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Biden’s starkest comments yet on defending Taiwan from China

His comments have gradually broken from the established policy of strategic ambiguity. The question is why.

President Biden said on May 23 he would be willing to use military force to defend Taiwan, capping a series of critical comments about China while in Asia. (Video: Reuters)
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President Biden has now repeatedly indicated that the United States’ duty to defend Taiwan from China might go further than long-standing U.S. policy has acknowledged. And each time, the White House has sought to clarify that there is no official change.

It’s getting more and more difficult to accept that. Either Biden keeps getting out over his skis — for which there is plenty of precedent — or it’s a relatively novel and somewhat ominous development in Washington’s “strategic ambiguity” policy toward China and Taiwan. It’s ominous because it suggests that conflict has grown likely enough to elicit a shift in rhetoric — and because such rhetoric might force the United States into that conflict.

The latest iteration came Monday, when Biden was asked whether the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense “militarily.” He said it would:

Q: 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?
Q: You are?
BIDEN: That’s the commitment we made. ... The idea that [Taiwan] can be taken by force, just taken by force, is not just appropriate. It will dislocate the entire region and be another action similar to what happened in Ukraine, and so it’s a burden that is even stronger.

Biden was asked a similar question in October, and he offered a similar answer:

Q: China just tested a hypersonic missile. What will you do to keep up with them militarily, and can you vow to protect Taiwan?
BIDEN: Yes and yes.
Q: So are you saying that the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense if China attacked?
BIDEN: Yes. Yes, we have a commitment to do that.

And in August, he seemed to volunteer that the United States had a duty to defend Taiwan:

Q: You talked about our adversaries, China and Russia. You already see China telling Taiwan, “See? You can’t count on the Americans” [because of the chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal].
BIDEN: Why wouldn’t China say that? Look, George ... there’s a fundamental difference between — between Taiwan, South Korea, NATO. ... 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. Same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with — Taiwan. It’s not even comparable to talk about that.

Each time — and even in Biden’s own comments Monday — the administration has stressed that U.S. policy has not formally changed. “As the president said, our policy has not changed,” a White House official said.

But despite Biden’s repeated assertions about a “commitment,” the United States in fact has no NATO-esque, mutual-defense agreement with Taiwan, which China still claims as its territory. Under the long-standing “one China” policy, the United States has informal diplomatic relations and has abided by a policy of “strategic ambiguity” on whether it would defend Taiwan from an invasion.

In explaining Biden’s comments, the administration has cited the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which states that the United States will ensure that Taiwan has the resources to defend itself. But it does not require U.S. military intervention if China invades.

The administration’s argument seems to be that Biden is referring to that act, and not something that would require actual U.S. force. But his comments Monday came even after similar responses had already sparked confusion about U.S. policy. And a close parsing of his responses suggests he does see some greater commitment than many have interpreted from the Taiwan Relations Act.

In August, Biden lumped Taiwan in with South Korea, Japan and NATO, entities with which the United States has explicit mutual defense agreements.

In October, the question wasn’t explicitly about use of U.S. force — it was about whether the United States would “come to Taiwan’s defense” — and the White House suggested Biden’s answer was merely about providing for Taiwan’s self-defense.

The most recent question, though, explicitly aimed at defending Taiwan “militarily.” The White House could perhaps argue that might mean providing Taiwan with military aid if it’s attacked. But the question sought to differentiate Biden’s approach to Ukraine (where Washington is providing military aid) from his approach to Taiwan, and Biden seemed to grant that there was some kind of difference.

Biden also must know that defending someone “militarily” is generally understood to mean direct U.S. force; this is a guy who served as chairman and the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, after all.

And, in fact, it was in that capacity that Biden in 2001 criticized President George W. Bush for being too forceful in his comments about defending Taiwan. Bush had been asked whether he would defend Taiwan “with the full force of the American military,” and he responded, “Whatever it took.” Biden called that statement a “startling new commitment” and added that “we now appear to have a policy of ambiguous strategic ambiguity. It is not an improvement.”

That version of Biden, in fact, contended that the Taiwan Relations Act did not require the U.S. military to defend Taiwan: “The United States has not been obligated to defend Taiwan since we abrogated the 1954 Mutual Defense Treaty signed by President Eisenhower and ratified by the Senate,” he said.

The question to Biden on Monday wasn’t as explicit as “full force of the military.” But Biden has indeed made U.S. strategic ambiguity policy more ambiguous — whether deliberately or because he has not quite nailed down how he wants to talk about the issue. It’s more and more difficult to believe it’s the latter, given that the matter has now come up repeatedly. And there is perhaps some value in providing mixed signals to China about what an invasion of Taiwan would be met with — despite Biden’s 2001 comments about the folly of a more muscular approach.

But if Biden’s comments are indeed intended to send mixed signals, we perhaps should be concerned about what’s brewing on the Taiwan Strait — and that Biden could be forced into making good on his statement about defending Taiwan “militarily.”

And don’t take our word for it. In 2001, Biden himself worried that a president making such commitments to Taiwan would box himself in.

“As a matter of diplomacy, there is a huge difference between reserving the right to use force and obligating ourselves, a priori, to come to the defense of Taiwan,” Biden wrote at the time. “The president should not cede to Taiwan, much less to China, the ability automatically to draw us into a war across the Taiwan Strait.”