During a press conference in Tokyo on Monday, President Joe Biden told reporters that if China were to ever attack Taiwan, the United States would be ready and willing to help defend the tiny island nation. The remark made global headlines as it seemed to break with decades of U.S. policy.
But what, exactly, should we make of it? Was Biden just pulling yet another Biden, accidentally opening his mouth and speaking a bit too cavalierly on an issue requiring subtle sensitivity? Or did he deliberately unfurl a new policy? And was it a good or bad thing if he did?
As is often the case with such incidents, the answers are unclear. Biden’s remarks may have been calculated or careless. The consequences could be damaging or beneficial or both. Either way, they have added another element of uncertainty to, U.S.-Taiwan relations, a uniquely head-twisting g hall of mirrors in the funhouse of American foreign policy.
Biden’s remark came in response to a reporter’s question about a possible Chinese attack on Taiwan. Biden replied that policy “has not changed at all”—the U.S. and Japan “stand firmly…with other nations not to let that happen.” Then, in a followup, a reporter noted that Biden had ruled out direct U.S. military involvement in Ukraine, and asked whether he was “willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that.”
“Yes,” Biden replied. “That’s the commitment we made.”
In fact, we have made no such commitment. We once did, a long time ago, between1954 and 1979, but then came a major shift. The U.S., like most of the rest of the world, transferred formal diplomatic relations from Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, to Beijing, the capital of the People’s Republic of China, recognizing the PRC as the sole Chinese government (what the PRC called the “One China” principle). However, also in 1979, and in just as important a measure, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, declaring that the U.S. “shall provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character” and “maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or social or economic system, of the people of Taiwan.”
This dual policy came to be dubbed “strategic ambiguity.” We “acknowledge” Beijing’s position as the “One China” but don’t quite “endorse” it. We retain diplomatic, commercial, and other relations with Taiwan—we even sell it advanced weapons systems and dispatch special forces to train its military—without addressing the question of whether Taiwan has “sovereignty.” We are committed to helping Taiwan defend itself from attack, but don’t say whether we would get involved directly.
The aim of this loose yet tangled web is to keep the peace. It is designed to avoid challenging China’s claims about its rightful territory, while still pledging to assist Taiwan if China tries to press its claim on the tiny island-nation forcefully, without quite saying just how far we would go to help.
In recent years, as China has strengthened its military and expanded its presence in the South China Sea, some conservatives have called for a switch from “strategic ambiguity” to a policy of “strategic clarity,” where the U.S. would pledge to defend Taiwan outright in the case of an attack. The Biden administration, like all administrations before it, has resisted this pressure, saying it could provoke Beijing to take aggressive moves or encourage ultra-nationalists in Taiwan to declare outright independence, which would certainly prod Beijing to up its aggression.
However, Biden’s remarks in Tokyo seemed to shift away from strategic ambiguity. It wasn’t the first time. In September, at a CNN Town Hall, he was asked whether the U.S. would defend Taiwan from attack and replied, “Yes, we have a commitment to do that.” Again, we in fact have no such commitment to do that. Even more off-script, in an ABC-News interview in August, he said “we would respond” if there was a military attack on a NATO ally,
adding, “Same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with Taiwan.” In fact, though the U.S. does have treaty obligations to respond with force to attacks on NATO, Japan, and South Korea, it has no such treaty when it comes to Taiwan.
Hours after each of these cases—in August, in September, and this past Monday—the White House issued a “clarifying” statement, noting that U.S. policy had not changed. Biden himself affirmed on Tuesday, standing alongside other Asian allies, who had assembled for a conference, that the policy of strategic ambiguity “has not changed at all.”
But is that true? Biden is the president. Three times in the past nine months, he has made statements about U.S. security guarantees toward Taiwan that differ quite a bit from the tenets of strategic ambiguity. As Hal Brands, professor of global affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School for Advanced International Studies, wrote in Bloomberg News on Monday, “Once is a gaffe. Three times is a policy.”
Does the U.S. now have, in effect, a new policy? Either way, wouldn’t the leaders of China, Taiwan, and other Asian countries have good reason to believe that U.S. policy has changed? Brands thinks so—and, further, thinks it’s a good thing. If Chinese President Xi Jinping believes the U.S. would take action in response to an attack on Taiwan, that would further deter Xi from attacking in the first place.
However, Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund, isn’t so sure. To the contrary, she thinks Biden’s confusing signals might be dangerous. “People say, ‘This is good, it will deter China,’ but how do we know that?” Glaser said in a phone conversation Tuesday. “Maybe Xi will see this as challenging Beijing’s core interests and be moved to attack Taiwan sooner.” She notes that Chinese domestic politics are opaque, adding, “Xi is under great pressure, with the economy, with COVID. It’s not clear Biden’s statements would intimidate him. They could just aggravate his pressures.”
Glaser sees “strategic ambiguity” and “strategic clarity” not as opposites but as two points along a spectrum. She sees Biden’s comments as reflecting a move away from “ambiguity,” and, in some respects, she supports the move. “China’s buildup of military forces and threats do warrant a strengthening of our posture,” she said.
However, she doesn’t like the way Biden is moving the policy, if he’s deliberately moving it at all. “It’s not delivered as a change in policy,” she told me. “There has been no discussion of the policy in interagency” meetings of the National Security Council. “And we can’t ignore all the inaccuracies about what our policy is. It leads to strategic confusion.”
The irony is that, in all other respects, the Biden administration’s policy toward China—a mix of engagement and confrontation, all through joint action with major allies—is fairly sound and strategically well considered. Biden is in Asia this week to revive a regional trade pact that President Trump had torpedoed; and while the new pact isn’t quite the Trans-Pacific Partnership (in part because labor and environmental groups, elements of the Democratic Party’s base, aren’t keen about the TPP either), it does at least bolster U.S. leadership role—its interests and its ideals—in the region.
Taiwan has long been a sizzling anomaly—a teardrop-shaped island slightly larger than the state of Maryland but jammed with four times as many people (24 million, 80 percent of them in cities), dangling 100 miles off the coast of southeastern China yet also a bustling high-tech capitalist economy with a GDP-per-capita that’s the 13th richest in the world. A Pentagon report last fall spelled out many reasons why China would have a hard time conquering Taiwan in an invasion. Its military, which hasn’t fought a war since its border clash with Vietnam 1979 (and didn’t do so well in that one), has few amphibious vessels, scant training, and little sense of combined-arms operations. Besides, Taiwan’s coastline is very craggy, and Taiwan’s army is well trained in resistance tactics.
At the same time, China’s air force and navy have built up enormous assets to keep other powers—such as the United States—away from its coastline, and Xi, like many PRC leaders before him, has long held the reoccupation of Taiwan as a key strategic goal. As a result, U.S.-Chinese tensions have always jagged up and down in parallel with worries about the security of Taiwan. It may be time for the United States to define more clearly—or at least to discuss more openly—how far we are willing to go to protect Taiwan. There are good reasons for a certain amount of strategic ambiguity, but not when it drifts into a muddled self-contradiction, as we seem to be doing now.