President Joe Biden has inherited a divided and delegitimized nation from Donald Trump. His greatest challenge, therefore, is restoring the order created and protected by the U.S.
First, regarding the national order, Biden must strive to control COVID-19, end the opposition between red states and blue states, moderate the trend toward extremism in both parties, rebuild trust in the democratic system and promote racial equality. Second, in the international order, he must maintain the systems and norms the U.S. established, promote multilateral diplomacy and restore the faith of allies and partners in the country.
America’s Indo-Pacific affairs, which are based on the Barack Obama-era plan to return to the Asia-Pacific region coordinated by Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs under the Obama administration. In a recent article, Campbell pointed out that, to restore order in the Indo-Pacific region, maintaining the legitimacy of the power balance and order is necessary, and the support of allies is indispensable. Although he advocates for a realistic balance of power, he disagrees that the Chinese Communist Party should be allowed to enjoy a scope of influence in the region comparable to its economic strength.
While the Biden administration still regards China as its toughest competitor, it is emphasizing coexistence and cooperation. The U.S. needs to strengthen its military deterrence and maintain its position of global leadership in military affairs, critical technology innovation, and research and development. In the context of regional balance, it must compete with China over issues such as the South China Sea, technology, Taiwan and the internet, yet at the same time cooperate with China in issues such as pandemic prevention, the environment, the economy and arms control. The familiar U.S.-China relationship is one that is contentious but unbroken; even if cooperation is another side to that relationship, it will not be entirely solid.
When balancing cross-strait policies, Biden will gradually return to America’s traditional one-China “policy” of encouraging cross-strait dialogue and reducing tension in the region. At the same time, the U.S. will maintain a strategically ambiguous position toward both sides of the strait, deterring the CCP from using force against Taiwan while making clear it does not support Taiwan’s independence. However, it will support Taiwan’s expansion on the international scene and its participation in international organizations that don’t require national sovereignty for membership.
The effectiveness of U.S. Indo-Pacific policy primarily depends on the distribution of power in the region. According to statistics by the International Monetary Fund, China’s gross domestic product in 2020 reached 70% of that of the U.S.; the gap between the two was unprecedentedly small. Geopolitical experts believe that just as the U.S. regards the Caribbean Sea as its own, so too will China seek to establish its scope of influence in the South China Sea.
After almost three years of tough constrictive measures under Trump, the CCP has become deeply aware of the urgency of becoming self-reliant and clearly understands its own bottom line and strength. With its 14th Five-Year Plan, the CCP will strive for innovation and autonomy in critical technologies. It will also make good use of its united front on the international stage. By leading in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and signing the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, it will seek a cooperative platform that opposes trade protectionism, while establishing its scope of influence in the Indo-Pacific region.
America’s cross-strait policies have been reignited in a return to traditional American systems and values. This includes Biden’s recent ban on using the geographic location of COVID-19’s origin to name the virus, in an effort to avoid inciting racial discrimination and fomenting xenophobia. Although this is a small change, it demonstrates inclusivity and greatness. A country proud of its institutions and values does not need to highlight its superiority by vilifying and being hateful to others.
Taiwan’s leaders should recognize that in the current international political situation, they need to enact balanced policies and be empathetic. Going along with the U.S. is a practical necessity, but they should not forget to engage China as well. What is most needed in Taiwan-China policy is improving the cross-strait climate and showing goodwill. As a first step, we can follow Biden’s ban on using discriminatory language and spreading propaganda about China. We can encourage multifaceted exchange between both sides of the strait and demonstrate our self-confidence. The last thing both sides need right now is mutual hate. Being enemies with China’s 1.4 billion people would be Taiwan’s greatest threat and tragedy.
The author is an emeritus professor at the National Chengchi University Graduate Institute of East Asian Studies.