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Taiwan feared Biden would be softer than Trump on China. So far, it has been pleasantly surprised.

Beijing-Washington tensions remain high, setting the scene for the first meeting between the two governments this week.
Image: Taiwan Navy personnel guard the Lan Yang (FFG-935) frigate in Keelung, Taiwan.
Taiwan Navy personnel guard the Lan Yang (FFG-935) frigate in Keelung, Taiwan.Ann Wang / Ann Wang

TAIPEI, Taiwan — When Donald Trump lost re-election in November, there was one place far from his "Make America Great Again" rallies that also felt the loss keenly: Taiwan.

Many Taiwanese favored Trump because of his administration's hard-line stance against China and support for Taiwan, a self-governed island that is claimed by Beijing and is under increasing Chinese pressure. Many feared President Joe Biden would forget them as he sought to mend Washington's relations with Beijing.

But, so far, Biden has continued to display strong support for Taiwan, at times even going further than the Trump administration did.

Taiwan is one of the reasons why tensions between Beijing and Washington remain high, setting the scene for a rocky meeting this week between the two governments — their first significant in-person talks since Biden became president.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan will sit down with senior Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Alaska on Thursday and Friday.

Blinken and Sullivan will be sitting across from a confident-looking Chinese delegation: Beijing has clamped down on opposition to its rule in Hong Kong, staked out territory in the disputed South China Sea, and bounced back from the coronavirus, which was first reported in Wuhan, China. It has also positioned itself as a benefactor by sending free or cheap homemade vaccines around the world.

On the other side of the table is a Biden administration that has already staked out China as America's most important challenge. Blinken, who has called China the "biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century" for the United States, during a visit to Japan on Tuesday vowed to counter its growing "coercion and aggression" in Asia. On Wednesday, he announced sanctions on a further 24 Chinese and Hong Kong officials over Beijing’s crackdown on the territory.

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Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said last week that the Alaska meeting had been proposed by the U.S., and that Beijing hoped the two sides could "focus on cooperation, manage differences and promote the sound and steady development of China-U.S. relations."

Under Trump, who blamed China for the pandemic, a painful trade war between the two countries escalated, and a weary Beijing has set out its conditions for an improvement in relations with Washington.

Wang said last month that Beijing wanted Washington to remove tariffs on Chinese goods, lift restrictions on Chinese technology companies, and stop interfering in the issues of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and its treatment of the Uyghur minorities in the northwest Xinjiang region.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Donald Trump attend a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in 2017. Many Taiwanese favored Trump because of his administration's hard-line stance against China and support for Taiwan.Nicolas Asfouri / AFP via Getty Images file

Yet, Biden pressed those issues in his first telephone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping since becoming president, suggesting the two sides are unlikely to find much common ground in Alaska.

"If you look at all of the signaling that Beijing has sent towards the Biden administration, it’s basically telling them 'the Trump administration screwed up the relationship, it’s incumbent on you to undo everything that’s been done … and then we can begin to talk,' without acknowledging any of the reasons why President Trump took the actions that he did," said Drew Thompson, a former Department of Defense official with responsibility for China.

"There's no reason for the Biden administration to follow that line of logic when China offers absolutely nothing in return," said Thompson, a visiting research fellow at the National University of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

The U.S. has said that while it will talk about how the two countries could work together, it will also bring up issues including a lack of transparency over the Covid-19 outbreak, efforts to push back democracy in Hong Kong, rights abuses, and Taiwan.

The Biden administration has so far signalled strong support for democratic Taiwan, which has been ruled separately from China since 1949. While the vast majority of the Taiwanese public is against being absorbed into its huge Communist neighbor, Beijing’s eventual goal is to take control of Taiwan — by force if necessary.

Over the past year, Beijing has turned up military pressure on Taiwan, frequently sending fighter jets into its air defense identification zone and provoking Taiwan's air force to scramble in response.

Last week, Adm. Philip Davidson, commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said China could invade Taiwan within the next six years, comments slammed by Beijing as "hyping up China's military threat."

If China does attack Taiwan, the chances of the U.S. stepping in to defend the island are "very high," said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"If the U.S. allowed China to take Taiwan by force, it would lose credibility with its allies and partners in the region, and possibly embolden Beijing to use force against other countries to solve territorial disputes in its favor," she said.

Pro-democracy supporters scuffle with riot police at a rally in the Causeway Bay district of Hong Kong in May. In his first overseas trip, Secretary of State Antony Blinken vowed to counter China's growing "coercion and aggression" in Asia, including Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong activists.Anthony Kwan / Getty Images file

The Trump administration took unprecedented measures to boost U.S. support for Taiwan, including passing laws to help it deal with pressure from China and sending the two highest-ranking U.S. officials to visit the island in 40 years. It also sold significantly more weapons to Taiwan than did previous administrations.

These actions won Trump support in Taiwan: It was the only place in Europe and Asia-Pacific surveyed by YouGov ahead of last year's presidential election where more people wanted him to win against Biden.

Yet, under Biden, the U.S. has said its support of Taiwan is "rock-solid," and it invited Taiwan's representative in the U.S. to attend his inauguration — the first time that has happened since Washington broke off official relations with Taiwan in favor of Beijing in 1979.

This has offered reassurance to Taipei — although skepticism remains.

Taipei resident Chen Hao, 26, said that he was a "bit nervous" when Trump lost the presidency. "I didn't know what Biden would be like because I knew when he was under Obama, both of them were quite soft against China."

"Now I'm not sure ... he's a little bit stronger than I thought, but that’s about it."