Four years ago, Donald Trump made history when he took a call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen.
The Trump-Tsai conversation, just a month after the US election, was the first time an American president-elect had spoken directly to a leader of the island since 1979, when Washington broke official ties with Taipei to normalise relations with Beijing.
The call was a big win for Tsai, leader of a government that only a handful of small states recognised as a sovereign country.
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It was also seen as a slight to Beijing, setting the stage for four years of increasingly adversarial US-China relations and a corresponding boost in US-Taiwan ties.
But that move was unlikely to be repeated by the winner of this year’s presidential election, Joe Biden, observers said.
Sung Wen-ti, visiting fellow at the Australian National University, said the probability of a Biden-Tsai call was “very slim”.
“[Biden] has to deal with the aftermath of the elections, such as legal issues raised by Trump over vote results. So before everything is consolidated, such a possibility is slim,” Sung said.
There are also signs from Taipei that Tsai will not take the initiative on a call this time.
On Monday, Taiwanese Premier Su Tseng-chang said Tsai called Biden to congratulate him but a spokesman quickly issued a statement saying Su meant that Tsai had “already congratulated [Biden] via electronic means”, as shown by her tweet on Sunday.
“Now it is my turn to extend congratulations to @JoeBiden & @KamalaHarris on being elected President & VP-elect. The values on which we have built our relationship could not be stronger. I look fwd to working together to further our friendship, & contributions to int’l society,” Tsai said in a tweet.
Now it is my turn to extend congratulations to @JoeBiden & @KamalaHarris on being elected President & VP-elect. The values on which we have built our relationship could not be stronger. I look fwd to working together to further our friendship, & contributions to int’l society. https://t.co/xIvit7emjH
— 蔡英文 Tsai Ing-wen (@iingwen) November 8, 2020
Lev Nachman, a visiting scholar at National Taiwan University, said Su’s haste to clarify his statement was a sign that Tsai was aware that a phone call this time was not guaranteed.
“There is some demand here [in Taiwan] for such a phone call, and I think Tsai doesn’t want to promise a phone call she can’t deliver,” he said.
“What I think was very smart is she retweeted Biden’s congratulations to her [a year ago], as a means to show ‘Biden does support me and recognises Taiwan’.”
Nachman said the Trump-Tsai phone call was a “happy accident” most likely the result of neither Trump nor his team being aware of the diplomatic sensitivities surrounding US official communication with Taipei.
After four years of hawkish China policy from the White House, the stakes were much higher for Biden, he said.
“In an ideal world, a phone call from Biden to Tsai would be very good, it would signal shared values with Taiwan, it would signal the US’ deep support for Taiwan, but because of the current status of US-China relations, it would also be seen as a poke against China,” he said.
Other observers in Taiwan said Biden would have a more balanced approach to US-China relations.
Su Tzu-yun, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Defence and Security Research in Taipei, said Biden was expected to pursue a policy of competition and cooperation with Beijing.
“On military issues, he is expected to treat Beijing as a highly aggressive competitor, but on issues like climate, population and nuclear arms reduction, he is expected to adopt a policy of cooperation with China,” he said.
But Lo Chih-cheng, a former political science professor at Soochow University in Taipei and now a Democratic Progressive Party legislator, said the new administration would be an opportunity for Taiwan because Biden could form an alliance of like-minded countries against Beijing.
“In the wake of US-China competition, Taiwan has geopolitical importance that will grow over time,” Lo said.
Nachman said that while many people in Taiwan were “nervous” about Biden taking a “soft” stand on China, the president-elect’s previous statements suggested that he would not appease Beijing.
Nevertheless, details like a phone call with Tsai would be decided by his foreign policy team, which was still being put together, he said.
“A lot of the very pro-Taiwan policy that the Trump administration passed was because of people in the foreign policy team, not so much Trump himself,” Nachman said.
“I think what we need to keep an eye on is not so much what Biden is going to do but who Biden is going to appoint for secretary of state, who are his China advisers, do they have Taiwan experience, and those are the people that will be working on these questions [like a Biden-Tsai phone call],” he said.
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