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Three theories on Biden’s repeated Taiwan gaffes

President Biden, right, and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at the Akasaka Palace state guesthouse in Tokyo on May 23. (Eugene Hoshiko/AP)
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When it comes to President Biden and Taiwan, a confusing pattern has developed. It repeated in Tokyo on Monday.

It goes like this: Biden is asked if the United States would respond militarily if China invaded Taiwan. The president responds, “yes.” The world freaks out, wondering if there has been a major change in policy. The White House says there has been no change and that everyone is freaking out over nothing.

Is it really nothing? Taiwan, a self-governing island that Beijing claims, is not recognized diplomatically by the United States but works closely with Washington. And so, for decades, the United States has maintained a careful policy of “strategic ambiguity” that allows the United States to be deliberately unclear on the question of Taiwan’s defense, even as it enjoys otherwise close relations including arms sales.

Yet, over the course of just nine months, Biden has said at least three times that the United States would defend Taiwan in the event of an invasion. Though administration officials have thrice walked back these statements, amid heightened tensions with Beijing, it’s reasonable to wonder if the ambiguity is starting to wear a little thin.

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)

Here are three theories about what Biden’s remarks mean.

1. They’re gaffes.

One of the easiest explanations is that each time he spoke of defending Taiwan, Biden was misspeaking. It’d be an understandable mistake: Taiwan policy is complicated, shrouded in lingo that often only those who track the issue closely seem to understand. And Biden’s remarks about U.S. agreements with Taiwan often appear to be factually incorrect.

During his visit to Tokyo on Monday, for example, Biden was asked whether the United States would defend Taiwan militarily if China invaded. He responded directly: “Yes, that’s the commitment we made.” This directly echoes remarks he made in a town hall interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper in October when he told the host that the United States had made a “commitment” to protecting Taiwan.

In an earlier interview with ABC News last August, Biden appeared to suggest that the United States had a commitment to protect Taiwan similar to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty that guarantees collective self-defense. “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. It’s not even comparable to talk about that,” Biden said in an interview, which took place during the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan.

But there is no formal requirement for the United States to protect Taiwan.

The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which set out provisions for unofficial but substantive relations with Taiwan, does not call for the United States to protect Taiwan in the case of a war. The treaty does not make any military commitment to defend Taiwan, instead stating specifically that “the United States will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain sufficient self-defense capabilities.”

A more informal understanding is also in place regarding Beijing’s “One China” policy. Here, the United States has acknowledged Beijing’s position that there is only one China but it has also said that Taiwan’s fate should not be decided by force. But Biden also made a confusing error in his remarks here, suggesting that the United States had “signed onto [the One China Policy] and all the attendant agreements made from there,” when the Shanghai Communique between Washington and Beijing only acknowledges the Chinese position.

2. There’s a new policy.

Biden would hardly be the first U.S. official to make a gaffe on Taiwan policy. He’s not even the only one of his administration to do so. But his comments have now been repeated enough that many do not buy that it’s just a mistake.

Some China-watchers say that, at this point, it’s best to just assume that Biden is signaling a new policy. Bill Bishop, author of the popular China-focused newsletter Sinocism, tweeted Monday that strategic ambiguity looked “dead” and that it has become “obvious they are not gaffes” — particularly if you are China’s Xi Jinping.

“Strategic ambiguity is over. Strategic clarity is here. This is the third time Biden has said this. Good. China should welcome this. Washington is helping Beijing to not miscalculate,” Matthew Kroenig, a professor at Georgetown, wrote in his own tweet.

The key to this theory is to remember that Biden is president: If he says that the United States would protect Taiwan if China is invaded, you would assume that it would. And Taiwanese officials had been calling on Biden to do away with ambiguity: In an interview with the Today’s WorldView newsletter in 2020, Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to the United States called for “some degree of clarity” on the issue.

But the idea is undercut by the repeated denials that a new policy is in place from other administration officials. On Monday, a White House official told reporters that people were misinterpreting Biden’s comments and that he was simply reiterating the 1979 pledge made to support Taiwan with the military means for self-defense.

3. It’s the old policy, with a new spin.

Because of this, perhaps the most persuasive idea about Biden’s comments is that this is still “strategic ambiguity,” just with a new, harder spin.

It makes most sense particularly when you consider the context: Biden was speaking in Japan for the launch of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, a new initiative of a dozen countries designed to be a bulwark against China. Notably, Taiwan has not been offered a place in the framework, despite a bipartisan majority of 52 senators writing to ask that it be a founding member.

The move to exclude Taiwan was widely interpreted as a nod to Beijing’s interests. But Biden’s comments about Taiwan could be interpreted as a warning. Biden said Monday that though he did not expect China to invade Taiwan, Beijing was “already flirting with danger.”

Lev Nachman, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, wrote on Twitter that while Biden’s language was clumsy, it wasn’t a reversal of any policy. “Strategic ambiguity is about under what conditions the US would intervene in a war over Taiwan, not a flat out refusal to answer if it would intervene,” Nachman argued.

Other presidents have had their own views on how hard to push the idea of military support for Taiwan; both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations offered thinly veiled warnings to Beijing about invading Taiwan. But despite fierce anti-China rhetoric in public, President Donald Trump offered little firm support for Taiwan and is reported to have privately taken a dim view of U.S. support for Taiwan in the event of an invasion.

“If they invade, there isn’t a … thing we can do about it,” he reportedly told an unnamed Republican senator in 2019, according to a book published last year by my Washington Post colleague Josh Rogin.

If this is accurate, Biden’s comments could be an attempt to remind China that the threat of military intervention could be real. It’s still a policy built on ambiguity, just with a little more strategy to back it up.

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