"It was traumatic," said a former aide to Tsai, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a private meeting.
Today, roles have reversed. Weighing the possibility of a Democratic victory in the U.S. presidential election, current and former officials in the Taiwanese government and Tsai's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) have privately expressed concern that a return of Obama-era foreign policy advisers in a potential Biden administration could mean a U.S. approach that is more conciliatory toward China compared with the Trump administration's — and less supportive of Taiwan. Others play down those fears, citing supportive statements by Democratic candidate Joe Biden and a profound shift in U.S.-China ties.
The three-way relationship among the United States, China and Taiwan is potentially explosive and figures prominently in the calculus for every U.S. president's China policy. China claims Taiwan, a self-ruled democracy, as territory that it will one day bring under its control and has signaled it could go to war if Taipei were to cross certain red lines, such as formally declaring independence.
'A lot of concern here'
Although Democratic and Republican administrations have favored a cautious approach to cross-strait relations in recent decades, President Trump shattered diplomatic norms, increased travel and exchanges with Taiwanese officials and elevated the island's international profile in ways that have drawn praise from the DPP and saber-rattling from Beijing under President Xi Jinping.
Trump has also approved weapons sales to Taiwan totaling more than $15 billion, including coveted F-16 jets that frustrated Taiwanese hawks say Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush withheld.
The November election is "a big, big uncertainty," said Lai I-chung, president of the Prospect Foundation think tank and former DPP foreign policy director.
"It seems Jake Sullivan and Tony Blinken still view Taiwan as a problem that needs to be handled within the greater U.S.-China relationship. And what has Susan Rice written about China or Taiwan?" Lai said, ticking off a few Obama administration officials who could return to prominent roles. "The lack of the deeper understanding on the issue of Taiwan by Biden advisers is something that causes a lot of concern here."
The Biden campaign declined to discuss specific individuals. But advisers said Biden, as president, would compete with China by strengthening U.S. worker competitiveness, restoring the United States' global image and alliances, and assessing the world as a fresh administration in January rather than reverting to Obama-era positions by default.
"There's no question that China has changed significantly in the last few years," said Biden foreign policy adviser Jeffrey Prescott, who served on Obama's National Security Council. "I think some of those changes have been to take advantage of the weakness of the Trump administration. Some of them are reflective of Xi Jinping's approach to governance. A Biden administration would necessarily take account of those changes."
Prescott objected to the "revisionist history" that characterized Obama's administration as softer on China. Before Trump, Obama was the president who shifted U.S. focus and defense resources to Asia, and "the vice president was right in the middle of those strategic decisions," he said.
Other Biden advisers say that Tsai has held productive meetings with core figures such as Blinken and that there is little disagreement in their circles about Taiwan's importance.
In an op-ed on Oct. 22 in the Taiwanese-owned World Journal, the largest Chinese-language newspaper in the United States, Biden said he would "stand with friends and allies" in Asia. "That includes deepening our ties with Taiwan, a leading democracy, major economy, technology powerhouse — and a shining example of how an open society can effectively contain covid-19," Biden wrote.
Shifting sands in Washington
Officially, Taiwan's government has stressed that it does not favor any candidate. "No matter which party in the United States wins the election, the Taiwanese government will continue to steadily deepen the Taiwan-U.S. partnership on its currently robust and sound foundations," Taiwan's Foreign Ministry said in a statement, pledging to maintain neutrality.
But observers have noted Taiwanese government Twitter accounts sharing an article from the right-wing Breitbart news site and, on Tuesday, retweeting first lady Melania Trump's post appealing to the battleground state of Pennsylvania.
When Tsai was inaugurated for a second term in May, editors compiling a video montage of congratulatory messages cut Democrats and added emphasis on Republican well-wishers such as Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.), said two people familiar with the matter. The result was striking enough that Taiwanese officials later apologized to Democrats, one of the people said.
Taiwanese support for Trump extends beyond the government. October polls by YouGov showed Taiwan to be the only one out of 15 European and Asian states that favored Trump over Biden. Prominent Taiwanese bloggers and pundits who criticize the president as eroding U.S. institutions and global standing are frequently attacked by swarms of "chuan fen" — Trump fans — who argue the Chinese Communist Party presents a greater existential threat.
Despite professing uncertainty, Taiwanese officials say they are hopeful the consensus view in Washington, particularly on Capitol Hill, has fundamentally shifted over the past four years in light of President Xi's crackdowns on dissent in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and elsewhere and his assertive diplomatic posture in Asia and Europe.
One Taiwanese official noted, half-jokingly, that Rice, who was Obama's national security adviser and was once regarded as a moderate voice on China, has locked horns on Twitter with Zhao Lijian, a combative Chinese "wolf warrior" diplomat who became Foreign Ministry spokesman.
"We don't know yet the key members of Biden's national security team, so we don't know whether it will be a big shift or small shift, but it won't be a drastic shift," said Lo Chih-cheng, a DPP lawmaker who heads the "USA Caucus." "In Washington, the idea of engagement with China is passe — it's dead."
Building bridges with Democrats
After the 2011 snub by Obama aides, DPP officials said the party invested heavily in wooing Democrats rather than begrudging them. They have sought to remake their party's image in Washington as unreliable or reckless. That image largely stemmed from 2003, when the previous DPP president, Chen Shui-bian, exasperated the White House by pushing a referendum that could have paved the way for a potential declaration of independence — and plunged the Taiwan Strait into crisis.
In 2013, the DPP opened an office in Washington and dispatched Tsai confidants, including Joseph Wu and David Lee, the current foreign minister and presidential chief of staff, to woo Democrats and Republicans. More recently, Taiwan's new envoy to Washington, Bi-khim Hsiao, has ramped up outreach efforts to the Democrats as she has sought to sound out how certain advisers in Biden's circle would influence China policy, according to people familiar with the meetings.
Hsiao has a years-long friendship with Biden adviser and veteran diplomat Kurt Campbell and has relationships with former senior Obama administration officials Michèle Flournoy and Avril Haines — all of whom are seen as supportive of Taiwan. But she and other representatives from friendly governments have not been able to meet with some core members of Biden's team, because of a campaign policy to limit its exposure to undue foreign influence, something that dogged Trump's 2016 campaign.
Kharis Templeman, an adviser at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, said Tsai has had the difficult task of balancing relations between the Democrats and Republicans — as well as between the United States and the People's Republic of China (PRC).
In recent weeks leading up to the election, Tsai has appeared to refrain from drawing even closer to the Trump administration and has struck a conciliatory note toward Beijing, Templeman said.
"Tsai has been glad to take what the Trump administration has given her, but she hasn't put all her eggs in the Republican basket," Templeman said. "If anything, she's been the most stable corner of the U.S.-PRC-Taiwan triangle."