Did Biden just end US strategic ambiguity on Taiwan?

Making waves from Japan.
Making waves from Japan.
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
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The White House played down what appeared to be a departure from longstanding US policy after president Joe Biden said today the US would militarily intervene in case of an attack on Taiwan by China.

A White House official later said Biden’s comments did not mark a change in policy, even though the US has long had a strategy of being deliberately vague about how it would respond in case of military aggression by China.

It’s not the first time the president’s staff steps in to clarify his statements about US commitments towards Taiwan. The same happened last year when the president made similar remarks in response to a question at a town hall in the US.

Speaking today from a venue far closer to China, standing alongside Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo, Biden was again decidedly unambiguous. “That’s the commitment we made,” he said, when asked if the US would get involved in case of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

The comments came ahead of a meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, which includes Australia, India, Japan, and the US in a grouping meant to counter China.

“Strategic ambiguity” and Taiwan

For decades the US policy of strategic ambiguity was thought to be a way to balance both sides, given that good relations with both China and Taiwan were important for US interests.

China has claimed the democratically governed island as its own territory since the Communist Party emerged victorious from the Chinese civil war in 1949. By being vague as to what the US would do in the event of a Chinese attack, the goal was to deter Chinese aggression, yet also hold Taiwan’s pro-independence forces in check, and thus avoid riling Beijing.

Still, not everyone sees the policy as having been entirely unclear in case of an unprovoked attack on Taiwan. According to the Washington-based National Bureau of Asian Research think tank:

Strictly speaking, strategic ambiguity is not about whether the United States would intervene should either side upset the present status quo by initiating a cross-strait conflict, as is commonly assumed. Instead, it is about providing conditional clarity regarding the circumstances under which intervention by the United States would be appropriate. It creates a type of “dual deterrence” in which both sides are deterred from endangering the status quo by the possibility of U.S. intervention while at the same time being assured that the other side will not unilaterally seek to change the status quo. Thus, Taiwan is deterred from upsetting the status quo with the assurance that it will be supported only in the event of an unprovoked attack from the mainland.

Biden’s comments come as China’s rhetoric about “reunification” with Taiwan has been more aggressive in recent years, while Chinese incursions into Taiwan’s air monitoring area have also increased. But a shift to “strategic clarity,” notes one analyst, won’t necessarily determine what Beijing decides to do.

“The administration is under the false impression that if you make China more certain about the US commitment to defend Taiwan, that will change China’s calculus,” Oriana Skylar Mastro, a China expert at Stanford, told NPR last year.

Ukraine and Taiwan

On Feb. 24, Russia invaded Ukraine, a war that is still raging in the heart of Europe. In its earliest days, the Ukraine war appeared to offer a warning that Taiwan might well be largely reliant on its own ability to fight and resist. But since then, the US and Europe have imposed sweeping sanctions that have crippled Russia’s economy, while the US just approved a $40 billion emergency military and humanitarian aid package for Ukraine.

In Tokyo, Biden drew parallels between Ukraine and Taiwan. “The idea that [Taiwan] can be taken by force, just taken by force, would just not be appropriate,” said Biden. “It would dislocate the entire region and be another action similar to what happened in Ukraine. So, it’s a burden that is even stronger.”