Did Biden Just Change America’s Taiwan Policy?

During his first stop on his first trip to Asia,  U.S. President Joe Biden unveiled the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework in Japan. With nearly a dozen other countries involved in the new framework, Mr. Biden intends to counter China’s regional dominance through economic means. However, Taiwan, a key U.S. partner, was notably absent. Despite the democratic island’s conspicuous absence from the framework, Mr. Biden may have offered the democratic island something Taiwanese covet even more: certainty.

Initially, President Biden’s response went off without a hitch. When first asked, he stuck closely to his talking points, reiterating that there were no changes in America’s Taiwan policy. “We stand firmly with Japan and with other nations – not to let that happen,” when confirming that the United States would stand behind Taiwan in the case of a Chinese invasion, invoking the traditional vagueness employed by past administrations.

Then, a CBS News reporter followed up, asking if he was willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan? “Yes,” he confirmed. “That’s the commitment we made.” Realizing he was potentially walking into a diplomatic blackhole, he continued: “We agree with the ‘One China’ policy…but the idea that it can be taken by force, just taken by force, is just not appropriate. It would dislocate the entire region and be another action similar to what happened in Ukraine. And so it’s a burden that’s even stronger.”

Damage Control

Mr. Biden’s comments surprised many in his own administration. Quickly after the statement, White House staff went into damage control mode, trying to walk back the statement in favor of confirmation that nothing had changed in America’s policy toward Taiwan. The urgency in correcting the messaging was not lost on Mr. Biden’s staff who recognized the ripple effects it would have not just on the deeply consequential U.S.-China relationship, but on Mr. Biden’s key foreign policy strategy in pivoting to Asia efforts to pivot to Asia after nearly a year and a half of being waylaid by other foreign policy crises.

What is America’s Relationship with Taiwan?

As New York Times reporter David Sanger noted on a recent episode of The Daily, the United States’ relationship with Taiwan is very complicated. As part of the story, the United States has long maintained a policy of strategic ambiguity toward Taiwan. The doctrine offers deliberately vague language on how far the United States would go in defending Taiwan. There is actual strategy behind the ambiguity to keep China guessing on what the United States would or would not do to defend its democratic partner in the event of a Chinese invasion.

Behind America’s strategic ambiguity is the One China policy under which the United States recognizes that there is only one Chinese government and that government resides in Beijing. Further governing the United States’ relationship with Taiwan is the Taiwan Relations Act, signed into law in 1979. The Act commits the United States to ensuring that Taiwan has the resources to defend itself. It stops short, however, of requiring U.S. military intervention to protect Taiwan in case China invades. However, the catch is the United States expects a peaceful resolution between Beijing and Taipei over the question of whether Taiwan is truly part of China.

Oops He Did it Again

Interestingly, this is not the first time Mr. Biden provided more clarity when previous administrations maintained a certain level of ambiguity. In August, when reassuring vexed allies after America’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, Mr. Biden noted that the United States would respond if there was an attack against a NATO ally and subsequently added, “same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with Taiwan.” Just two months later, during a CNN townhall, Mr. Biden again replied that the United States has a commitment to protect Taiwan in the event of an attack.

The problem with Mr. Biden’s persistent statements is that Taiwan does not enjoy the same type of security guarantee with the United States as America’s NATO allies and allies in Asia. Those relationships are rooted in defense pacts established throughout the region shortly after World War II. The United States’ defense pact with Taiwan disappeared in 1972 when the United States switched its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing. So, the United States is not bound by a treaty to militarily defend Taiwan in the same way as its NATO allies or Japan or South Korea, for example.

For that reason, White House staffers tried to tamp down any ruffled feathers by promising no policy changes were afoot. “As the President said, our policy has not changed,” the White House unconvincingly offered in a statement. “He [Mr. Biden] reiterated our One China Policy and our commitment to peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. He also reiterated our commitment under the Taiwan Relations Act to provide Taiwan with the military means to defend itself.” That logic, though, is what makes Mr. Biden’s statement so controversial.  

Has America’s Taiwan Policy Changed?

What was really going on in Mr. Biden’s mind at the time he made the statement is unclear. Was he speaking his mind and purposefully changing the United States’ longstanding strategic ambiguity policy? Or was this just a gaffe made by a president who is prone to talking passionately off the cuff? We may never know. When asked again the following day about his statement, the President stressed that his stance on Taiwan has not changed. While publicly denying any change to the policy, this is the third time since the fall that Mr. Biden has answered contrary to long-standing policy designed to keep China guessing on what exactly the United States would do should Beijing decide it is time to bring its renegade province back into China’s fold.

While China, Taiwan, and America’s allies ponder the true meaning behind Mr. Biden’s most recent statement, it remains true that only he knows what stands behind it. However, all Taiwan observers would do well to keep in mind that one of Mr. Biden’s strengths is his authenticity – he is a leader who says what he means. There may be some truth to his statement, that he believes it is time to find a policy that provides more strategically clarity than ambiguity on the topic. Perhaps it is time for the United States to revisit its strategic ambiguity in light of the rise of autocratic strongmen who flaunt the rules-based international order that has governed international politics for decades.

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