Biden on Taiwan: Three theories about the US president repeated, apparent blunders

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When it comes to President Biden and Taiwan, a confusing pattern has developed. This was repeated in Tokyo on Monday.

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

Is it really nothing? Taiwan, an autonomous island claimed by Beijing, is not recognized diplomatically by the United States but works closely with Washington. Thus, for decades, the United States has maintained a cautious policy of “strategic ambiguity” that allows the United States to be deliberately vague on the question of Taiwan’s defense, even as it maintains relations through elsewhere narrow, including arms sales.

Yet in just nine months, Biden has said at least three times that the United States will defend Taiwan in the event of an invasion. Although administration officials have backtracked on those statements three times, amid heightened tensions with Beijing, it’s reasonable to wonder if the ambiguity is starting to fade a bit.

Here are three theories about the meaning of Biden’s remarks.

One of the simplest explanations is that every time he talked about defending Taiwan, Biden got it wrong. That would be an understandable mistake: Taiwan politics is complicated, surrounded by jargon that often only those who follow the issue closely seem to understand. And Biden’s remarks about US deals with Taiwan often seem factually incorrect.

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

In a previous interview with ABC News last August, Biden appeared to suggest that the United States was committed to protecting Taiwan, like Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty which guarantees collective self-defense. “We made a sacred commitment in 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, even with – Taiwan. It’s not even comparable to talk about it,” Biden said in an interview that took place during the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan.

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

The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which sets out provisions for unofficial but substantive relations with Taiwan, does not call on the United States to protect Taiwan in the event of war. The treaty makes no military commitment to defend Taiwan, instead specifically stating that “the United States will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services 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 US acknowledged Beijing’s position that there is only one China, but also said Taiwan’s fate should not be decided by force. But Biden also made a puzzling error in his remarks here, suggesting that the United States had “signed [the One China Policy] and all the resulting agreements”, while the Shanghai communiqué between Washington and Beijing only recognizes the Chinese position.

2. There is a new policy.

Biden would not be the first US official to blunder on Taiwanese politics. He’s not even the only one in his administration to do so. But his comments have now been repeated enough that many don’t believe it was just a mistake.

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

“The strategic ambiguity is over. The strategic clarity is there. This is the third time Biden has said this. Good. China should be happy about that. Washington is helping Beijing get the math right,” wrote Georgetown professor Matthew Kroenig. in his own tweet.

The key to this theory is remembering that Biden is president: if he said the United States would protect Taiwan if China were invaded, you would assume that would be the case. And Taiwanese officials had called on Biden to disambiguate: In an interview with Today’s WorldView newsletter in 2020, Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to the United States called for “some degree of clarity” on the question.

But the idea is undermined by 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 to support Taiwan with the military means of self-defense.

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

For that reason, perhaps the most compelling idea about Biden’s comments is that it’s still “strategic ambiguity,” just with a new, harsher twist.

This makes perfect sense especially 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 was not offered a place in the framework, despite a bipartisan majority of 52 senators writing to ask to be a founding member.

The decision to exclude Taiwan was widely interpreted as a nod to Beijing’s interests. But Biden’s comments on Taiwan could be interpreted as a warning. Biden said Monday that while he didn’t expect China to invade Taiwan, Beijing was “already flirting with danger.”

Lev Nachman, postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, wrote on Twitter that if Biden’s language was awkward, it was not a reversal of policy. “Strategic ambiguity is about the terms under which the United States would intervene in a war against Taiwan, not an outright refusal to respond if it did intervene,” Nachman explained.

Other presidents have had their own take on how difficult it is to push forward the idea of ​​military support for Taiwan; the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations offered thinly veiled warnings in Beijing about the invasion of Taiwan. But despite fierce anti-China rhetoric in public, President Donald Trump has offered little firm support for Taiwan and is said to have privately frowned upon US support for Taiwan in the event of an invasion.

“If they invade, there’s nothing 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 true, Biden’s comments could be an attempt to remind China that the threat of military intervention could be real. It’s still ambiguity-based politics, just with a little more strategy to back it up.

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