It has been difficult for Joe Biden to assume office, and it will only be even more difficult after he is sworn in, because he will be taking over a nation afflicted by a serious epidemic, social division, income inequality and declining international authority. His administration will most likely focus on domestic problems before it addresses international issues; domestic first, international second.
First there is the pandemic, an issue that is beyond urgent. When Biden nominated Lloyd Austin as the first Black secretary of defense in U.S. history, Biden made the recommendation based on Austin’s ability to successfully distribute the new COVID-19 vaccine to the military, judging from the “crucial role [Austin played] in bringing 150,000 American troops home from the theater of war” in Iraq a decade ago. Biden also chose Austin first as an effort to relate to the military and their families after 20 years of war, then to reflect racial diversity in the country, and finally, in the interest of national security. Biden’s priorities could not be any clearer.
Second, Trump’s landslide defeat, coupled with the insurrection at the Capitol 200 years, shows how extremely serious social and political division is in the United States is. In the past, members of the House and Senate often voted across party lines, but now they generally adhere to strict party discipline. Yet, 10 Republican representatives in the House voted to impeach Trump, which immediately became big news, of course.
To make matters worse, the Democratic Party’s internal situation is also very complicated. Biden stood out in the primary election primarily because he is like a “big tent” under which anyone can find a place for themselves. However, the struggle for power and interests within the Democratic Party is bound to resurface after he takes office. It will be an extremely difficult challenge for Biden to balance the forces within his party while fighting and compromising with Republicans.
Third, there is income inequality. Today, the net worth of the top 50 richest people in the United States is equal to the wealth of half the nation. The 500 largest companies pay only 11% tax on average; 91 of them, including the well known Amazon, Starbucks, Netflix, etc., pay zero or less than zero tax. With the exception of a few Democratic senators, no politician from either party has dared to challenge these rich and powerful corporations, and blames foreign countries such as China and Mexico for the anger of the poor.
For Biden, this chronic disease which has gone untreated for decades, has suddenly become an an emergency, and has three serious consequences. One, income inequality provides the most fertile ground for Trump’s populism. If it is not addressed somehow, a second Trump will surely emerge. Second, in order to build on its currently vulnerable majority, the Democratic Party must win over the working class that once stood steadfastly with the Democratic Party but which has now become die-hard Trump supporters. It will be possible to win back their hearts only by redistributing wealth. Third, the spread of COVID-19 does not distinguish between the rich and the poor. As long as there are large numbers of poor people who must work in contact with people, or who are unwilling to seek medical attention for lack of health care or savings, it will be difficult for the measures the U.S. takes to fight the pandemic to be effective.
Therefore, problems caused by the inequality between the rich and the poor pose a very real threat. Yet to mitigate that threat, Biden will need to challenge a great many vested interests, making it anything but easy.
We now turn our attention to foreign relations. Judging from Biden’s character, experience and the Cabinet appointments he has announced so far, it should not be a problem for the U.S. to repair some of its damaged alliances, its ties to international organizations, and its international prestige. The biggest problem for the U.S. tackle, and the one most critical to Taiwan, will probably be the continued decline of American military power.
When the U.S. military was at its peak in the 1960s, it rested on the principle of winning “two and a half wars” (one against the Soviet Union, one against the Chinese Communists and North Korea, and “half a war” in developing nations). In the 1970s and 1980s, it turned into “one and a half wars.” After George W. Bush, the aim became winning “two regional wars” simultaneously (one in the Middle East and one against North Korea). It was only in 2018 that serious thought was given to focusing on a master confrontation against the Chinese Communist Party and Russia. This refocus is still only in its early stages, and all of the relevant armament, deployment and training are still stuck in regional counterterrorism operations. As a result, the U.S. military may appear to be strong, but when it encounters mainland China, which has been preparing for such a master confrontation for 20 years and has a home field advantage, the U.S. military’s weakness, with its “willing spirit but lack of strength,” is fully exposed.
Unfortunately, many people in Taiwan only see the America’s “willing spirit” on the surface (such as the recently declassified U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy report) and are complacent, but they deliberately ignore the brutal reality of America’s “lack of strength.” In recent years, I have read all the relevant studies from the United States and consulted with as many American officials, former officials and experts as possible, but I have not seen a single book or article that expresses confidence in being able to protect Taiwan. It is no wonder that Donald Trump has been playing the Taiwan card for four years, but when faced with a critical moment or a key project, he consistently folded.
In view of this, the Tsai Ing-wen government, which has fashioned the United States as its only supporter, must be more careful in the future. Even if the Biden administration is wary of Beijing, it must first take care of the health, unity and economy of its own people before it can think about how to respond to Beijing. The Tsai government must not engage in wishful thinking, or it will put itself and Taiwan in greater danger.
The author is the chairman of Taipei Forum.