TAIPEI, Taiwan – When Donald Trump lost re-election in November, there was one place, far from his Make America Great Again rallies, that felt the loss too: Taiwan.
Many Taiwanese preferred Trump because of his administration’s tough stance on China and support for Taiwan, a self-governing island claimed by Beijing and under increasing Chinese pressure. Many feared President Joe Biden would forget them as he tried to improve Washington’s relations with Beijing.
So far, however, Biden has continued to give Taiwan strong support and at times has gone even further than the Trump administration.
Taiwan is one of the reasons tensions between Beijing and Washington remain high and is preparing a rocky meeting between the two governments this week – their first significant face-to-face talks since Biden became president.
State Secretary Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan will meet with senior Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Alaska on Thursday and Friday.
Blinken and Sullivan will sit across from a confident-looking Chinese delegation: Beijing has battled opposition to its rule in Hong Kong, staking territory in the controversial South China Sea and recovering from the coronavirus first reported in Wuhan, China. It has also positioned itself as a benefactor by shipping free or cheap homemade vaccines around the world.
On the other side of the table is a Biden administration that has already marked China as America’s most important challenge. Blinken, who has called China the “greatest geopolitical test of the 21st century” for the United States, promised to counteract its growing “coercion and aggression” in Asia during a visit to Japan on Tuesday. On Wednesday, he announced sanctions against another 24 Chinese and Hong Kong officials over Beijing’s crackdown on the territory.
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Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said last week that the Alaska meeting was proposed by the US and that Beijing hoped the two sides could “focus on working together, resolving differences, and building the relationship on a solid and steady basis between China and the USA “.
Under Trump, who blamed China for the pandemic, a painful trade war between the two countries escalated and a weary Beijing set its terms for improving relations with Washington.
Wang said last month Beijing wants Washington to lift tariffs on Chinese goods, lift restrictions on Chinese tech companies, and stop meddling in the problems of Taiwan, Hong Kong and its treatment of Uighur minorities in northwest Xinjiang.
However, Biden raised these questions in his first phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping since taking office, suggesting the two sides are unlikely to find much in common in Alaska.
“If you look at all of the signals Beijing has sent to the Biden administration, it is basically telling them that the Trump administration screwed up the relationship. It is up to you to undo everything that has been done. … and then we can start talking. “Without acknowledging any of the reasons why President Trump took the action he was taking,” said Drew Thompson, a former Defense Department official in charge of China.
“There is no reason for the Biden government to follow that logic if China offers absolutely nothing in return,” said Thompson, a visiting scholar at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
The US has said that while it will talk about how the two countries could work together, it will also raise issues including a lack of transparency over the Covid-19 outbreak, efforts to roll back democracy in Hong Kong, violations of the law and Taiwan.
The Biden government has so far signaled strong support for democratic Taiwan, which has been ruled separately from China since 1949. While the vast majority of the Taiwanese public is against being accepted into its huge communist neighbor, Beijing’s ultimate goal is to take control of Taiwan – by force if necessary.
Over the past year, Beijing increased military pressure on Taiwan, frequently sending fighter jets into the air defense zone and prompting the Taiwanese Air Force to fight in response.
Last week said Adm. Philip Davidson, commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, said China could invade Taiwan within the next six years.
If China attacks Taiwan, the US’s chances of defending the island are “very good,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Washington, DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“If the US allowed China to take Taiwan by force, it would lose credibility to its allies and partners in the region and potentially encourage Beijing to use force against other countries to resolve territorial disputes in its favor,” she said.
The Trump administration took unprecedented steps to bolster U.S. support for Taiwan, including passing laws to cope with pressure from China and sending the top two U.S. officials to visit the island in 40 years. It also sold significantly more arms to Taiwan than previous governments.
Those actions were backed by Trump in Taiwan: it was the only place in Europe and Asia Pacific polled by YouGov ahead of last year’s presidential election that more people wanted him to win against Biden.
However, under Biden, the US said its support for Taiwan was “absolutely solid” and invited Taiwan’s officials to the US to attend his inauguration – the first time since Washington severed official relations with Taiwan in favor of Beijing in Beijing 1979.
This has calmed Taipei down – although skepticism persists.
Chen Hao, 26, from Taipei said he was “a little nervous” when Trump lost the presidency. “I didn’t know what Biden would be like because I knew when he was under Obama they were both pretty soft on China.”
“Now I’m not sure … he’s a little stronger than I thought, but that’s about it.”