Since the passage of the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979, the policy of the United States with respect to Taiwan has always been one of mutual benefit and understanding. While not officially recognizing the legitimacy of the island’s government, the U.S. annually provides Taiwan arms to defend itself, with the Indo-Pacific nation receiving upwards of $5 billion in military equipment in 2020 alone. This consensus of unofficial relations has allowed Taiwan to prosper as a de facto country, while also permitting the United States to hold official diplomatic relations with the communist government of China.
Since taking office earlier this year, however, President Joe Biden has single-handedly disrupted this long-standing U.S. policy towards Taiwan, with the commander-in-chief’s frequent gaffes and incoherent ramblings sending mixed signals about where his administration stands on questions related to Taiwan’s independence and U.S. defense of the island in the event of a Chinese invasion.
Just last week, the president reignited confusion regarding his administration’s approach towards Taiwan following his virtual summit with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. While speaking to reporters in New Hampshire last Tuesday, Biden said that Taiwan “makes its own decisions,” adding that the island nation is “independent.”
Within a matter of hours, the president retracted his claim, saying “we are not encouraging independence.”
“We’re not going to change our policy at all,” he said. “We’re encouraging them to do exactly what the Taiwan Act requires. That’s what we’re doing. Let them make up their mind. Let them make up their minds, period — Taiwan.”
But this is hardly the first time the Democrat president has flip-flopped on his administration’s Taiwan policy. A similar incident occurred during a CNN town hall last month, when Biden was asked how the United States intends to counter the growing military capabilities of China and if the U.S. would come to Taiwan’s aid if China were to invade the island.
“China, Russia, and the rest of the world knows we have the most powerful military in the history of the world,” he responded. “Don’t worry about whether we’re going to — they’re going to be more powerful. What you do have to worry about is whether or not they’re going to engage in activities that will put them in a position where they may make a serious mistake.”
“I just want to make China understand that we are not going to step back, we are not going to change any of our views,” he added.
When pressed by host Anderson Cooper if he would defend Taiwan against China, Biden responded with “yes, we have a commitment to do that.”
Not even 24 hours later was the statement walked back by a White House official, who told Fox News that Biden “was not announcing any change in our policy.”
“We will uphold our commitment under the [Taiwan Relations Act], we will continue to support Taiwan’s self-defense, and we will continue to oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo,” the representative said.
The comments from Biden also provoked a response from China, with a spokesman from the country’s Foreign Ministry telling the state-run Global Times that “no one should underestimate the strong resolve, determination and capability of the Chinese people to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity” and that “China has no room for compromise.”
While seemingly innocent verbal fumbles, Biden’s sporadic comments on U.S.-Taiwan policy are actually playing into the hands of the Chinese Communist Party. Viewing Taiwan as a breakaway province, China has long sought to undermine the relationship between the United States and Taiwan by casting America as an undependable ally. Following the Biden administration’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan this past summer, for instance, the communist nation’s state-run media began issuing warnings to Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and “secessionist forces,” arguing that the U.S. would not intervene on Taiwan’s behalf “once” Beijing launches an assault on the island.
“From what happened in Afghanistan, they should perceive that once a war breaks out in the Straits, the island’s defense will collapse in hours and the US military won’t come to help,” the Global Times’ editorial board wrote. “As a result, the DPP authorities will quickly surrender, while some high-level officials may flee by plane.”
“The best choice for the DPP authorities is to avoid pushing the situation to that position. They need to change their course of bonding themselves to the anti-Chinese mainland chariot of the US. They should keep cross-Straits peace with political means, rather than acting as strategic pawns of the US and bear the bitter fruits of a war,” the board added.
While Taiwan has largely brushed off such rhetoric and embraced its relationship with the United States, Biden’s blunders don’t exactly instill confidence where it’s needed. Coupled with the White House invariably having to walk back or clarify his statements regarding Taiwan, Biden’s approach to cross-Strait relations demonstrates a U.S. administration that is unable to project a solid and consistent policy towards the island nation, all the while providing China with more ammo to cripple Taiwan’s confidence in the United States.
If such significant errors persist, China will become emboldened in its mission to reclaim Taiwan and likely expand its military operations near and around Taiwan. Such an escalation wouldn’t just endanger the security of Taiwan, but also that of regional allies like Japan and South Korea.
If Biden and his administration seek to maintain the “status quo” established under the Taiwan Relations Act, then defining such a policy and standing behind it remains vital. Continuously flip-flopping on the issue will not only damage and undermine the credibility of U.S. leadership, but it will also provide China with all the confidence it needs to seize Taiwan and advance its goal of dominance in the Indo-Pacific region.