When it comes to President Biden and Taiwan, a confusing pattern has been created. It was repeated in Tokyo on Monday.
Is it really nothing? Taiwan, a self-governing island that Beijing claims, is not only diplomatically recognized by the United States but also works closely with Washington. And so, for decades, the United States has maintained a cautious policy of “strategic ambiguity” that allows the United States to be deliberately ambiguous on the question of Taiwan’s defense, even though it enjoys an otherwise close relationship, including arms sales.
Yet, just nine months apart, Biden has said at least three times that the United States will defend Taiwan in the event of an attack. Although administrative officials have backed away from these statements three times, in the midst of rising tensions with Beijing, it is reasonable to wonder whether the ambiguity has begun to thin out a bit.
Here are three theories about what Biden’s comments mean.
One of the simplest explanations is that every time he spoke of defending Taiwan, Biden was wrong. This would be an understandable mistake: Taiwan’s policy is complex, wrapped in lingo that often only those who closely track the issue seem to understand. And Biden’s comments about the US deal with Taiwan often seem to be wrong in practice.
During a visit to Tokyo on Monday, Biden, for example, was asked if the United States would defend Taiwan militarily if China invaded. He replied bluntly: “Yes, that’s what we’re committed to.” This echoes the 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 protect Taiwan.
In a previous interview with ABC News last August, Biden suggested that the United States has committed to protecting Taiwan under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which guarantees joint defense. “We made a solemn promise in Article 5 that if anyone attacked or took action against our NATO allies, we would retaliate. Same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with Taiwan. It’s not like we’re talking about it, “Biden said in an interview following the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.
But the United States has no formal requirement to protect Taiwan.
The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which provides for informal but de facto relations with Taiwan, does not call on the United States to defend Taiwan in the event of war. The agreement makes no military commitment to protect Taiwan, but specifically states that “the United States will provide Taiwan with the amount of defense articles and defense services it may need to enable Taiwan to maintain adequate self-defense capabilities.”
There is more informal understanding of Beijing’s “one China” policy. Here, the United States acknowledges Beijing’s position that there is only one China, but also says that Taiwan’s fate should not be determined by force. But Biden also made a misleading mistake in his remarks here, suggesting that the United States “signed [the One China Policy] And all the attendant agreements made from there, ”while Shanghai Communications between Washington and Beijing only acknowledges the Chinese position.
2. There is a new policy.
Biden is unlikely to be the first U.S. official to confuse Taiwan policy. He is not even the only person in his administration who can do that. But his remarks have now been repeated enough that many are not buying it as just a mistake.
Some China-observers say that at the moment, it is better to assume that Biden is signaling a new policy. Bill Bishop, author of the popular China-centric newsletter Sinosism, Tweet The tactical ambiguity that seemed “dead” on Monday has become “obviously not Gaffes” – especially if you’re China’s Xi Jinping.
“Strategic ambiguity is over. Strategic precision here. This is the third time Biden has spoken about this. Good. China should welcome it. Washington is helping Beijing not to miscalculate, “wrote Georgetown professor Matthew Croening. In his own tweet.
The key point of this theory is to remember that Biden is President: If he said that the United States would defend Taiwan if China invaded, you would assume that it would. And Taiwanese officials have called on Biden to remove the ambiguity: In a 2020 interview with Today’s Worldview Newsletter, Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to the United States called for “some degree of clarity.”
But the idea has been undermined by a new policy that has been repeatedly denied by other officials in the administration. On Monday, a White House official told reporters that people were misinterpreting Biden’s remarks and that he was reiterating his 1979 pledge to support Taiwan militarily in self-defense.
3. This is the old policy, including a new spin.
For this reason, perhaps the most persuasive idea about Biden’s remarks is that it is still “strategic ambiguity”, with only a new, harder spin.
This is especially understandable when you consider the context: Biden was speaking in Japan to launch the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, a new initiative of a dozen countries formed as a barrier against China. Significantly, Taiwan was not included in the structure, despite a written request for a bipartisan majority of 52 senators. It must be a founding member.
The move to exclude Taiwan was widely interpreted as a compromise in Beijing’s interests. But Biden’s comments about Taiwan can be interpreted as a warning. Biden said Monday that although he did not expect China to invade Taiwan, Beijing was “already flirting with danger.”
Lev Nachman, a postdoctoral fellow at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University, Wrote on Twitter that while Biden’s language Was inexperienced, it was not contrary to any policy. “The strategic ambiguity is that under what circumstances would the United States intervene in the war against Taiwan, not to refuse to respond if it did intervene,” Nachman argued.
Other presidents have their own views on how difficult the idea of military support is for Taiwan; Both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations Thin veiled warnings have been issued Near Beijing about the Taiwan invasion. But despite his publicly hostile anti-China rhetoric, President Donald Trump has offered slightly stronger support for Taiwan and is reported to have personally taken a dim view of US support for Taiwan’s aggression.
“If they attack, we can’t do anything about it,” he told an unnamed Republican senator in 2019, according to a book. My Washington Post colleague Josh Rogin published last year.
If true, Biden’s remarks could be an attempt to remind China that the threat of military intervention could be real. It’s still a policy built on ambiguity, with a little more strategy to back it up.