Home / Articles / Biden Faced His First Taiwan Test. Now What?
Only days after his inauguration on January 20, President Joseph Biden faced one of his first foreign policy tests in the Indo-Pacific. On January 23-24, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) sent over 15 aircraft into the southwestern part of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ). The timing of the escalation points to Beijing testing the new administration’s resolve over Taiwan, but it could also very well become a new normal in order to drain Taiwan’s military resources. The Biden administration should hit the ground running by directly engaging with the Taiwanese government and military and by making enhanced economic cooperation a high priority. Taiwan should play a greater role in American Indo-Pacific strategy, and the new Biden team has an opportunity to build on the existing relationship.
Over the last few months, such incursions by Chinese military aircraft have become a norm. According to Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND), on January 23, 13 aircraft—one Y-8 anti-submarine warfare aircraft, eight H-6K bombers, and four J-16 fighters—breached the ADIZ, and on January 24, 15 aircraft—two Y-8s, four J-16s, two Su-30 fighters, six J-10 fighters, and one Y-8 reconnaissance aircraft—breached the ADIZ. Another important point beyond the increase in number is that the type of aircraft, namely bombers, used in these breaches are generally used for offensive operations, not defensive ones.
(Source: Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense)
Between January 1 and 22, according to the MND, the total aircraft that breached this same part of the ADIZ was 28; the highest number of aircraft (four total) that breached the area occurred on January 4. The rest of the breaches before the January 23 escalation was one-to-two aircraft entering Taiwan’s ADIZ. The southwestern part of the ADIZ is the furthest edge of the zone from the main island of Taiwan, making it easier for PLA aircraft to breach that part and more costly for Taiwanese aircraft coming from southern Taiwan to intercept. Taiwan does have a military outpost on Pratas/Dongsha Island closer to the incursion area, but still some distance away. The MND reporting page in 2021 only shows PLA aircraft breaching the southwestern tip of the ADIZ, and nowhere else.
Moves and Countermoves
The January 24 incursion marks an intensification not seen since then-Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar’s August visit and then-Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment Keith Krach’s September visit to Taiwan. Beijing responded to both visits with similar incursions and shows of force. The most realistic explanation of this intensification is the inauguration of President Biden—and Taiwanese Representative to the United States Hsiao Bi-Khim’s attendance at the inauguration as an official guest. Her attendance marks the first time such an official invitation was given since the United States severed relations with Taiwan in 1979. According to the Taipei Times, during previous inaugurations, Taiwan’s representative was invited as a guest of a member of Congress or another organization. The official invitation of Hsiao undoubtedly angered Beijing and factored into the ADIZ incursion days later. It was a clear message: you can attend, but we’ll harass you militarily.
After Beijing’s escalatory moves, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price released a statement condemning the PLA’s actions and reiterating U.S. support for Taiwan. The statement is worth quoting in full:
The United States notes with concern the pattern of ongoing PRC attempts to intimidate its neighbors, including Taiwan. We urge Beijing to cease its military, diplomatic, and economic pressure against Taiwan and instead engage in meaningful dialogue with Taiwan’s democratically elected representatives.
We will stand with friends and allies to advance our shared prosperity, security, and values in the Indo-Pacific region — and that includes deepening our ties with democratic Taiwan. The United States will continue to support a peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues, consistent with the wishes and best interests of the people on Taiwan. The United States maintains its longstanding commitments as outlined in the Three Communiqués, the Taiwan Relations Act, and the Six Assurances. We will continue to assist Taiwan in maintaining a sufficient self-defense capability. Our commitment to Taiwan is rock-solid and contributes to the maintenance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and within the region.
That statement—coming from an administration only a few days on the job and a department without a confirmed Cabinet secretary at the time—was a nice start for the Biden team. The inclusion of the Six Assurances—promises made under the Reagan administration—and the omission of the U.S. One China Policy are interesting developments that will require further attention as the administration builds its Asia policy. The statement put Beijing on notice for its consistent intimidation of Taipei and also put the administration on firm footing for its stance on Taiwan. Due to perceptions about former President Donald Trump’s “strong stance” against China and “strong support” for Taiwan, people in Taiwan and its supporters in the United States viewed the incoming Biden administration with some unease. It was not clear how much the new administration would support Taiwan given the slow start under the Obama administration. This statement sets the stage for a strong relationship over the next four years.
The Path Forward
This strong initial message must now be followed with concrete actions. U.S. Taiwan policy is generally strong on signaling and messaging, but lacks follow-through beyond certain policy pillars, such as arms sales. During the transition in November, then-Biden advisor and now confirmed-Secretary of State Tony Blinken spoke to Hsiao on the phone. However, no additional high-level contacts have since been reported. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has made calls to his Japanese and South Korean counterparts, and he also confirmed U.S. support to Japan regarding the Senkaku Islands. A phone call—private or public—by Austin to his Taiwanese counterpart Yen De-fa, or a Blinken phone call to Joseph Wu would send a strong message. A perhaps less controversial call could occur between Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra and Taiwan’s Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-Chung to discuss COVID-19 response efforts after Becerra is confirmed. After all, under Trump, HHS Secretary Azar made a trip to Taipei to discuss similar issues. A Becerra-Chen call could discuss vaccination procurement.
Introductory phone calls aside, the new administration needs to work on the bilateral economic relationship. The Trump administration initiated a new economic dialogue with Taiwan that should be enhanced, and negotiations over a bilateral trade agreement (BTA) should begin and be a priority. A BTA has vexed Democratic and Republican presidents alike, but with President Tsai Ing-wen’s decision to remove restrictions on U.S. pork imports to Taiwan, one of the greatest barriers is gone—but may return depending on how successful the anti-ractopamine movement is. Reducing trade barriers with Taiwan in general needs to happen for a number of reasons, but most importantly, greater access for Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company’s (TSMC) chips. TSMC is building new facility in Arizona, but they will not be operational for years. At the time of writing, it is reported that TSMC might raise prices on its automotive chips due to a global shortage and its capacity maxing out. Car companies around the globe are being forced to halt automotive production due to a chip shortage. Nearly every country and every industry rely in some way on a TSMC chip. The importance of TSMC and its continued manufacturing capacity cannot be overstated. Shoring up U.S.-Taiwan economic relations would enhance U.S. national and economic security.
Finally, the Biden administration must fully appreciate the role of Taiwan when developing its Indo-Pacific strategy. Located at the heart of the “first island chain,” Taiwan’s security is necessary for the security of other U.S. allies, principally Japan, and American territories like Guam. The first island chain keeps China boxed in and surrounded by American allies and partners. Taiwan should play a larger role in the Indo-Pacific and not be used as a bargaining chip or a card to play in dealing with China, as was constantly feared during the Trump administration. The United States has much to learn from Taiwan in dealing with China and the military, economic, and cyber threats that it poses. Fully utilizing Taiwan in the greater Indo-Pacific should be a priority for the new administration. While the Biden administration works to develop its relationships with South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines, it should not forget about Taiwan.
Enhancing U.S.-Taiwan relations will always face criticism from Beijing; however, while Beijing’s potential response should be part of the U.S. decision-making calculus, it need not be the only thing that matters. Whenever the United States and Taiwan engage in any activity, Taiwan almost always is the one to pay the price with China, not the United States. The administration needs to work with Taiwan to find ways to enhance bilateral cooperation while minimizing collateral damage from Beijing.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.