Three times as president, Joe Biden has said the U.S. would defend Taiwan if China invades the island, and each time his staff argued he wasn’t changing long-standing U.S. policy to keep Beijing guessing about U.S. intentions. His fourth time makes that much harder to do.
In comments to “60 Minutes” on Sunday, Biden left no doubt where he stood, saying the U.S. would commit military forces in the event of an “unprecedented attack” by China. Pressed if that would involve U.S. men and women — unlike in Ukraine, where Biden has ruled out sending American forces — he said “yes.”
A spokeswoman again insisted that policy toward the island hadn’t changed. But with the U.S. stance toward China hardening more broadly, it was difficult to see Biden’s comments as anything other than a refutation of decades of so-called “strategic ambiguity” in which the U.S. declined to make its intentions clear.
The consequences of such a policy would be significant, raising the question yet again of whether Biden sought to chart a new strategy or was simply expressing his own beliefs. Even more jarring was that Biden went further. He said decisions about independence are up to Taiwan. Historically, U.S. policy has been not to support Taiwanese independence.
Knowing they have U.S. military backing, Taiwan’s leaders could move closer to independence — an explicit red line for Beijing to invade. Countries in the region will likely bridle, wary of the possibility of a war on their doorstep. And U.S. allies like Japan or South Korea will almost certainly be made more uneasy knowing that U.S. bases on their soil would be involved in any conflict — a fact that risks pulling them into a war as well.
“Such comments will do more to feed Beijing’s sense of urgency than they will bolster deterrence,” said Jessica Chen Weiss, professor of China and Asia-Pacific Studies at Cornell University.
“Not supporting Taiwan independence is longstanding U.S. policy,” Weiss said. “But this new combination — a pledge to send troops and the statement that decisions about independence are Taiwan’s to make — suggests an unconditional U.S. defense commitment, one that will strengthen perceptions that the U.S. is issuing Taiwan a blank check.”
Some White House officials expressed exasperation about questions surrounding Biden’s remarks, refusing to parse them or engage in debate about whether they reflect the change in policy that analysts, Chinese officials and lawmakers believe they do.
“The president’s remarks speak for themselves,” Kurt Campbell, the White House National Security Council’s Indo-Pacific coordinator, said at an event hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “I do think our policy has been consistent and it’s unchanged, and we’ll continue. Our primary goal is to maintain peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, to secure and stabilize the status quo, to make sure that there is a healthy dialogue and discussion.”
Either way, China views the White House statements and congressional action like Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan — the first by a U.S. house speaker in 25 years — as a shift in the status quo that requires a stronger response from Beijing. Over the past few months, Chinese officials have accused the U.S. of incremental “salami-slicing tactics” to cross Beijing’s red line over Taiwan and vowed to take action as necessary.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in a meeting Monday in New York that issues related to Taiwan should be properly managed, according to a statement on the ministry’s website.
“Better lose a thousand troops than an inch of land,” Wang said in the meeting, using an old Chinese saying.
Taiwan has avoided any moves toward formal independence that could provoke a Chinese invasion, with President Tsai Ing-wen saying last month the island wants to maintain the status quo in the strait. She has previously said Taiwan doesn’t need to declare independence, because the island is already a de facto state.
One person familiar with the matter, who asked not to be identified discussing Biden’s remarks, described them as a new take on strategic ambiguity — the president reaffirmed existing U.S. policy and said there’s no formal defense commitment, but also said he’d go to war under certain scenarios.
Some Biden officials have said privately that the president personally believes the U.S. should defend Taiwan militarily. But they also know he’s cognizant of the history of U.S. policy toward the self-governed island and why it’s guided the U.S.-China relationship for so long.
Whatever the truth, there’s no question that U.S. policy toward Taiwan has become far more hawkish as tensions with China have grown. Last week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted to approve legislation that would pledge more support for Taiwan. And a succession of U.S. lawmakers have taken advantage of the attention to visit Taiwan, infuriating Beijing.
No visit was more inflammatory than that of Pelosi, who landed in Taipei in August. Afterward, Beijing staged unprecedented military exercises in the waters around the island, and has continued to send warplanes on provocative flight paths in the Taiwan Strait.
Biden isn’t the first president to publicly wrestle with U.S.-Taiwan policy, or the first to have his aides try to clean up his remarks. Former President Donald Trump’s aides repeatedly argued that their boss didn’t know what U.S. policy was — toward Russia or North Korea or myriad other issues, including Taiwan. Trump violated protocol in 2016 by accepting a congratulatory call from Tsai upon his election.
While Taiwan has long been a minefield, making Biden’s remarks all the more startling is that he himself called out a previous president for purportedly shifting U.S. policy. Asked in 2001 if the U.S. would use its military to respond to a Chinese invasion, President George W. Bush answered: “Whatever it took.”
Biden wrote an opinion piece in The Washington Post calling Bush’s remark a “startling new commitment.”
Biden’s own commitment to defend Taiwan underscores the crucial strategic role the island plays for the U.S. economically as the source of half the world’s microchips. But also strategically, it’s a foothold of democracy in the region.
There’s growing consensus among White House officials that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s views on Taiwan will only harden after the 20th Party Congress this year and that he could be more willing to forcibly unify the island with the mainland, people familiar with the internal deliberations said. While the administration has privately stressed that Taiwan is not part of the bilateral relationship with Beijing, officials in Washington know that China has a different opinion on the matter.
There is meanwhile growing frustration in Congress with the administration’s back-and-forth over Taiwan policy. Bob Menendez, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he doesn’t understand why the White House is pushing back on certain aspects of the Taiwan Policy Act, which would formally designate the island a “major non-NATO ally,” given Biden has repeatedly said he would send U.S. troops if China invaded.
“That’s why I think it’s crazy that they’ve pushed back on our bill,” Menendez said. “That why I think some of my colleagues are off base when they’re worried about the changing ambiguity. The president has said what he said.”
Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, meanwhile, noted the White House walked back Biden’s comment yet again.
“I think that’s the right posture — strategic ambiguity — and I think we’re wise not to be provocative,” he said.
Some outside analysts, however, believe that a clearer and harder U.S. stance regarding a Chinese attack on Taiwan will help deter Beijing.
“Ironically, strategic ambiguity routinely awarded Beijing’s bad behavior and legitimized the Chinese Communist Party at the expense of Taiwan’s liberal and responsible government,” said Ian Easton, senior director at the Project 2049 Institute in Virginia.
“Beijing will continue acting provocatively, but the odds of a radical miscalculation and nightmare scenario have just been greatly reduced,” he said.
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