For the third time in his presidency, Joe Biden has declared that the United States will defend Taiwan if it is invaded by Communist China. And for the third time in his presidency, his staff has undermined him by walking back his comments and insisting that Biden did not say what he plainly said.
Which raises an important question: Who elected them?
At a news conference in Tokyo on Monday, Biden was asked: “You didn’t want to get involved in the Ukraine conflict militarily for obvious reasons. Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan, if it comes to that?” Biden replied: “Yes.” The reporter asked again: “You are?” Biden was unequivocal: “That’s the commitment we made.” He added: “The idea that [Taiwan] can be taken by force, just taken by force, is just not appropriate.” He said the same thing last August, when he told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, “We made a sacred commitment to Article 5 that if in fact anyone were to invade or take action against our NATO allies, we would respond. Same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with Taiwan.” And in October, after he was asked by CNN’s Anderson Cooper if “the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense if China attacked,” Biden answered forthrightly: “Yes, we have a commitment to do that.”
Now that Biden has said not once, not twice, but three times that he would order the U.S. military to defend Taiwan, one begins to suspect that it was not a gaffe — and that he actually meant what he said.
But instead of falling in line, his staff went into cleanup mode, insisting there had been no change in policy. Unfortunately, they appear to have persuaded Biden to back off as well. Asked the next day if the policy of strategic ambiguity toward Taiwan was “dead,” Biden answered “no,” adding that “the policy has not changed at all.” This makes no sense. He said he would defend Taiwan if it were attacked. There was nothing “ambiguous” about what he said.
Biden was right the first time — and the second and third time, too. One of the reasons Russian President Vladimir Putin chose to invade Ukraine but not, say, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia or Estonia, is because those countries enjoy something Ukraine does not: an Article 5 commitment. Putin knows an attack on them would be declaring war not just on them but also on the United States and the NATO alliance — and that knowledge is a powerful deterrent.
If we are to deter China from invading Taiwan, then we must be equally clear about the response it would face. This is why many foreign policy experts have been arguing for the clarity that Biden offered this week. Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, co-authored a Foreign Affairs essay in 2020 that declared: “The policy known as strategic ambiguity has … run its course. Ambiguity is unlikely to deter an increasingly assertive China with growing military capabilities. The time has come for the United States to introduce a policy of strategic clarity: one that makes explicit that the United States would respond to any Chinese use of force against Taiwan.” And as my American Enterprise Institute colleagues Gary Schmitt and Michael Mazza also pointed out in 2020, “China’s increasingly threatening posture vis-à-vis Taiwan has elicited a growing view among Americans and American politicians that ‘strategic ambiguity’ has outlived its usefulness.”
Biden was right to ditch ambiguity for clarity — his backtracking notwithstanding. But clarity alone is not enough. We also need to have the right capabilities in the region to back up our new deterrence posture. Whereas Ukraine has a long, porous border with Russia, Taiwan is an island. China needs to cross the Taiwan Strait to reach it. So we must deploy weapons — including intermediate-range conventional missiles, armed drones and anti-ship weapons in Guam, Japan and the Philippines — that would allow us to prevent China from doing so. We can do that thanks to Donald Trump’s 2019 decision to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. If Chinese leaders know we can stop their forces from ever reaching Taiwan, they will be less likely to launch an attack.
We also need to make sure Taiwan has the weapons to defend itself. The Trump administration approved historic defense sales to Taiwan, totaling over $18 billion in four years — more than his predecessor provided in eight years — including F-16 fighter jets, Abrams tanks, Stinger antiaircraft missiles, anti-ship missiles, torpedoes and Reaper drones. Biden needs to expand those sales even further. Unlike what played out in Ukraine, we must arm Taiwan before an invasion to deter one. We need to ask ourselves: If China invaded tomorrow, what capabilities would we wish we had provided Taipei — and then provide those weapons now.
Most important, Biden’s staff needs to stop undermining deterrence by undermining the president. Biden was 100 percent correct: If China invades Taiwan, we must come to its defense. Better that China know that now, before an invasion — so we can prevent one from happening in the first place.