For President Biden, there appears to be little strategic ambiguity in his stance on a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
If China invades, Biden said Monday, the U.S. will come to Taiwan’s aid militarily.
That statement from the president is far from the first time he’s indicated he’s willing to use military force against China to defend Taiwan.
Far from a gaffe, Monday’s remarks at a Tokyo press conference looked intentional, say some educated observers. And they have extra layers of geopolitical meaning after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — something Beijing is watching closely.
“I think to some extent it does reflect Biden’s personal views, and it’s starting to feel like it’s pretty sincere,” said Michael O’Hanlon, director of research in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. “There’s only so many times you can walk something like this back and have the walking back be convincing.”
The remarks on Monday were Biden’s strongest comments to date in what has become a pattern of pledging to defend Taiwan. The White House said it did not reflect a change in U.S. policy.
The United States has for decades abided by the “One China” policy, which recognizes Beijing as the representative government of China but considers Taiwan’s status unsettled. At the same time, under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, the U.S. is committed to providing Taiwan with arms for its defense. The law does not commit the U.S. to sending troops to Taiwan to defend it.
The U.S. government has typically aimed for “strategic ambiguity,” sidestepping questions to avoid outlining a definitive response should Taiwan come under attack. But Biden has repeatedly thrown ambiguity to the wind and been clear cut in committing to coming to Taiwan’s aid.
“If he keeps signaling that he would find a military response appropriate, without caveating or conditioning that, it suggests pretty strongly a kind of strategic clarity as opposed to strategic ambiguity,” O’Hanlon said.
Matthew Kroenig, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, said that the inconsistent rhetoric coming from the White House could also be part of a “master plan” to actually maintain strategic ambiguity. He also acknowledged that it’s possible Biden misspoke but expressed doubt that such a gaffe would happen numerous times.
“Either way, you have the president of the United States now saying three times he would defend Taiwan,” he said.
The White House said the latest remarks didn’t reflect a policy change, which left some Democrats criticizing the White House for walking back Biden’s remarks. They said doing so plays into GOP talking points that the president is making mistakes.
“Anytime there’s a threat to the president’s perceived command of the job, it’s always going to be a challenge for this White House because so much of his political good fortunes have come from his perceived confidence and his abilities to the job,” said Democratic strategist Joel Payne. “If you’re in the president’s inner circle, you have to be vigilant about the competency argument.”
In August, Biden was asked in an ABC News interview about Chinese claims that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan showed it was an unreliable ally.
“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 at the time.
The White House said at the time the U.S. policy toward Taiwan had not changed.
In October, at a CNN town hall, Biden again said the U.S. had a commitment to defend Taiwan if it were attacked by China. The White House again clarified the administration’s policy had not changed, something Biden himself reiterated in November on a call with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
But Monday marked Biden’s most extensive comments to date, and he gave a clear answer in an exchange with a reporter about the need to defend Taiwan from Chinese aggression.
“Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?” Biden was asked at a press conference in Tokyo alongside the Japanese prime minister.
“Yes,” Biden responded. “That’s the commitment we made.”
“Look, here’s the situation. We agree with the ‘One China’ policy … but the idea that to be taken by force, just taken by force, is just not appropriate,” Biden continued. “It will dislocate the entire region and be another action similar to what happened in Ukraine.”
Biden said he does not believe China will attempt to take Taiwan by force, adding that the united global response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine can serve as a deterrent against possible aggression by Beijing.
Bonny Lin, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, noted public support for Taiwan has steadily grown in recent years on both sides of the aisle, driven largely by disapproval of China’s behavior in the region.
Lin also argued the backdrop of the war in Ukraine is important, given China has not spoken out against the Russian invasion. Biden is likely sending a message that China should not mistake the lack of U.S. military involvement in Ukraine for a lack of willingness to defend Taiwan, Lin said.
Some foreign policy analysts, including Kroenig, have argued in favor of the U.S. moving away from “strategic ambiguity” and toward a policy of so-called strategic clarity in order to deter China from making a move on Taiwan.
“This is the third time @potus has spoken out in favor of strategic clarity on Taiwan and third time WH staff has tried to walk it back,” tweeted Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “Better to embrace it as new US stance, one that is fully consistent with one-China policy but that alters how US will go about implementing it.”
But O’Hanlon argued officials need to be careful about committing to defending Taiwan, citing studies he has done that cast doubt on whether the U.S. military could successfully defend the island nation against a Chinese attack under certain blockade scenarios.
O’Hanlon said that Biden’s words would likely serve as a deterrent while also contributing to the already elevated U.S.-China tensions.
“It does probably increase deterrence but at the cost of worsening relations,” he said. “And then you can decide whether that’s worth it based on how likely you thought it was they were going to attack in the first place.”