Taiwan waits for Biden as China steps up pressure on the island

TAIPEI (Reuters) - Under President Donald Trump, the United States has significantly boosted military aid to Taiwan and increased engagement with the island. With Joe Biden having beaten Trump in last month’s presidential election, the Taiwanese are anxiously waiting to see if the new administration will follow Trump’s lead.

FILE PHOTO: An anti-government protester holds a Taiwan national flag as a U.S. flag flutters in the background during a demonstration to celebrate Taiwan's National Day at Harbour City in Tsim Sha Tsui district, in Hong Kong, China October 10, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha/File Photo

A senior Pentagon official, David Helvey, said in an October speech that the United States is encouraging Taipei to buy as many coastal defense cruise missiles as possible, along with mines, mobile artillery and advanced surveillance equipment. He said this would give Taiwan the best chance to prevail in “the one fight they can’t afford to lose.”

More of these weapons are in the pipeline. In October, the Trump administration approved Taipei’s request to buy 400 Harpoon anti-ship missiles and associated launchers, transporters and radar systems that will boost the island’s defenses against naval and amphibious attack. In the same month, it approved the sale of 135 advanced, air-launched cruise missiles for Taiwan’s air force.

The missiles would boost Taipei’s capacity to strike at People’s Liberation Army warships or land targets on the Chinese coast in a conflict. Taiwan is also accelerating the development of its capable, domestically made anti-ship, air-defense and land-attack missiles.

Beijing is deeply unhappy with the trend under Trump. It wants the United States to immediately cease arms sales and military contact with the island. Taiwan is an “internal affair of China” and arms sales “are a political provocation against China, encourage the arrogance of the ‘Taiwan independence’ secessionist forces and undermine peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” the Taiwan Affairs Office in Beijing said in a statement.

Reinforcing Taiwan’s capacity to defend itself has long had bipartisan support in the United States, Taiwan’s defense ministry told Reuters. “The next U.S. government will continue to carry out related promises,” it added, referring to the recent arms sales.

The Biden transition team declined to comment for this story. Some of Biden’s past comments, however, have caused concern in Taiwan.

In 2001, for instance, then-Senator Biden criticized Republican President George W. Bush for saying the United States had an “obligation” to defend Taiwan, a requirement not spelled out in the Taiwan Relations Act. The act, which governs U.S. relations with Taipei, was passed after America established ties with Beijing four decades ago.

But Biden made those remarks long before the emergence of China as a major threat to U.S. dominance in the Asia-Pacific region. During the 2020 campaign, Biden called for strengthening ties with Taiwan and other “like-minded democracies.”

Many in Biden foreign policy circles also have acknowledged that U.S. imperatives have changed as a rising, authoritarian China has become more assertive and sought to shape global institutions.

Biden’s pick for national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, did not respond to a request for comment. But in a piece he co-wrote in Foreign Policy in May, Sullivan got to the heart of the Taiwan issue.

“The People’s Liberation Army has made no secret of the fact that it is building the military power-projection capabilities necessary to subjugate Taiwan,” the article noted, “a development that would upend the regional balance of power overnight and call the rest of America’s commitments in the Western Pacific into question.”

Reporting by David Lague and Michael Martina. Edited by Peter Hirschberg.