While President-elect Joe Biden’s immediate focus will likely be on the troubled domestic situation, with the Covid-19 pandemic and the political divide in the US, the Trump administration has also opted, as part of its final act, to hand him a series of new international diplomatic dilemmas. In some instances, these are life-or-death situations.
These moves, announced by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, mean Biden will start his presidential term with several key foreign relationships mired in controversy, thanks to the policies set by his predecessor.
“The Trump administration is locking in place a series of conflicts that change the starting point for Biden walking into office on the world stage,” said Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
However, since Washington established formal diplomatic ties with Beijing in 1979, it has resisted having official diplomatic relations with Taipei in order to avoid a confrontation with the Communist leadership on the mainland, which still sees the island — home to around 24 million people — as part of China.
Critics fear this week’s move by the Trump administration will hand Beijing leverage over the incoming Biden administration, even though strengthened US support for Taiwan against an increasingly assertive China has largely been a bipartisan consensus in Washington.
“If the US decides it wants to work with China on climate change, for example, China can demand that the US reverses its position on Taiwan,” said Pantucci.
And whether China hawks in the US like it or not, Biden might well have to work with China to tackle climate change, global terrorism and all sorts of other issues.
Analysts had long expected Biden to retain a hawkish position on China, but they believed he would work with international allies to build a coherent coalition, rather than maintaining Trump’s maximum pressure approach.
“What Biden should do is work with European allies to have an aligned strategy towards China, but in order to do that you need some time to build that,” said Leslie Vinjamuri, director of the US and the Americas program at Chatham House. “You don’t need more immediate issues getting in the way.”
Getting partners — especially those in Europe — to share a unified position on China was already a difficult task.
“European nations have very different attitudes to China, with some — like the UK — very concerned and others — like Italy and Germany — more focused on China as an export market,” says Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the UK’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee.
While it’s tempting to suggest Biden could simply reverse the policy once he takes office, that ignores the lose-lose situation in which Trump has left the President-elect.
As Pantucci points out, capitulation would “cost Biden political capital at home,” where anti-China sentiment is pretty strong across the political aisle. If Biden reimposes restrictions on contacts with Taiwan, it would also allow Beijing to claim that the US had accepted its status as a province of China.
This “could have major implications in Taiwan’s democracy itself, as Xi and his allies have not been hesitant to assert their authority when given the space to do so,” Pantucci added. While China is “very unlikely to attack Taipei,” Pantucci warned there could be “more meddling [by Beijing] in politics, meddling economically” if Trump’s policy remains in place.
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