Joe Biden

Background Press Call by a Senior Administration Official on Taiwan Elections

January 10, 2024

Via Teleconference

6:46 P.M. EST

MODERATOR: Hi there. Good evening, everybody. And I know a few folks maybe heard us having a little chatter here before the kickoff of the call. So, just wanted to say that this call is going to be held under embargo until the close of the call. The call is going to be on background, attributable to senior administration officials.

For awareness but not for reporting, joining us on the call today is [senior administration official].

And with that, I will hand it over to her for some quick remarks, and then we'll open it up to questions.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Great, thank you so much. And, all, thanks so much for joining tonight. You heard me trying to figure out how to approach a few things ahead of time, so don't often get the sausage but sometimes you do.

It's been a few months since we've held a backgrounder on Taiwan issues. And with the elections coming up on January 13th, we thought it was timely to do.

I'll give just a brief laydown and then pause for questions at the end. And hopefully we can wrap this up. [Moderator], what do we have -- about half an hour or so?

MODERATOR: Yep, just about.


So, on January 13th, Taiwan will hold presidential and legislative elections following a transition period. The Taiwan president-elect will be inaugurated on May 20th. This election marks the island's fourth transition between democratically elected administrations since fully democratic elections were first held in 1996.

The United States has full confidence in Taiwan's democratic processes, and there is strong bipartisan support for its free and fair elections.

Taiwan is a model for democracy not only in the region but also globally. We oppose any outside interference or influence in Taiwan's elections.

Of course, the United States does not take sides in these elections, does not have a favored or preferred candidate. Regardless of whom is elected, our policy toward Taiwan will remain the same, and our strong unofficial relationship will also continue.

The United States and China of course have had differences on cross-Strait issues, but over the last 40 years we have managed these differences.

When President Biden met with President Xi in San Francisco this past November, he made clear that U.S. policy toward Taiwan has not and will not change. He reiterated that we are committed to our longstanding One China policy which is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, the Three Joint Communiqués, and the Six Assurances.

He indicated that we oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo from either side. We do not support Taiwan independence. We support cross-Strait dialogue, and we expect cross-Strait differences to be resolved by peaceful means, free from coercion, in a manner that is acceptable to the people on both sides of the Strait. We do not take a position on the ultimate resolution of cross-Strait differences, provided they are resolved peacefully.

I'm not going to speculate on what the PRC reaction will be to the elections or their outcome, but will note that the election is part of a normal, routine democratic process. Beijing will be the provocateur should it choose to respond with additional military pressure or coercion.

Of course, peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait is critical to countries and economies around the globe. Taiwan is a key part of global supply chains, and by some estimates, about half of all global trade flows through the Taiwan Strait.

For all these reasons, a disruption to peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait would seriously damage the global economy, and the spillover would affect all economies around the world.

Throughout this election and transition period, we will ensure channels of communication are open with Beijing, both diplomatic and the recently reopened mil-mil channels. In keeping with past precedent and our unofficial relationship with Taiwan, we will also ensure AIT and the AIT chair are in close touch with Taiwan interlocutors to reinforce both our support for Taiwan's democratic processes and also our strong commitment to peace, stability, and the status quo. There should be no unilateral changes by either side to the status quo.

We also intend to send an unofficial delegation after the Taiwan election. We're not in a position to confirm the timing of the delegation or the participants, in part because contrary to press reports, some of this is still being decided. We will have more to share in the coming days.

But I did want to provide some context about these types of delegations and the frequency with which we have used them not just in this administration, but other administrations in the past.

First, given our unofficial relationship with Taiwan, we often send these high-level unofficial delegations of former government officials to Taipei. We have a decades-long tradition of doing so; this is nothing new.

In the last 20 years, we have sent former Cabinet secretaries, former deputy secretaries of state, former national security advisors, former assistant secretaries, former members of Congress, former governors, former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs, and even former White House chiefs of staff.

In fact, President Biden has sent an unofficial delegation twice before of former U.S. government officials in April of 2021 and February of 2022. In those instances, one was post-U.S. inauguration. In April '21, two former deputy secretaries joined. We have also -- and I think former members of Congress as well. Neither of these, over the past several years, were viewed as escalatory by the PRC.

So, sending delegations is well within precedent. It is, of course, consistent with our One China policy, consistent with the status quo, and timed after the election to ensure that we are not endorsing one candidate or one party over the other.

Second, we also have a longstanding precedent for sending former senior USG officials with the AIT chair to Taiwan, after the Taiwan elections. And this has been ongoing, again, for about 20 years, back to 2000. We're going to maintain that precedent after this election too.

In 2016, we sent former Deputy Secretary Bill Burns and the AIT chair to Taipei to meet with the incoming team and the losing candidates.

I will pause there perhaps.

And again, I think the point I want to convey in this backgrounder is, first, I think elections, normal process ongoing for some time. We're not expecting at this point or predicting what will happen or what the PRC response will be. But the point being here, we're focused on peace, stability, and status quo, and talking via our normal channels of communication with both Beijing and Taipei through types of del- -- unofficial delegations like the one we will be sending post-election, as well as via AIT and the AIT chair.

So, I'll pause there and welcome any questions. Over to you.

MODERATOR: With that, we'll defer to the conference room folks to give instructions on how to ask questions, and we'll start calling them.

First, we'll go to Trevor Hunnicutt with Reuters.

Q: Hey, thanks for doing the call. Two related questions. You know, it's been pretty well documented that Beijing is doing its part to interfere in these elections. Is the Biden administration doing enough to help Taiwan defend against that kind of interference? And, two, are you concerned that a future administration in Taipei will pause or reverse asymmetric defense preparations? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks. I think on the interference question, we've been pretty clear in our communications with Beijing, and publicly for that matter, that any form of interference coercion we have serious concerns about. It is interfering with the legitimate democratic political processes, and it certainly would paint Beijing as a provocateur in this election.

On the question about defense, you know, as part of our unofficial relationship with Taiwan, or unofficial partnership with Taiwan, AIT, of course, has been in regular touch with all of the candidates. And I think our expectation is that the strong partnership that we have would endure both on security assistance issues but also on economic, trade, people-to-people, and all that whole list of pieces or parts of the relationship.

But again, I think, you know, before we have a president in place, or president-elect, I don't want to speculate beyond that. But I would say, overall, our expectation is that our unofficial relationship would continue to be strong in all the dimension of security assistance, people-to-people, economic, and trade.

MODERATOR: Next, we're going to go to Nick Schifrin with PBS.

Q: Thanks for doing this. Can you just say on that first point: You know, the Taiwanese are very specific in the kinds of interference that they say are already happening -- cyberattacks, economic coercion, and some others. Can you say whether the U.S. believes Beijing is already committing those actions that Taiwan accuses them of, is already trying to influence the election?

And in terms of after the election, the delegations that you spoke about, the precedent is not only to go to Taipei but also send a delegation to Beijing. Even if you can't detail the people, can you confirm that the delegation -- that a delegation would go to Beijing after the election, along the lines of precedent that the U.S has sent in the past after Taiwanese elections? Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Great, thanks. On the first one, I think, you know, we'll continue to use the channels of communication that we have with Beijing and that have been effective through various periods of higher tension over the last year.

On the question of interference or influence, you know, obviously, this is something we're watching quite closely. We're in touch via AIT with Taipei on this, on what they're seeing, what they're concerned about.

The point I want to emphasize and I think it's important to convey is we have complete confidence in Taiwan's democratic processes. We're not concerned that this is going to impact the election outcome. And they've been extremely diligent and careful about pointing out where there's disinformation, pointing out where there's misinformation, you know, different attempts Beijing or Beijing's proxies may be making in this space.

I mean, it is no secret, I think, that Beijing has views on the outcome of the elections and is trying to shape and coerce in various different ways.

But what I want to convey here is that we are confident in Taiwan's democratic election processes.

Q: And then, the delegation to Beijing?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, I think on that -- that was my first answer. I think we'll use the channels of communication that we have used in other times with Beijing. I think how we do that and the manner in which we do that is different according -- you know, it changes over time. So we have not always sent a delegation to Beijing. And I'll leave it there for the time being.

MODERATOR: Next, we're going to go to Demetri with the FT.

Q: Thanks. Without asking you to confirm the names of the high-level former officials going to Taipei, can you give us an understanding of what they're actually going there to do?

And then, separately, in the meetings today in the White House, did Liu Jianchao make clear what China would like Taiwan -- the Taiwanese election victor to say and also what they would like them not to say in their victory acceptance speech?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Demetri. On the purpose of the unofficial delegation, you know, the way these have been used in the past is to ensure that we are communicating clearly to both the president-elect, but also the other candidates as well, about the importance of strong unofficial partnership, being clear about what the U.S. One China policy is and what it is not.

And given, you know, the uniqueness of this unofficial relationship, doing that face-to-face via these unofficial delegations is really the most effective way to do it. It's exactly the type of engagement that contributes to peace and stability, in our view. And it's also just critical to manage cross-Strait tensions and cross-Strait issues in this way. That direct -- there's really no replacement for that direct communication. And that's what we're trying to get at through this unofficial delegation.

As to the Liu Jianchao meeting, I won't go into specifics of what was raised, but I think what we heard from him -- it's worth keeping in mind, you know, he's not an MFA official. He's from sort of a different part of the institution than we normally -- than normally travels.

So -- but even given that, I'd say the conversation was quite consistent with what we have heard in other senior-level engagements about PRC concerns about this election, about the sensitive period ahead. Nothing in there would surprise you or be different than what, you know, President Biden heard from President Xi and we read out in the post-Woodside meetings.

MODERATOR: Next, we're going to go to Charles Hutzler.

Q: Hi, thanks for doing this. I just wanted to follow up on Demetri's questions. I mean, first of all, on this message that Beijing should not interfere, that no one should interfere in Taiwan's election, can you sort of catalog when that message has been delivered to Beijing most recently? Has it been delivered publicly? And, as well, what's delivered to Liu Jianchao?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks for the question, Charles. Yeah, I think in terms of the concerns about -- or, you know, underscoring the need to ensure there's no interference, that's a message we've consistently delivered, I say, in about every high-level engagement over the last six months or so, if not before.

So, certainly in the Woodside summit, that was a message that was clearly delivered. In National Security Advisor Sullivan's meetings with Wang Yi, that certainly has been something that we have conveyed as well, and as well through the channel we have here with Ambassador Xie Feng.

So this is a consistent message that the U.S. is sending to PRC interlocutors, including with Liu Jianchao.

MODERATOR: Next, we'll go to Shaun Tandon with AFP.

Q: Hey there. Thanks for this call. Could I extend a little bit on the question that Nick asked, talking about the actions that China has already taken? Do you see this as consistent with what China has done in previous Taiwanese elections or anything different?

And in terms -- of course, there's the military talks this week, the mil-to-mil at the Pentagon. Do you think that affected at all the equation in terms of what you expect in terms of behavior from China?

And just briefly, trade. There, of course, were trade talks with Taiwan in the past year. Do you expect this to go full speed ahead with the new administration, no matter who it is? Or are you waiting to see a new administration form? Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks for that. On coercion or shaping and influencing, I think this has been a longstanding practice of Beijing. I think what we're seeing is consistent with what we have seen in the past, without commenting on specifics, of course. But I think, you know, there's a pattern of behavior we have seen here that is fairly consistent.

On trade, you know, I think trade issues, of course -- or the trade relationship with Taiwan is important. We have worked hard, and I think we're all proud of the 21st century trade initiative in Phase One that was signed last year. Our intent is to continue moving forward on Phase Two as well, but I don't have any details for you on when. I simply don't have that at my fingertips. But I would not expect that is something that would slow down dependent on the results of the election. I think that's something there is bipartisan support for in Taipei as well.

MODERATOR: And our last question is going to go to Morgan Chalfant with Semafor.

Q: Thanks so much for doing this. I know you won't get into predictions about a Chinese reaction, but can you talk about how the U.S. is preparing for a potential Chinese military reaction? And how worried are you about, you know, a provocative reaction disrupting some of the progress that the U.S. and China has made over the last couple of months?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You know, I think anytime we're heading into a period of higher tension, there are, of course, always contingency conversations in the U.S. government that is part of prudential planning. I don't want to get into specifics on those, but of course we have to be prepared and thinking through any eventuality, ranging from, you know, no response to higher end.

Sorry, and the second part of your question?

Q: I was just wondering how worried you are about, you know, a provocative response disrupting some of the progress that the U.S. and China has made over the last couple of months.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, no, it's a good question, but I think it's putting the frame of Taiwan elections and cross-Strait issues in a context that I don't think is the right context.

The health of the U.S.-China relationship I don't think you can view as a derivative of cross-Strait tensions. I mean, we are deeply engaged in diplomacy with China to try to manage difficult situations. Our expectation is not that China is going to change its cross-Strait policy, it's how do we manage this difficult time and try to avoid unintended conflict, ensure our intent is clear, and ensure that we are in communications. And that's precisely what we're doing through this period of diplomacy over the last, you know, year or so.

MODERATOR: You know what, we've actually got time for one more. Let's go to Kevin Collier with NBC.

Q: Hi, thanks for that. Can you articulate -- I understand that there are, you know, different groups that have made allegations of information operations and election interference that China has used to target Taiwan, but what is the NSC's understanding of that issue? What has China done?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You know, I think it's -- Taiwan is pretty advanced in being able to pinpoint and identify what's going on in their own system. So I think rather than looking at us as the source for this, I would look to Taiwan as the source and look at their announcements, look at what they've put out there in open source on this.

I think broadly speaking, you know, we've seen -- and it is not surprising we have seen -- Chinese att- -- or Beijing's attempts to try to shape the information environment, try to put economic pressure on the island through announcements of tariff changes that we've seen over the last couple of weeks.

So, again, none of this is surprising to me. And I think Taiwan is quite good in this space in calling it out for what it is. And I would point to them as the source of that information.

MODERATOR: All right, that concludes this evening's call. Thank you all, and we should follow up shortly with a transcript.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks so much, folks. Look forward to continuing the conversation.

7:08 P.M. EST

Joseph R. Biden, Background Press Call by a Senior Administration Official on Taiwan Elections Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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