During his first trip to Asia as the U.S. president, Joe Biden said the U.S. military would defend Taiwan if China invaded the island. His comment became headline news worldwide as many interpreted it as a significant U.S. foreign policy change.
Yet, as so often, White House officials immediately clarified the president’s comment and insisted that there was no U.S. policy change regarding Taiwan. This is the third time White House staff have backpedaled after President Biden’s comments on Taiwan.
In an interview with ABC News in August and at a CNN town hall event in October 2021, Biden made similar comments, suggesting the United States would defend Taiwan against China. Each time, senior administration officials immediately contradicted Biden by stating that the U.S. government’s policy concerning Taiwan “has not changed.”
Such contradictions have raised questions, including who is in charge of U.S. policy on Taiwan and what that policy is. The lack of clarity on these questions is precarious, and not just for the future of Taiwan.
Historically, the U.S. government has followed a policy of “strategic ambiguity” created by the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. That doesn’t guarantee the U.S. defense of Taiwan in the event of Communist China’s invasion, but it doesn’t rule out U.S. involvement in defending Taiwan either.
China’s Clear Views on Taiwan
In contrast to Washington’s ambiguity, Communist China has always been crystal clear about its intention toward Taiwan. Beijing insists there is one China led by the Communist Party and that Taiwan is a province of China. Beijing has vowed that it will never allow Taiwan to become independent. China’s current leader Xi Jinping sees the “reunification” with Taiwan as a legacy that he will make happen by any means necessary, including the use of force.
Under Xi’s leadership, Communist China has made astonishing progress in military preparations for a possible invasion of Taiwan. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has built the world’s largest navy, measured by fleet size. China constructed artificial islands in the South China Sea and militarized some of them with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, laser and jamming equipment, and fighter jets. Clearly, China intends to use these militarized islands to disrupt any foreign military aid to Taiwan in the event of invasion.
With growing military power, China has increased pressure on Taiwan. Since 2020, the PLA has sent military aircraft into Taiwan’s Air Defense Zone, sometimes on a weekly or even a daily basis. Additionally, the PLA has conducted several military exercises near Taiwan, with the most recent one earlier this month. Each exercise amounted to a full-scale rehearsal of an invasion of Taiwan. The U.S. government said the PLA’s provocation is “destabilizing, risks miscalculations, and undermines regional peace and stability.”
So far, China’s military intimidation of Taiwan has been counter-productive. Polls show that most Taiwanese don’t identify as “Chinese” and don’t favor reunification with the mainland. Still, everyone recognizes that Taiwan can’t defend itself against China’s invasion on its own.
Calls to Abandon ‘Strategic Ambiguity’
After Russia invaded Ukraine in February this year, many observers believed China’s Xi might be motivated to attack Taiwan while the Russian military was keeping the West occupied. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, warned that “an invasion of Taiwan could happen within this decade.” He introduced a bill recently to “increase coordination between the U.S. and Taiwanese militaries to ensure Taiwan is equipped to defend against an attack and invasion by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).”
The calls for the United States to abandon “strategic ambiguity” and offer Taiwan an explicit security guarantee have grown louder. Many pointed to China’s military buildup, the expansion in the South China Sea, the brutal crackdown on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, and its increasing military pressures on Taiwan as evidence that China’s aggression has become a threat to the peace and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific region, affecting the U.S. and its allies’ interests and security.
Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is one who has made this argument. He called on the Biden administration to abandon the U.S. government’s long-held “strategic ambiguity” position on Taiwan and clarify that the United States would intervene if China invaded the island. Abe argued that “strategic clarity” is the best deterrence strategy to prevent China from going to war with the United States and its allies over Taiwan.
Biden Administration Creating Confusion
Yet the Biden administration so far has created more confusion domestically and internationally rather than presenting any strategic clarity. Since day one, the Biden administration has stated it would continue the “strategic ambiguity” policy toward Taiwan. But President Biden publicly declared several times that the U.S. military would help defend Taiwan in a Chinese invasion. Each time, senior administration officials immediately walked back Biden’s comments as if he never meant what he said.
There are three possible explanations. It could be that Biden’s comments were indeed blunders, and there is no change of U.S. policy on Taiwan. It could also be that he did mean what he said, but his staff simply undermined his authority publicly to avoid antagonizing China.
The third explanation is that the Biden administration has yet to formulate a clear China policy. It probably feels a bipartisan pressure to defend Taiwan but is war-weary and doesn’t want to actually go to war with China. All of these explanations are dangerous, for three reasons.
First, it signals to Beijing that U.S. political leadership is weak and has neither the ability nor the will to confront China. Second, it doesn’t build confidence among U.S. allies. The Biden administration’s policy confusion and perceived weakness may even convince some allies and partners to switch to China’s side.
Third, the Biden administration’s policy confusion and perceived weakness have increased the risk of a conflict with China rather than deterring China. China’s Xi may decide that the best time to invade Taiwan is when the United States is led by an aging politician who often appears confused. Xi can certainly strengthen his argument to his generals by pointing to America’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Richard Haass warned that “Historically, uncertainty regarding the other side’s intentions has often been a major driver of instability and conflict.” Therefore, to increase geopolitical stability and minimize the risk of conflict with China, the Biden administration must stop creating misunderstandings and confusion regarding its foreign policy concerning Taiwan.
If Biden wants to continue the traditional “strategic ambiguity” policy, he must avoid making any explicit commitment to defending Taiwan when asked. If Biden believes the time has come for a policy change in Taiwan, he needs to get a consensus from his team before announcing that to the world (so they don’t contradict him in public), and then make a clear case to the American people before committing U.S. troops and resources to defend Taiwan.