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Opinion On Taiwan, Biden gets less ambiguous and more strategic

President Biden in Tokyo on Monday. (Nicolas Datiche/AP)
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President Biden raised eyebrows Monday by seeming to confirm that the United States would intervene militarily to protect Taiwan from Chinese attack. During a news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo, Mr. Biden answered “yes” to a reporter who asked whether, in contrast to the president’s having refrained from sending U.S. troops to help Ukraine fight Russia, he would be “willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan, if it comes to that?” Mr. Biden elaborated: “That’s the commitment we made.”

That isn’t strictly true: For a half-century, since President Richard M. Nixon’s opening to Communist China, the United States has maintained a policy of “strategic ambiguity” toward Taiwan, which includes a recognition of Beijing as the sole legitimate Chinese government, a commitment to help Taiwan defend itself with American-made weaponry — and vagueness about what else the U.S. might or might not do. There is no formal mutual defense treaty such as the ones the United States has with South Korea and Japan.

And so Mr. Biden’s seeming declaration of such a “commitment” sent White House aides scrambling to clarify a remark critics were quick to call a “gaffe.” In a statement, the White House recast Mr. Biden’s comment as a simple reiteration of the long-standing U.S. policy, which “has not changed.” But neither China, which warned against “causing grave damage to bilateral relations,” nor Taiwan, which expressed "gratitude” for Mr. Biden’s “rock-solid commitment to Taiwan,” appeared to buy it.

Henry Olsen: Biden is right to say the U.S. should defend Taiwan

We don’t pretend to know why Mr. Biden made his comment. What we will say is that it’s not cause for a crisis. To the contrary, there might be a benefit. Mr. Biden did not so much end strategic ambiguity as modify it. Between his repeated allusions to a U.S. duty to defend Taiwan — Monday’s was the third such since August — and his staff’s repeated denials that the president’s words mean quite what they seem to mean, Beijing has new reasons to think long and hard before sending its armed forces across the Taiwan Strait. Yet the People’s Republic of China cannot quite accuse the United States of violating the understandings forged in Nixon’s time because, technically, it hasn’t.

Certainly, the president was correct Monday when he said, apropos of a potential Chinese repeat of Russia’s aggression against a pro-Western neighbor, that "the idea that [Taiwan] can be taken by force, just taken by force, it’s just not appropriate. It would dislocate the entire region and be another action similar to what happened in Ukraine. And so it’s a burden that is even stronger.”

If there’s a flaw in Mr. Biden’s approach to countering China, it’s the vagueness of the plan for regional commercial integration he’s offering — the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. It is no substitute for the market-opening Trans-Pacific Partnership that was negotiated by President Barack Obama and then abandoned by President Donald Trump. Mr. Biden has China guessing about U.S. intentions toward Taiwan. Maximizing Beijing’s worries, however, would require much more robust economic engagement with East Asia, India and Australia.