The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden’s most hawkish comments on Taiwan yet

President Biden meets virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping from the Roosevelt Room at the White House on Nov. 15, 2021. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

The steady erosion of the long-standing U.S. policy of “strategic ambiguity” toward China and Taiwan has now resulted in its rhetorical — if not official — demise, with President Biden firmly committing to send troops to defend Taiwan if China invades.

Even though U.S. presidents have generally avoided taking a position on the subject, Biden has gestured in the direction of the United States defending Taiwan militarily. The White House insisted each time that there was no change in official policy. Each time, that was undermined by Biden’s own comments — and by Biden’s pressing on in that direction.

And now those assurances are virtually impossible to square with Biden’s comments.

In an interview with “60 Minutes,” Biden was decidedly unambiguous. Asked twice whether U.S. forces would defend Taiwan, he said they would.

“So unlike Ukraine, to be clear, sir, U.S. forces — U.S. men and women — would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion?” Scott Pelley, a correspondent for the show, sought to clarify.

“Yes,” Biden responded.

That’s a U.S. president firmly committing to go to war. And it’s the latest of increasingly hawkish comments on the matter.

In August 2021, Biden lumped Taiwan in with countries where the United States has firm mutual-defense commitments.

“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,” Biden said. “Same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with — Taiwan.”

“Respond” could be taken a number of ways. But by October 2021, Biden agreed the United States would “protect” Taiwan and come to its “defense” from a Chinese invasion:

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.

Again, we didn’t — and don’t — actually have a mutual-defense commitment. But as the White House again insisted there was no change in official policy, one could perhaps have argued that Biden was simply talking about an action akin to sending military aid, as it has in Ukraine.

That was further undermined in May, though, when Biden agreed he was “willing” to defend Taiwan “militarily”:

Q: 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.

Again, this hinges on how you define the words involved, including “militarily.” But Biden’s comments in the new “60 Minutes” interview erase any doubt: This could go as far as sending U.S. forces to defend against an invasion by one of the most powerful countries in the world.

With some isolated exceptions, presidents and would-be presidents have avoided speaking in such stark terms. The United States has a long-standing one-China policy, which means it doesn’t challenge China’s position that Taiwan is part of China. It has only informal diplomatic relations with Taiwan and has long engaged in a policy of “strategic ambiguity” when it comes to whether it would defend Taiwan from a Chinese invasion. The United States has a commitment to provide Taiwan with the ability to defend itself, but no commitment to send troops.

The idea is that China knows it’s possible the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense, but without the United States committing to defend a place China regards as its own. The policy is aimed at keeping the peace and promoting stability in the Taiwan Strait.

As we noted after the May comments, Biden’s steadily more hawkish evolution is particularly striking against where he was two decades ago. One of those isolated incidents in which a president strayed from “strategic ambiguity” was when George W. Bush offered a Biden-esque response to such a question. Asked whether the United States would respond “with the full force of the American military” if China attacked Taiwan, Bush responded, “Whatever it took.”

Biden in a 2001 Washington Post op-ed called it “startling new commitment.” He said that “we now appear to have a policy of ambiguous strategic ambiguity. It is not an improvement.”

Effectively, Biden has echoed the same sentiment he criticized 21 years ago. The question from there is why. Tensions in the area have steadily ratcheted up, with U.S. lawmakers including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) visiting Taiwan and China responding by launching military exercises around Taiwan. Taiwan warned a month ago that the drills showed China is prepared to invade. The Post later reported that Chinese President Xi Jinping had called to request that Biden find a way to keep Pelosi from visiting. Biden declined, citing separation of powers, though other officials in the Defense Department and White House expressed concern to Pelosi about the risks of her trip.

Certainly, the White House continuing to suggest this is nothing new and downplaying Biden’s assurances might keep China guessing. But if it came to war, Biden is now on record saying that war would include U.S. forces. Not backing that up would be a huge black mark on U.S. foreign policy.

One commonality you’ll notice from all of these comments, including Bush’s: They were in response to questions. In each case, a U.S. president wasn’t proactively detailing policy; he was being asked to commit to something in a hypothetical scenario. The response, in keeping with the long-standing policy, would be something along the lines of, “We’ll see.” But that could be seen as irresolute.

Biden has certainly demonstrated a capacity for gaffes. But he’s also a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who once had pretty strong and apparently well-considered feelings about the importance of “strategic ambiguity.” And the progression here is unmistakable. To the extent anyone is actually telling him to slow his roll, he’s not listening.

The implications for that are huge. This is still in the realm of the hypothetical, but it’s a majorly consequential hypothetical that now includes a firm commitment — whether that firm commitment is technically official policy or not.