pacific countries and regions that preferred four more years of Trump. Forty-two percent of Taiwanese respondents favored Trump, while only 30 percent backed Biden.

“Trump is the only global leader that has taken such a drastic, strong, and antagonistic attitude toward China,” said Yen Wei-ting, an assistant professor at Franklin & Marshall College in the U.S. who specializes in Asian countries. “I think a lot of Taiwanese people resonate with that. I don’t think they understand who he is domestically—and they don’t care.” 


Initially indifferent, Taiwanese people began paying close attention to U.S. politics after Trump’s call with President Tsai on December 2, 2016.

Then they took delight in watching the Trump administration launch a trade war against China and celebrated America’s billion-dollar arms sales to Taiwan. They cheered as high-level U.S. officials visited and mingled with Taiwanese officials.

“This election has to have been the most followed U.S. election in Taiwanese history,” said Taiwan analyst Jeremy Huai-Che Chiang. “Normally Taiwanese people do not have a strong opinion about which U.S. president is better for Taiwan.”

“A lot of Taiwanese media outlets support Trump, which in turn pressures people to support Trump,” said Jerry Hsu, who co-founded US Taiwan Watch, a popular Facebook group that translates policy updates into Chinese, during the first year of the Trump presidency.


Joe Biden visits the Great Wall of China during a 2001 trip to Beijing as the head of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Photo: Greg Baker / POOL / AFP

Biden time

But while many online influencers and politicians in Taiwan have been publicly grateful for the Trump administration’s allyship, the Taiwanese government has been promoting a more bipartisan view on the election results.

Most notably, President Tsai congratulated Biden on Twitter hours after he crossed 270 electoral votes on November 8, saying that she looked forward “to working together to further our friendship.” That was more than two weeks before President Xi Jinping of China congratulated Biden, on November 25.


Still, there’s been an underlying sense of unease of what a Biden administration might mean for U.S.-Taiwan relations.

“I would say the main difference between Democrats and Republicans is their risk tolerance towards U.S.-China relations,” said Dee Wu, a policy coordinator at the Formosan Association for Public Affairs, a pro-Taiwanese independence lobbying group based in Washington D.C. “Democrats aren’t pro-China though, they’re just less tolerant of risks.”

But Raymond Burghardt, the former chairman of the American Institute in Taipei (AIT)— the de facto U.S. Embassy in Taiwan—said Taiwan doesn’t have to fret about a Biden presidency.

Burghardt—who was the chairman of AIT under both the Bush and Obama administrations—told VICE World News that there is no reason that Biden won’t stand up to China.

“There’s bipartisanship consensus on how to deal with Taiwan, despite what the traditional view may be,” he said. 

In recent years, both Democrats and Republicans in Congress have pushed for a U.S.-Taiwan trade deal, lobbied for Taiwan to obtain observer status at the World Health Organization, and reiterated their commitment to the Taiwan Relations Act, which promotes robust unofficial ties between America and Taiwan.

Biden himself has reiterated his support for Taiwan, albeit in more subtle ways. In October, he penned an op-ed in the World Journal, America’s largest Chinese-language newspaper, in which he stated that he plans to deepen ties with Taiwan. The World Journal is owned by a Taiwanese media conglomerate and has a significant Taiwanese-American readership.


That signal was strengthened when Antony Blinken, Biden’s pick for secretary of state, spoke on the phone with Hsiao Bi-khim—the de facto ambassador of Taiwan to the United States. News reports of the call were later tweeted out and highly publicized in Taiwan


Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) chats with Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao during a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in 2015. Photo: ANDY WONG / POOL / AFP

But Blinken could be the most senior incoming American official who would speak with Taiwan. A presidential phone call, analysts said, is unlikely.

“The phone call Blinken had with Hsiao Bi-khim, in my opinion, is far more important than a Tsai-Biden phone call,” said Lev Nachman, a visiting scholar at National Taiwan University and a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of California, Irvine. 

“A Tsai-Biden phone call would be a spectacle and nothing more than a photo op to piss off China,” he said. “But a phone call between the two government officials that are in charge of cross-country dialogue? That can actually lead to policy or new potential for conversations.”

Meanwhile on the online forums, the conspicuous lack of a presidential phone call has stirred up a fresh batch of conspiracy theories. 

In the comment section of the U.S. Taiwan Watch Facebook group, some Trump supporters have alleged that the absence of a phone call is proof that Biden’s win isn’t legitimate, while others think that it signals that the Tsai administration doesn’t have a working relationship with the Democrats. 

Chen Fang-yu, a political scientist researcher in Washington D.C. and one of the group’s moderators, attributed the surge of misinformation to “anxiety.”


The tank traps on the beaches of Taiwan's Kinmen Islands are a stark reminder that Taiwan lives under the constant threat of a Chinese invasion. Photo: Sam Yeh / AFP

Defending Taiwan

On the policy side, Taiwan experts said Biden’s behavior toward China is likely to be more predictable and moderate than Trump’s, whose hardline approach has been unconventional—and not always beneficial. 

“Trump wasn’t exactly perfect on Taiwan,” said Burghardt. “His very transactional approach to foreign policy was not necessarily good. Trump kind of conveyed an image of bullyish strength, but there was a lot of irrationality at times.”

Where Biden might differ is on how he would deal with China in the event of an attack on Taiwan. 

Republicans under the Trump administration have hinted that they would be ready to defend Taiwan if a military confrontation were to happen. Earlier this year, House Republicans proposed the Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act, which would strengthen U.S. commitment to defend Taiwan in the event of an armed attack. The sponsoring signatures were exclusively Republicans. 

The former vice president’s past speeches have indicated he would not be as physically confrontational with China compared to his Republican counterparts.

“Taiwan was [Biden’s] first stop on a trip to Asia that he made as the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee in 2001,” said Burghardt, who accompanied Biden to see the Taiwanese president at that time, Chen Shui-bian. “But when he got back to the States, he made a speech to the National Press Club and talked about how, if Taiwan unilaterally declared independence, to not expect the U.S. to defend [them] from the consequences of that. I think that would generally still be the U.S. attitude.”  


Other experts point out that China has changed considerably under the authoritarian rule of Xi Jinping, and that the Democrats have adjusted accordingly.

“I think that Biden and the China advisors surrounding Biden are clear-eyed about who Xi Jinping is,” said Maggie Lewis, a law professor at Seton Hall University in the U.S., who specializes in Taiwan and China. Lewis does not believe that Biden holds the same position toward Taiwan that he did back in 2001, and thinks that his sense of moderation is good for Taiwan. 

“What Taiwan needs is a long stable marriage, not a hot and passionate romance,” she said. “There’s so much focus on the military hardware and the arm sales, but that’s just one facet of the relationship.”

But according to advocacy group Taiwanese Americans for Progress, there’s little reason to believe that even Trump would come to Taiwan’s defense given how he’s described Taiwan in the past. 

Scott Tang, a spokesperson for the group, points out that according to John Bolton's memoir, Trump has a belittling metaphor for Taiwan, where he would point to the tip of his Sharpie and say, “This is Taiwan,” and then motion to the rest of his desk in the Oval Office and say, “This is China.” 

“It is easy to see a narrow, myopic version of Trump being aggressive with China on the news and extrapolate that he must then be an ally of Taiwan,” Tang said. “But at his core, Trump is a business person, and there is much more interest in gaining from China. He would only protect Taiwan to the extent he believes it might benefit him at any given moment.”


A woman in Taiwan poses for a photograph in front of cardboard cutouts of nominees of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Photo: Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty Images

Tang noted that Biden, on the other hand, has a long track record of supporting Taiwan. “As a senator, Biden signed the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which is the foundation for US-Taiwan relations today. And he was the first Democratic presidential candidate to congratulate President Tsai when she was re-elected in May,” he said.

Among Taiwanese lawmakers and lobbyists, the focus is not so much on a hypothetical phone call, as it is on a bilateral free-trade agreement with the US. The deal has been in limbo ever since Robert E. Lighthizer—the United States trade representative appointed by President Trump—has refused to move forward on it.

“There is a chance that the U.S.-Taiwan free trade agreement can be signed under the Biden Administration,” said Wu, noting that Blinken recently tweeted his support for Taiwan’s decision to lift the restrictions on U.S. pork imports in return for a robust trade deal. 

Outside of the decision-making halls of Taiwan’s government, there’s not much people can do except to wait and see. Some say the feverish rhetoric supporting Trump will cool once Biden eases into the presidency.

“My guess is that a couple months from now, the conversation on whether or not Biden will be a good president for Taiwan will die out,” said Chiang, the Taiwan analyst, adding that Taiwanese people had enthusiastically supported Obama as well. 

“Taiwanese people have always viewed the U.S. with a fond eye. The Biden administration will retreat from Trump’s foreign policies, but I don’t think it will take them too long to earn Taiwanese people’s trust.”

Even the lawmaker Tsai Yi-yu, who is down to two last Trump-themed face masks, said he is open to seeing what Biden might do for Taiwan.

“Even though I support Trump, I have never said that Biden is bad,” he said. “If Biden can show he can support us here in Taiwan, then I will support him.”

Follow Clarissa Wei on Twitter.