The United States Needs India and Taiwan to Counterbalance China: Will the “Milk Tea Alliance” Work?

The White House declassified one of its most sensitive operational policies, the “U.S. strategic framework for the Indo-Pacific,” as part of the final maneuvers of Donald Trump’s presidency in early January 2021.[1] That decision bewildered diplomats, policymakers, and scholars at home and abroad. After all, it was not only a mystery as to why this national security document was declassified, but also why it was released just prior to the change of administration. One theory widely debated is whether the declassification was meant to contain President Joe Biden’s policy on China issues, leaving the new administration with little room to deviate from Trump’s nativist America First policies and anti-China strategy.

It should not be ignored that just moments before vacating the White House, Trump’s national security officials hastily put all the cards on the table. Apart from recognizing China as the biggest threat and the major competitor to American interests in the newly-defined Indo-Pacific region by President Trump’s Pentagon, the declassified document advocates the defense of the so-called first-string islands with the main emphasis on Taiwan. It likewise promotes strengthening U.S. alliances with like-minded democratic countries, with absolute priority given to India.[2]

In fact, even more important is the stream of laws that U.S. Congress has passed over the last few years intended to counterbalance Beijing’s assertive behavior towards India, Taiwan, and others.[3] These laws will likely make it difficult for the Biden White House to deviate from the policies of the Trump administration. Moreover, President Biden’s national security team will need to balance current U.S. laws with the emerging dynamics of Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy (NSP) as well as the Act East Policy (AEP) of India.[4] This could present Washington with unexpected implications for U.S. relations with Southeast Asia as Taipei and New Delhi continue to advance their own geopolitical and geo-economic strategies. 

As a result, the question is how the Biden administration will navigate its Asia policy towards India and Taiwan in the context of Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy, given the contrast in each administration’s priorities.

Different Strokes for Different Presidents

The United States has continuously asserted its presence in the Southeast Asia region in accordance with the American policy outlined in October 2015 by President Barack Obama’s Defense Secretary Ash Carter, stating that “we will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows.”[5] Outside of military operations, however, the United States will face significant headwinds in challenging the economic and diplomatic investments that China has made in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the region. Under the Obama administration, officials had also been slow, if not altogether remiss, in recognizing China’s “art of strategic incrementalism” by building artificial-islands in the South China Sea.[6]

During the Trump administration, American emphasis had been on trade and technology wars rather than democratic values and the promotion of human rights.[7] With “a new degree of humility” about the American ability to “change China,” two former Obama officials, Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner, writing in Foreign Affairs in February 2018, argued that Washington has adopted an approach that was “confrontational without being competitive” while Beijing has managed a dynamic strategy that has increasingly been “competitive without being confrontational.”[8]

With some of these Obama alumni now returning to the Biden White House, Beijing is once again testing the new administration’s mettle. In their Foreign Affairs article, “Competition without Catastrophe: How America Can Both Challenge and Coexist With China,” Kurt Campbell and Jake Sullivan, now the two lodestars of the Indo-Pacific policy in the Biden White House, have envisioned “the most consequential rethinking” based on “a steady state of clear-eyed coexistence on terms favorable to U.S. interests and values.”[9] During his initial phone call with the Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi in early February 2021,[10] Biden’s new Secretary of State Anthony Blinken stressed that the United States will “stand up for human rights and democratic values.”[11]

The ultimate challenge for the Biden White House is its ability to manage the coexistence of American interests and values in Asia policy to compete without being confrontational with China. As it is easier said than done, do these existing legislative and legal frameworks—anchored in India and Taiwan strategies—make it possible in the first place? 

When The Eagle and Peacock Dance

In the declassified document, the Trump White House gave India the “leading role in maintaining Indian Ocean security,” believing the world’s largest democracy would become a twenty-first century global power.[12] The bilateral alliance dates back to the signing of the U.S.-Indian Civil Nuclear Cooperation Treaty in 2008.[13] Twelve years later, in the declassified document, Washington encouraged New Delhi to go beyond the Indian Ocean and strengthen its relations with Southeast Asia and the Quad—the democratic quadrilateral alliance which would bring India closer to Australia, Japan, and the United States.

Although there is still a long way to go to turn the Quad into a NATO-like formation, what happened in 2020 confirms the tightening of strategic cooperation.[14] In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and only one week ahead of American presidential elections in 2020, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Indian counterpart Subrahmanyam Jaishankar signed an agreement which initiated an open U.S.-India military alliance.[15] This first-of-its-kind open military alliance marks India’s departure from its long-held but nominal non-alignment policy.

Included under the new U.S.-India military alliance is the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) for Geospatial and Intelligence Cooperation, which allows Washington to share exceptionally accurate and sensitive satellite data with New Delhi. It was the crowning achievement of three previous acts signed under the U.S.-India defense cooperation framework:

  • General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) in 2002 
  • The Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016  
  • The Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) in 2018.[16]

Apart from recognizing India as a key partner in the Indo-Pacific, the recently declassified document categorized the China-India border conflict a significant “continental challenge.”[17]

The China-India border conflict spanning over 70 years resulted in countless border clashes, including the one-month long border war in 1962. Recent clashes in June 2020 in the Galwan river valley left twenty Indians and an unspecified number of Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers dead. It then resulted in an unprecedented deployment of 100,000 PLA and Indian soldiers along the Line of Actual Control high-up in the Himalayas for the winter of 2020-21.[18] This newest string of militarization creates an impression that all gestures of goodwill in the Xi-Modi era of joint China-India soft power projects were in vain.[19]

India’s alliance with the United States is politically and economically costly as it has already forced India to withdraw from the Beijing-led, newly-signed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership due to American pressure.[20] However, in light of the border tensions with China, an open alliance with the U.S. might have come at the right moment for New Delhi. Washington’s open support for New Delhi against Beijing and the elevation of the China-India border issue from a regional conflict to a continental challenge made the evolving situation potentially even more dangerous. American involvement in Indian affairs is most likely to either involve or provoke other globally influential actors, like Japan and Russia. 

Nevertheless, it is impossible not to consider the China-India border issue a continental challenge—not simply because of its territorial dimensions, but also due to the politics of water access, which was pointed out in the declassified document. China controls the Tibetan plateau, which is the lifeline of most major rivers in Asia. These civilizational rivers—including Brahmaputra, Ganges, Indus, Irrawaddy, Mekong, Salween, and Yangtze—are a lifeline not only to the world’s two most populous nations of China and India, but also to the South Asian countries of Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, and Pakistan, as well as the Southeast Asian nations of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. Together, these countries make up almost half of the world’s population. 

In the looming politics of Tibetan water resources, China’s control of the waters flowing through the Himalayan plateaus is a matter of life and death for millions of people in South and Southeast Asia. With numerous dams built on rivers, such as Brahmaputra and Mekong, China is now able to store or divert water in a way that might lead to drying out vast territories downstream. Beijing is fully aware that turning “off” those taps is a potentially more dangerous weapon than bombs and missiles and most cost-effective.[21]

In the 2017 Brahmaputra flood, China did not share crucial river data with India despite their existing agreement.[22] This decision might be considered retaliation after the Doklam standoff, during which India mobilized its troops as a response to China’s initiation of the road construction on the territory claimed by Bhutan. As a result, for two months Chinese PLA and Indian troops kept eyeballing, testing, and threatening each other at the Bhutan-China-Indian border while also calling for negotiations.[23]

In the beginning of 2021, China cut the water flow of the Mekong river by 50 percent without any warning, for a three-week power-line maintenance project, as it was officially explained.[24] It seriously affected the life of millions of people along the waterways in the Southeast Asian region, disrupting fishing and farming livelihoods. 

Within the global politics of water access, the new U.S. policy towards Tibet is potentially a game changer. The Tibetan Policy and Support Act, signed by President Trump in the last days of December 2020, states that the United States will put sanctions—including the denial of entry—on Chinese officials who interfere in the election of the Dalai Lama’s successor.[25] The U.S. legislation also calls for creating a new American consulate in Lhasa, the capital city of the Tibet Autonomous Region of China. 

The election of the new Dalai Lama, unavoidable yet still unspecified in time, is more than just a religious matter. It is, of course, a choice of a spiritual—and political—leader for millions of Tibetan Buddhists in Tibet, India, and around the world. More importantly, the situation in Tibet is the key to China’s unrestrained blackmailing practice of water politics, whose victims become China’s river-sharing Southeast Asian neighbors of the Irrawaddy, Mekong, Salween, and other tributaries. Disturbing as it may be, if not because of the Chinese Communist Party’s iron fist policy towards Tibetan people and their culture, the world should pay closer attention to Tibet as a source of life—knowing that throughout the course of climate change, regional water-wars are destined to flare-up in Southeast and South Asia.

The Unsinkable Aircraft Carrier

In the context of American legislations, agreements, and protocols, the Trump presidency has championed the biggest revival of U.S.-Taiwan relations since Washington acknowledged Beijing as the official representative of China in 1979, breaking formal diplomatic dealings with Taipei. Even so, the U.S.-Taiwan relations—and Taiwan’s de facto independence—were guaranteed by the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 signed by President Jimmy Carter. The original act broadly provides an ambiguous framework as “the policy of the United States to preserve and promote extensive, close, and friendly commercial, cultural, and other relations between the people of the United States and the people on [sic] Taiwan.”

However, the bilateral relationship harkens back to 1950 when General Douglas MacArthur—the supreme commander of allied forces in Japan—transmitted a now-declassified top secret Memorandum on Formosa” to Washington.[26] The American commander argued that Taiwan should be an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” for the United States to project American power and to preserve American national interests in the Pacific.[27] According to the CIA-declassified secret memo on Deng Xiaoping’s Discussion of Taiwan with the President [Ronald Reagan],” Deng in April 1984 reverted to MacArthur’s term to express his “unease with US foreign policy.”[28] Thus, China’s historical apprehension with the United States still deeply endures, especially after President Trump’s decision to sell arms to Taiwan.  

In October 2020, the Trump White House declassified the diplomatic cable of “Six Assurances,” also made by President Reagan to Taiwan in 1982, which have been a foundational element in American policy towards Taiwan and China.[29] This loosely-kept secret of “Six Assurances” outlined a set of foreign policy principles which confirmed America’s unwavering support and U.S. arms sale to Taiwan. Though originally declared as informal rules, the contents of the “secret” cable were later adopted by the U.S. Congress in a non-binding resolution in 2016 as the cornerstones of the bilateral relationship. 

As the result of the speeding-up of U.S.-Taiwan relations under President Trump, the overall American legal framework of Taiwan is now guided by a number of key Congressional legislations:

  • Taiwan Travel Act of 2018
  • TAIPEI Act of 2019
  • Taiwan Assurance Act 2020

The guiding framework of legal and diplomatic relations between the United States and Taiwan is more complex than those with India, because of Taiwan’s shared history with China and “the policy of ambiguity.” Yet, all Congressional acts still maneuver ingeniously around these constraints, not by stating Taiwan’s independence but by strengthening the island’s international position. For example, the Taiwan Travel Act (TRA) of 2018 encourages visits between officials from the United States and Taiwan at all levels as demonstrated by the increasing number of President Trump’s cabinet officials visiting Taipei since 2019.[30]

The Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act of 2019 directly involves the United States to enhance “economic, security, and diplomatic engagement” with countries that have “strengthened, enhanced or upgraded relations with Taiwan.”[31] Simultaneously, the act punitively reduces American engagement with countries whose actions “undermine Taiwan.”[32] The act also calls on the U.S. administration to advocate for Taiwan’s membership in “international organizations in which statehood is not a requirement” and for Taiwan to be granted observer status in international bodies—like the World Health Organization—where formal recognition is a prerequisite. It further recommends signing a U.S.-Taiwan free trade agreement.

Finally, the Taiwan Assurance Act 2020—signed by President Trump along with the Tibetan Policy and Support Act—expresses support for Taiwan’s defense strategy of asymmetric warfare and encourages Taipei to increase its defense expenditures.[33] Moreover, it reaffirms the American support for Taiwan’s participation in the United Nations and its affiliated organizations as well as other regional groupings like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that require statehood for membership. 

It is still debatable as to what extent the Biden White House will follow these agreements as meaningful gestures toward Taipei. However, the first signals sent after the Biden inauguration suggest that Trump’s pro-Taiwan course will be sustained within the framework of Congressional acts. For the first time since the official diplomatic relations between Washington and Taipei ceased in 1979, Taiwan’s envoy to the U.S. Hsiao Bi-khim represented her country as an officially invited dignitary at Biden’s presidential inauguration.[34] Unsurprisingly, the very same day four Chinese military planes entered Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). It was the twenty-second Chinese intrusion into Taiwan’s ADIZ in January 2021 alone. 

Although many of the bilateral agreements appear to form a mutually beneficial relationship, American military and political engagement with Taiwan is still a game of pawns similar to General McArthur’s vision of the unsinkable aircraft carrier that can maintain U.S. primacy in the Pacific.[35] Supporting Taiwan in trade and investment is advantageous to the United States as the island nation is an economic-dynamo with a highly advanced technological sector that surpassed China’s GDP growth in 2020.[36]    

The declassified documents and recent U.S. legislations related to Taiwan have shown a green light for India’s Act East Policy and strengthening India’s position in the Indo-Pacific region. The United States is also obligated to provide arms to ensure Taiwan’s security and its ability to engage with China on its own terms; however, the prospects of India-Taiwan relations are largely muted in Washington. Given the sensitive nature of Sino-American relations with Taiwan, the “policy of ambiguity” is still the governing principle even as a thriving India-Taiwan relationship would clearly benefit American foreign policy and national security interests. 

Where India and Taiwan Meet

The launch of the Look East Policy in 1991 marked a strategic change in how India perceived itself in the post-Cold War reality. After over four decades of trade protection and state intervention, India finally liberalized its economy, opening up for private and foreign investments, and strengthened political, military, and cultural ties with Southeast Asian countries. Having done so, it went out of its traditional, geographically determined spheres of influence, and aspired to obtain the title of not just the regional, but continental power. 

On one hand, the unveiling of the Look East Policy seemed like throwing down a gauntlet to China, a country which has always had a great political and cultural impact on Southeast Asia. On the other hand, India has tried to reach some kind of rapprochement with its northern neighbor by participating in border talks (which resulted in two agreements in 1993 and 1996) and welcoming a groundbreaking rise of economic exchanges with China throughout 1990s.

However, a dramatic revolution came with Hindu nationalist leader Narendra Modi, whose Bharatiya Janata Party won Indian national elections in 2014. Modi elevated the Look East Policy to a completely new level by transforming it into the Act East Policy (AEP) the very same year he became India’s Prime Minister.[37] As this rapid and clearly prioritized name change suggests, India was expected to endeavor for a deeper and more active involvement in Southeast Asia. Moreover, originally an economic plan, the Look East Policy expanded both geographically to countries like South Korea and Japan as well as dimensionally to political and security domains.

Similar to Modi’s transformation of the Look East Policy into the Act East Policy, President Tsai Ing-wen marked overtaking Taiwan’s political scene in 2016 by introducing the New Southbound Policy (NSP).[38] As Modi added totally new dimensions to India’s Look East Policy, Tsai elevated the existing Southbound Policy onto a much higher level, focusing on boosting economic cooperation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and South Asian countries as well as Australia and New Zealand, and called for intensifying people-to-people exchanges in tourism and education.[39]

Both governments now recognize the United States as a broker to facilitate their broader foreign policy objectives in Southeast Asia against China within Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy under the Biden White House. Flourishing India-Taiwan relations might become a remarkably positive and successful byproduct of the Sino-American rivalry if New Delhi and Taipei step out of the shadow of the One China Policy and reinvigorate the over 70-year-old petrification of bilateral relations.

As the Biden White House intends to continue the Trump administration’s Indian and Taiwan policies, the marriage between Taipei’s NSP and New Delhi’s AEP—not just geographically but in the realms of political, economic, and ideological persuasion—might make the anti-authoritarian alliance in Asia grow stronger. Ironically, this would be the first “encounter” between India and Taiwan that might truly unleash the great potential of their bilateral relations which so far has been highly untapped and unrecognized by the United States.

Historically, India was the second non-socialist country which acknowledged the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1950 by breaking official diplomatic relations with Chiang Kai-shek’s government of the Republic of China (ROC). As a consequence, India officially accepted the One China policy, both in regard to Taiwan, as well as other “Chinese” territories, such as the neighboring Tibet which for centuries had served as India’s buffer zone. Even when China-India relations froze almost completely for the following two decades after the 1962 border war, India still looked toward reconciliation rather than confrontation. New Delhi continued to support the One China Policy and even advocated for replacing ROC with PRC in the United Nations. It was then not ill-will, but the fear-driven false-friendliness towards China that determined the shape of India-Taiwan relations—or, rather, the lack of it. 

With the growing engagement of the United States in the Indo-Pacific, which counterbalances China by giving American allies more space to emerge from under the Chinese shadow, India might now wish to pursue a more open and assertive framework to collaborate with Taiwan. There seems to be a similar potential on the Taiwanese side as President Tsai Ing-wen rejected the 1992 Consensus in 2019, according to which China and Taiwan agreed on the existence of only One China but reserved the right to interpret its meaning in different ways. By setting a collision course with Beijing, Taipei might now wish to give an unprecedent boost to its relations with New Delhi. What happened in China-India-Taiwan relations in October 2020 proves that there are both inter-governmental and people-to-people potentialities connecting New Delhi and Taipei with the broader policy framework laid down by Washington. 

The day of October 10—or the Double Ten Day—is celebrated in Taiwan as the National Day of the Republic of China. A few days ahead of the 2020 celebrations, the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi sent out a note to Indian media, instructing Indian journalists that “there is only One China in the world, and the government of the People’s Republic of China is the sole legitimate government representing the whole of China. Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory.”[40] As a result, Taiwan was not supposed to be referred to as a country, or a nation, or the Republic of China. One does not need to be an expert on China-India relations to foresee what kind of consequences this unsophisticated attempt at intimidating and interfering in India’s internal affairs caused. Especially given the fact that it came from China, a country which launched a military attack on India in 1962 and is probably responsible for causing the biggest national trauma in India’s postcolonial history. 

As one might have expected, Indian media widely covered the National Day celebrations in Taiwan—to a significantly larger extent than in previous years. More importantly, Indian authorities openly followed the media’s anti-China sentiments by hanging posters with the Taiwanese flag and the words, “Taiwan, Happy National Day October 10” on streetlights in front of the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi.[41] Although they were soon taken down, they widely circulated across the Indian and Taiwanese media. 

A meme which also broadly disseminated on Indian and Taiwanese social media platforms showed President Tsai and Prime Minister Modi toasting with bubble tea and Indian chai. It was a clear reference to the “Milk Tea Alliance,” a coalition of democratic countries which originated as a solidarity movement among netizens of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Thailand in 2020.[42] Activists in all these countries stressed the need of strengthening democratic values, and protested against the growing influential industry of China.[43]

It took hardly any time for Taipei authorities to react. Taiwanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu openly thanked Indian politicians and media for standing up to China’s wolf warrior diplomacy. Quite undiplomatically, Wu wrote in a Twitter post: “Hats off to friends from around the world this year, India in particular, for celebrating Taiwan National Day. With your support, Taiwan will definitely be more resilient in meeting challenges, especially those ‘get lost’ types.”[44] India’s reaction towards the Chinese Embassy’s provocative letter seems even more significant in the context of the actions New Delhi took in recent years to conciliate China at the cost of relations with Taiwan. For example, in 2018 India’s national carrier, Air India, followed a note from the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, which urged it to change the name Taiwan to Chinese Taipei on the airline’s website.[45] However, what happened two years ago, now seems to be a distant and almost entirely insignificant history. 

These developments were an indirect response to China’s provocative behavior. A more crucial step in boosting India-Taiwan relations would be the development of joint projects and initiatives regardless of shared anti-China sentiments. There has never been a better time for India. With its economy hit badly by the covid-19 pandemic, New Delhi might finally step out of the One China Policy shadow and welcome Taiwanese trade and investment—especially in information and communication technology, cybersecurity, biomedical technology, and renewable energy industries—to gain momentum for constructing innovative industrial parks in Bangalore, India’s silicon valley in Karnataka.[46] With the on-going Sino-American Tech Cold War, the technological nexus between India and Taiwan may present opportunities for greater collaboration and American support to restructure the global supply-chains away from China.[47]

With all the agreements and projects—together with Washington’s open support for India’s AEP and Taiwan’s NSP—the trilateral relations make the development of India-Taiwan cooperation possible to an extent never seen before. Now it is not about India and Taiwan simply tilting the window to secretly get a quick breath of fresh air—instead, it is about kicking the door open and letting the wind blow in a large gust.

Make India Great Again?

The recently declassified document reveals a limited, unidimensional understanding of Asian matters, and in its simplicity resembles the black-and-white ideological divisions of the Cold War, where some countries were one-sidedly labeled as allies and others classified as enemies. What the Biden administration must do is to overcome this over-simplification, starting with resisting the temptation to portray China as a villain and bandit on one hand, and avoiding misconstruing India as a guardian of peace and stability as the unanimous defender of American values and human rights in the Indo-Pacific on the other.

Paradoxically, a blindly favorable approach towards India might cause an equal amount of damage as narrow-minded demonization of China. Contemporary India is not an American savior under whom the Indo-Pacific will stay safe and happy. Prime Minister Modi’s India does not certainly resemble Kalki—the prophesied tenth avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu—who will bring an end to the epoch of calamity and degeneration, and start the new era of justice and happiness. 

Modi’s India led by Hindutva—the ideology of Hindu nationalism—is particularly at fault for strengthening communal divisions within Indian society and unleashing anti-Muslim hysteria. Examples include the 2019 Citizenship Amendment Bill, which makes it easier for refugees from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan to get Indian citizenship provided that they are not Muslims. The same year, the enacted constitutional and administrative modifications stripped the former Jammu and Kashmir of its special status, leading to arrests and communication lockdown. These two examples are enough to raise a question as to whether India should be internationally condemned.[48]  

Since the Trump White House’s declassified document does not mention a single word on protecting human rights, Washington’s boundless support for New Delhi does not come as surprise. Although human rights might not have appealed to policymakers under the transactional President Trump, the fact that India might use the very same military and intelligence support it gets from the United States not just against China but also against Pakistan should raise red flags for the Biden administration. 

Nevertheless, a choice between nationalistic China and nationalistic India hardly comes as a difficult decision for Washington as Beijing poses a threat to American interests in the Indo-Pacific. However, the Biden White House should not forget that Modi’s administration has its own nativistic interests. 

India—supported by a series of nuclear, economic, and military agreements with the United States—and Taiwan with numerous agreements and congressional acts, will eventually intersect their independent foreign policies of the AEP of New Delhi and the NSP of Taipei in the Southeast Asian region. The success of American “facilitative role” in the “gathering place” of India and Taiwan in the Southeast Asia depends largely on the measure of economic dynamism in the United States and its democratic values. In China, Beijing has the BRI as an economic engine, whereas Washington needs to unleash its domestic economic and investment forces and work with its democratic allies and friends to maintain the liberal economic order that has sustained the post-WWII peace and stability in Asia and beyond. 

Nonetheless, the success of U.S. engagement in the Indo-Pacific is as important for its own security and progress as its commitment to supporting India and Taiwan. Although in democratic countries, political platforms periodically change as a result of the next election, American alliances with India and Taiwan are now solidly fortified by numerous legal agreements and congressional acts. Hence, it is clear that American commitment to the Indo-Pacific will remain resolute for at least the next few years.

For a Rebirth of America

Regardless of numerous disagreeable actions of the Trump presidency, the Biden White House has no option but to continue his predecessor’s policy. Biden’s possible withdrawal from a collision course with China has little to do with his administration’s good will. Contrarily, it is all about following agreements that Trump established during his presidency. With the enduring deterrence strategy against China—both in the economic domain and the geostrategic perspective—the Biden White House must continue the previous administration’s policies toward its two key partners in the Indo-Pacific region: India[49] and Taiwan.[50]

But in the context of the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy, the Trump era transactions and agreements should not be perceived as a burden, provided that they are all carried out with strategic calculus. Although blind demonization of China, followed by a purely confrontational approach, is a dead end, it cannot be disputed that China will be America’s biggest challenge of the twenty-first century. Its national interests—whether motivated by geopolitics or grounded in history and ideology—do not intersect with American priorities. The political culture of the Chinese Communist Party leadership seems equally incompatible. 

It is then crucial for the United States to look beyond the most powerful key partners in the Indo-Pacific and to transform the Trump model of treating “small” allies as vassals who need to pay their dues, into a partnership model. Furthermore, the United States should support alliances among its partner countries in the Indo-Pacific by creating conditions which would guarantee safe, unrestrained development of these alliances. None of the Indo-Pacific states would risk an open alliance with the United States against China if not secured by proper treaties and encouraged by economic development prospects. Even so, all of these countries might still keep maneuvering between the United States and China. After all, the Cold War divisions belong to the past; the globalized world is now much more closely and multilaterally connected, making all states depend on one another to a far greater extent than ever before in the human history. 

China’s global power status is already a given, especially with its successful economic recovery from the covid-19 pandemic, whereas most of the world, including the United States and India, faces serious recession and budgetary constraints. It is no longer a question of how to defeat China, but rather, how to make it “coexistable” with the rest of the world by restraining its expansionist ambitions.As the United States wants to regain the upper hand in the Indo-Pacific region, it must define and follow the stated goals of achieving American interests and values in its long-term multidimensional alliance strategy—not only in military and economic domains but also by investing in the field of international “educational exchanges” as an enduring element of building “alliances” and developing “soft power” strategies.[51] Strengthening such direct partnerships with countries like India and Taiwan—as well as supporting alliances and friendships between the like-minded countries of Indo-Pacific—would be a good start to make the world better protected from authoritarian regimes.

[1] The National Security Council, The White House, U.S. Strategic Framework For the Indo-Pacific, Janaury 2021,

[2] Patrick Mendis and Antonina Luszczykiewicz, “To Balance China, Joe Biden should Build upon Trump’s India Strategy,” The National Interest, December 27, 2020,

[3] Patrick Mendis, “Can the United States and the Vatican Help Taiwan to Avoid a War?” The National Interest, October 3, 2020,

[4] Patrick Mendis and Antonina Luszczykiewicz, “Test of Endurance: Why America will Stand by India,” The National Interest, February 28, 2020,

[5]The Reuter Staff, “Carter Says U.S. Will Sail, Fly and Operate Wherever International Law Allows,” The Reuters, October 13, 2015,

[6] Patrick Mendis and Joey Wang, “China’s Art of Strategic Incrementalism in the South China Sea,” The National Interest, August 8, 2020,

[7] Patrick Mendis and Hon-Min Yau, “How the Evolving U.S.-China ‘Tech Cold War’ Helps Taiwan, September 11, 2020, The National Interest

[8] Kurt M. Campbell and Ely Ratner, “The China Reckoning: How Beijing Defied American Expectations,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2018,

[9] Kurt M. Campbell and Jake Sullivan, “Competition Without Catastrophe: How America Can Both Challenge and Coexist With China,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2019,

[10] Steven Jiang and Jessie Yeung, “China’s Top Diplomat Takes Hardline Stance in First Call with New US Secretary of State,” CNN, February 6, 2021,

[11] Office Of the Spokesperson, U.S. Department of State, “Secretary Blinken’s Call with PRC Director Yang,” February 5, 2021,

[12] The National Security Council, The White House, U.S. strategic framework for the Indo-Pacific, Janaury 2021,

[13] Patrick Mendis and Leah Green, “Security for Sale: The Great Game of the U.S. – Indian Civil Nuclear Cooperation Treaty and its Implications for China and Pakistan,” The SAIS European Journal (Johns Hopkins University), April 2, 2012,

[14] Patrick Mendis and Antonina Luszczykiewicz, “What The Timing of the US-India Defense Deal Reveals,” South China Morning Post, October 31, 2020,

[15] Patrick Mendis and Antonina Luszczykiewicz, “To Balance China, Joe Biden Should Build Upon Trump’s India Strategy,” The National Interest, December 27, 2020,

[16] Ibid. 

[17] The National Security Council, The White House, U.S. strategic framework for the Indo-Pacific, Janaury 2021,

[18] Krishn Kaushik and Nirupama Subramanian, “Explained: How does the Indian Army Stay Fighting Fit at LAC in Harsh Winters? The Indian Express, December 5, 2020,

[19] Antonina Luszczykiewicz and Krzysztof Iwanek, “Kung Fu Yoga: A Chinese-Indian Soft Power Romance,” The Diplomat,June 01, 2017,

[20] Peter Petri and Michael Plummer, “RCEP: A New Trade Agreement that will Shape Global Economics and Politics,” The Brookings Institution, November 16, 2020,

[21] Brian Eyler, “How China Turned Off the Tap on the Mekong River,” Stimson Center Research, April 13, 2020,

[22] Navin Singh Khadka, “The China-India Row that Spells Disaster for Flood Victims,” BBC, December 18, 2017,

[23] Antonina Luszczykiewicz, “The China-India Border Conflict: Prospects for War and Peace in the 21st Century” in Security Dilemmas and Challenges in 21st Century Asia, Olga Barbasiewicz, Marcin Grabowski, Ewa Trojnar (eds.), Peter Lang Publisher, Berlin 2020, p. 146.

[24] Catherine Wong and Maria Siow, “Mekong Dam: China Cuts River Flow 50 Per Cent, is Slammed for Lack of Warning,” South China Morning Post, January 9, 2021,

[25] U.S. Congress, “H.R.4331: Tibetan Policy and Support Act of 2019,” 116th Congress 2019-20,

[26] Patrick Mendis, “A Rendezvous with Destiny for Two Unsinkable Aircraft Carriers,” The SAIS Review of International Affairs (Johns Hopkins University), May 21, 2020,

[27] Ibid.

[28] Directorate of Intelligence, “Deng Xiaoping’s Discussion of Taiwan with the President [Ronald Reagan],” Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), April 10, 1984,

[29] Patrick Mendis and Joey Wang, “Would Joe Biden Go to War to Stop a Chinese Invasion of Taiwan?” The National Interest, November 15, 2020,

[30] U.S. Congress,“H.R.535: Taiwan Travel Act,” 115th Congress 2017-18

[31] U.S. Congress,“S.1678: Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act of 2019,” 116th Congress, 2019-20

[32] Ibid.

[33] U.S. Congress,“H.R.2002 – Taiwan Assurance Act of 2019,” 116th Congress 2019-20,

[34] Keoni Everington, “Taiwan Represented st US Presidential Inauguration for 1st Time since 1979,” Taiwan News, January 21, 2021,

[35] Patrick Mendis, “A Rendezvous with Destiny for Two Unsinkable Aircraft Carriers,” The SAIS Review of International Affairs (Johns Hopkins University), May 21, 2020,

[36] Cheng Ting-Fang, Lauly Li, and Michelle Chan, “Taiwan GDP Growth Outpaces China for First Time in Three Decades,”Nikkei Asia, January 29, 2021,

[37] Prashanth Parameswaran, “Modi Unveils India’s ‘Act East Policy’ to ASEAN in Myanmar,” The Diplomat, November 17, 2014,

[38] Saheli Chattaraj, “India’s Act East And Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy Are Win-Win,” Asia Pacific Bulletin, No. 489, Washington, D.C.: East-West Center, October 2, 2019,

[39] Tanvi Madan, “India Opportunity for Taiwan,” The Brookings Institution, The India Project: Perspectives on Taiwan: Insights from the 2018 Taiwan-U.S. Policy Program, April 15, 2019,

[40] Eric Chang, “China Instructs Indian Media How to Report on Taiwan’s National Day,” Taiwan News, October 18, 2020,

[41] Charles Kang, Ko Lin, and Matthew Mazzetta, “Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Thanks India after National Day Spat with China, Focus Taiwan, October 10, 2020,

[42] Laignee Barron“’We Share the Ideals of Democracy.’ How the Milk Tea Alliance Is Brewing Solidarity Among Activists in Asia and Beyond,” Time, October 28, 2020,

[43] The Economist Staff,  „Tea and Tributaries: In No Region ss China’s Influence Felt More Strongly Than in South-East Asia,” The Economist, February 27, 2021.

[44] Foreign Minister Jaushieh Joseph Wu, Tweet, the official account of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of China (Taiwan), October 10, 2020,

[45] The Economic Times Staff, “Air India Changes Taiwan Name to Chinese Taipei on Website,” The Economic Times, Jul 5, 2018,

[46] The Economic Times Staff, “Taiwan to Empower Bengaluru’s Quest to Become a Smart City,” The Economic Times, March 13, 2018,

[47] Patrick Mendis and Hon-Min Yau, “How the Evolving U.S.-China ‘Tech Cold War’ Helps Taiwan, September 11, 2020, The National Interest

[48] The Economist Staff, “India’s Diminishing Democracy: Narendra Modi Threatens to Turn India into a One-party State,” The Economist, November 29, 2020,

[49] Patrick Mendis and Antonina Luszczykiewicz, “To Balance China, Joe Biden Should Build Upon Trump’s India Strategy,” The National Interest, December 27, 2020,

[50] Patrick Mendis Corey Lee Bell, “Leave Donald Trump’s Triumphant Taiwan Policy Alone,” The National Interest, December 12, 2020,

[51] Patrick Mendis and Dominique Reichenbach, “Students Can Save America’s Foreign Policy Agenda,” Harvard International Review, February 8, 2021

Patrick Mendis and Antonina Luszczykiewicz
Patrick Mendis and Antonina Luszczykiewicz

Dr. Patrick Mendis, a former American diplomat and a military professor, is a distinguished visiting professor of culture and diplomacy at the Chinese Culture University in Taiwan. He is the author of Peaceful War: How the Chinese Dream and the American Destiny Create a New Pacific World Order. Dr. Antonina Luszczykiewicz, a faculty member of the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, is a visiting scholar at Tamkang University in Taipei. She is the author of Cultural Heritage of India in the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence and Its Role in China-India Relations, 1954-2014 [in Polish]. Both served as Taiwan fellows of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Republic of China, and are currently affiliated with the Taiwan Center for Security Studies at the National Chengchi University in Taipei. The views expressed in this analysis do not represent the official positions of their current or past affiliations nor governments.