Twenty years ago, a senator by the name of Joe Biden criticized an American president for offering conflicting signals about whether the United States would defend Taiwan from China militarily.

Twenty years later, a president by the name of Joe Biden keeps offering conflicting signals on precisely that question.

For the second time in recent months, Biden on Thursday night signaled that the United States would indeed defend Taiwan from an attack by China.

In a town hall, Biden was asked about China’s reported testing of a hypersonic missile and asked: “What will you do to keep up with them militarily? And can you vow to protect Taiwan?”

Biden responded, “Yes and yes.”

CNN anchor Anderson Cooper then sought clarity. “So are you saying that the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense if China attacked?”

Biden responded: “Yes. Yes, we have a commitment to do that.”

The comments echoed what Biden said in August. In an interview with ABC News, he was asked about the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and whether it sent a message to Taiwan that the United States couldn’t be counted on to defend its allies.

“We made a sacred commitment to Article Five that, if in fact anyone were to invade or take action against our NATO allies, we would respond,” Biden said. “Same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with — Taiwan.”

But as was noted at the time, Taiwan is not in fact part of a mutual-defense agreement like NATO allies or South Korea. Since 1979, the United States has had no formal diplomatic relationship with Taiwan, which split with China in 1949 but which China still claims as its territory.

While pursuing the “one China” policy, the United States has kept informal relations with Taiwan but has abided by a policy of “strategic ambiguity” when it comes to whether it would defend Taiwan from an incursion — i.e. not saying you will because you have relations with China, but implicitly reserving the option.

Each time Biden has offered these comments, the White House has sought to walk it back.

In August, it said “the policy with regard to Taiwan has not changed.” On Friday morning, a White House spokesperson told The Washington Post that there was indeed still no change, despite Biden again leaning into defending Taiwan from China.

“The U.S. defense relationship with Taiwan is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act,” the spokesperson said. “We will uphold our commitment under the Act, we will continue to support Taiwan’s self-defense, and we will continue to oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo.”

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also notably declined to comment on a similar question Friday morning at a NATO meeting in Brussels, saying he wouldn’t address hypotheticals. Austin assured the United States remains committed to its long-standing “one China” policy.

The defense from the White House here seems to imply that Biden was referencing providing for Taiwan’s self-defense — though not necessarily intervening militarily. And that’s a significant distinction, if indeed that was Biden’s intention.

But Biden’s comments in August, especially, pointed to a more significant intervention. Even having gone through that flap, his comments on Thursday night didn’t draw that line at providing for Taiwan’s self-defense.

It’s something a certain former senator might say calls for a more precise approach from a president. When George W. Bush seemed to lean into the idea that the United States would defend Taiwan militarily — and then pulled back — then-Sen. Biden derided the messaging as “ambiguous strategic ambiguity.”

Last week President Bush was asked if the United States had an obligation to defend Taiwan if it was attacked by China. He replied, “Yes, we do, and the Chinese must understand that. Yes, I would.”
The interviewer asked, “With the full force of the American military?”
President Bush replied, “Whatever it took” to help Taiwan defend itself.
A few hours later, the president appeared to back off this startling new commitment, stressing that he would continue to abide by the “one China” policy followed by each of the past five administrations.
Where once the United States had a policy of “strategic ambiguity” — under which we reserved the right to use force to defend Taiwan but kept mum about the circumstances in which we might, or might not, intervene in a war across the Taiwan Strait — we now appear to have a policy of ambiguous strategic ambiguity. It is not an improvement.

Biden concluded his op-ed by stressing that he had defended Bush’s policy toward China previously. “But in this case,” Biden said, “his inattention to detail has damaged U.S. credibility with our allies and sown confusion throughout the Pacific Rim.”

Biden concluded: “Words matter.”

There is perhaps an argument that, despite Biden’s past comments, conflicting signals from Biden and the White House today might actually contribute to a policy of strategic ambiguity — leaving China to consider the idea that Biden is more committed to defending Taiwan than the official U.S. policy states. There is some precedent, even apart from Bush, for signaling a more muscular policy than the official one (at least privately). President Donald Trump also broke with traditional practice by signaling a stronger alliance with Taiwan than was official policy.

But it also seems entirely possible that a president who often trips over himself in these relatively rare interviews did so again. (The White House also had to clean up some Biden comments Thursday night on calling in the National Guard to address supply-chain issues.) And if this was indeed deliberate, it would seem to be a bad sign about the status of tensions in the region.