There is a confusing pattern with how President Biden interacts with Taiwan. He did it again in Tokyo on Monday.
The American president is asked if the United States would intervene militarily if China invaded Taiwan. The President responds with, “yes.” The world then panics, wondering if this means that America’s policy has changed. The White House confirms that there has been no change and it is all just a misunderstanding.
Taiwan is an island that Beijing claims and does not diplomatically recognize, although the United States has worked closely with them for years and does not recognize the sovereignty of China over Taiwan. Furthermore, the United States continues to purposefully withhold information on what it would do in the event of a cross-strait invasion or if Taiwan declares independence, for fear of angering China or being drawn into another war.
Biden has said three times over the past nine months that the United States would defend Taiwan if it were invaded. Though government officials have said three times that these quotes were misquoted, due to heightened tensions with Beijing, it is reasonable to wonder if this ambiguity is starting to wear thin.
Here are three theories about what Biden meant by his remarks.
1.They are imperfect.
When Joe Biden says he will defend Taiwan, he is usually mis-speaking. It’s likely just an understandable mistake: Taiwan policy is complicated and the language used by experts can be difficult to understand. His remarks about US agreements with Taiwan often appear to be incorrect when they are not.
When visiting Tokyo on Monday, for example, Biden was asked if the United States would defend Taiwan militarily if China invaded. He responded directly: “Yes, that’s the commitment we made.” This directly echoes remarks he made in a town hall interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper in October when he told the host that the United States had made a “commitment” to protecting Taiwan.
In latest interview with ABC News last August, Biden appeared to suggest that the United States had a commitment to protect Taiwan similar to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty that guarantees collective self-defense. “We made a sacred commitment to Article 5 that if in fact anyone were to invade or take action against our NATO allies, we would respond. Same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with — Taiwan. It’s not even comparable to talk about that,” Biden said in an interview, which took place during the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan.
But the United States is not required to defend Taiwan under international law.
The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which outlines US policy towards Taiwan, is not a military treaty. It does not include any military commitments to defend it in the event of war, instead stating specifically that “the United States will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain sufficient self-defense capabilities.”
The United States has acknowledged China’s position that there is only one China, but also said that Taiwan’s fate should not be decided by force. In his speech here, Biden made a confusing error, suggesting that the US had “signed onto this policy, and all subsequent agreements are made from this one.”when the Shanghai Communique only takes China’s point of view.
Biden is not the only U.S. official to make a gaffe about Taiwan policy. He was not the first either. But his comments have now been repeated enough that many do not think it was just a mistake.
This can be reworded in a more flowing way: Some China-watchers say that, at this point, it’s best to just assume that Biden is signaling a new policy. Bill Bishop, author of the popular China-focused newsletter Sinocism, tweeted Monday that strategic ambiguity looked “dead” and that it has become “obvious they are not gaffes” — particularly if you are Xi Jinping.
Professor Matthew Kroenig wrote: “Strategic ambiguity is over. Strategic clarity is here. This is the third time Biden has said this. Good. China should welcome this. Washington is helping Beijing to not miscalculate” in his own tweet.
This key to this theory is remembering that Biden is president. If he says that the United States would protect Taiwan if China was invaded, Taiwan would assume they would do what they say. The Taiwanese had been asking the U.S officials to clear up uncertainty, so when Biden was interviewed in 2020 and said the United States could stand by its warnings about violence against Taiwan, it should be seen as him being more committed to protecting them.
The idea is undermined by the repeated denials that a new policy is in place from other administration officials. On Monday, a White House official told reporters that people were misinterpreting Biden’s comments. He was simply reiterating the 1979 pledge made to support Taiwan with the military means for self-defense.
3.They’ve updated their old policy, with some new additions.
One of the most convincing explanations for the arguments in Biden’s comments about neutrality is that this is a form of strategic ambiguity, just with a more abrasive edge.
Speaking in Japan for the launch of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, Biden said it made most sense when you considered the context. Notably, Taiwan has not been offered a place in the framework, despite a bipartisan majority of 52 senators writing to ask that it be a founding member.
The exclusion of Taiwan from the trade agreement was an appeasement to Beijing’s interests. However, Biden’s comments about Taiwan could be seen as a warning. Biden said on Monday that though he does not expect China to invade Taiwan, Beijing is “flirting with danger.”
Lev Nachman, a scientist at Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, said on Twitter that while Biden’s language was clumsy, it was not a reversal of any policy. “Strategic ambiguity is about under what conditions the US would intervene in a war over Taiwan; not a flat-out refusal to answer if they would intervene,” Lev argued.
Other presidents have had their own views on how hard to push the idea of military support for Taiwan; both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations offered thinly veiled warnings to Beijing about invading Taiwan. But despite fierce anti-China rhetoric in public, President Donald Trump offered little firm support for Taiwan and is reported to have privately taken a dim view of U.S. support in that regard.
A Republican senator reportedly told an unnamed member in 2019, “If they invade, there isn’t a thing we can do about it,” according to a book that was published last year.
If Biden’s comments are accurate, they could be a reminder to the Chinese government that threat of military intervention is still very real.