Taiwan to Continue Front-line Role in Joe Biden's Strategy to Contain China

Taiwan will play a similar front-line role in Joe Biden's plans to contain China as the next government continues the Trump administration's Indo-Pacific strategy while boasting a coalition of confident allies, according to analysts.

Taiwan Strait observers were offered a rare glimpse into Washington's plans for Taipei on Tuesday when the White House declassified the president's 2018 Indo-Pacific strategic framework.

The partially redacted national security document, which was not set for public release until 2043, identifies China as the region's main strategic threat. It is straightforward in laying out Beijing's commanding intentions and blunt in identifying India as an ideal counterbalance.

Faced with increasing assertion and threats of "unification," Taiwan must be enabled to develop an asymmetric defense strategy in order to resist and engage with China "on its own terms," the sensitive document states.

In order to deter Beijing from using military force, the U.S. requires a defense strategy capable of "denying China sustained air and sea dominance inside the 'first island chain' in a conflict" and "defending the first-island-chain nations, including Taiwan," the framework adds.

The wording is a rare hint that the U.S.' historic "strategic ambiguity" on the question of whether or not to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion might lean toward the latter for the sake of safeguarding American interests abroad.

The first island chain includes Japan in the north and extends to the Philippines and Malay Peninsula in the south. China's military, especially its navy, seeks to lock U.S. forces out of this crucial defensive zone by increasing its anti-access and area denial capabilities, according to government analyses in recent years.

The declassified Indo-Pacific document was largely "consistent" with what the Trump administration has done, said Liang-chih Evans Chen, an associate research fellow with Taiwan's Institute for National Defense and Security Research (INDSR), a government-funded think tank.

President Donald Trump sanctioned 11 weapons deals with Taipei during his four years in the White House, including $11.8 billion worth of defensive arms in 2020 during a year when China's military threat rose to levels not seen in 30 years.

"The Biden administration will probably not shift too much on the policy toward Taiwan," Chen told Newsweek on Thursday.

There is also unlikely to be any substantial movement away from the current U.S. stance on China, he added, citing a consensus on Capitol Hill about Beijing's strategic threat," Chen said.

"Beijing has a perception or expectation that the Biden administration will rebuild [the U.S.-China] relationship, but I think that might be too idealistic, too native."

In China's tightly controlled state media, analysts have said the Trump administration—and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in particular—is trying to force Biden's hand on China. Tuesday's declassified document was another attempt to pressure the president-elect into adopting the same Indo-Pacific policy, commenters argued.

Chen, who holds a political science doctorate from UC Riverside, agreed it was a mistake for Beijing to "idealize the Biden administration," while describing as reasonable China's attempts to push the incoming administration toward a policy shift.

On Wednesday, it emerged that Biden would be bringing in veteran Asia expert Kurt Campbell as part of his National Security Council. He is slated for the new role of Indo-Pacific coordinator under national security adviser Jake Sullivan, in a popular nomination met with positivity among watchers in Tokyo and Seoul, as well as Taipei.

Formerly the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs between 2009 and 2013 under Obama, Campbell was described as "highly respected around Asia" by Taiwan's representative to Washington, Bi-khim Hsiao, who issued a tweet shortly after the announcement.

"Kurt Campbell is not only a friend to Taiwan, he is also very familiar with the region and cross-strait relations," Taiwan's foreign ministry spokesperson Joanne Ou told Newsweek in a written statement on Thursday.

"Campbell's appointment is positive for U.S.-Taiwan relations and developments in the Indo-Pacific region," she added.

Credited with the Obama administration's "Pivot to Asia" policy, Campbell shared a virtual stage with Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-Wen at a forum last month. The island nation's first female leader has previously met with Sullivan as well as Antony Blinken, who is Biden's pick for secretary of state.

Policy analysts in China have described Sullivan and Blinken as predictable "old faces" from the Obama era who can help restore strained U.S.-China relations. They may think similarly of Campbell, but such a perception would once again be "risky," said Chen, from INDSR in Taipei.

"Compared to four, eight or 12 years ago, the situation is totally different. China is more assertive and more aggressive," he noted. "Democratic policymakers will not consider the situation as being the same as during the Obama administration."

Citing Campbell's 2016 book The Pivot, Chen said the Asia expert believed in wielding both soft and hard powers to maintain stability and security in the Indo-Pacific.

On Tuesday, Campbell made his policy thoughts known in a Foreign Affairs essay co-authored with the Brookings Institution's China expert Rush Doshi.

Campbell echoed Biden's calls for a coalition of democracies to balance Chinese "adventurism." Regional balance would require "action in concert with allies and partners," he wrote.

In the piece, he also advocated for hard-power deterrents that might make Beijing rethink its current course, and suggested expanding the so-called "Quad" group currently comprising the U.S., Australia, India and Japan.

He describes persuading China to accept a new—and perhaps in its eyes diminished—role in a reorganized Indo-Pacific among "the most complex" of U.S. foreign policy tasks.

Taiwan Flag Flies Above Presidential Palace
File photo: Taiwan's flag is seen on the tower of the Presidential Office in Taipei on January 13, 2021. Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images