The White House has been left a little scrambling after President Joe Biden suggested on May 23, 2022, that the US would intervene militarily if China attempted to invade Taiwan.
The comment, made by Joe Biden during a visit to Japan, was taken by some observers as a deviation from the official US line on Taiwan for decades. But officials in Washington withdrew that interpretation, saying instead it referred only to military aid.
Meredith Oyen, an expert on US-China relations at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, helps explain the background of Biden’s recent comments and what should be read — and what doesn’t — in his comments.
What did Biden say and why was it important?
Asked if the US was prepared to engage “militarily” in the event of an invasion of Taiwan, Biden replied, “Yes.” In a follow-up question, the US President said: “That’s the commitment we’ve made.”
In my opinion, this is the third time Biden has suggested as president that the US would come to Taiwan’s aid militarily if the island was attacked. In 2021 he made similar remarks in an interview with ABC News and again while attending a CNN town hall event.
But it is significant that he made this claim for the first time while in Asia.
An important point to note is that on each occasion he has made such remarks, prompting the White House to issue statements along the lines of “what the president really means…” and insisting that it be China or Taiwan. But that is not deviating from official US policy.
However, the comments and clarifications have raised doubts about whether Biden is continuing a policy of “strategic ambiguity” on Taiwan.
What does ‘strategic ambiguity’ mean?
Strategic ambiguity has long been a US policy towards Taiwan – indeed from the 1950s but certainly since 1979. While this does not explicitly commit the US to defending Taiwan under all circumstances, it leaves the option of US defensive support to Taiwan in the event of an unprovoked attack by China.
Importantly, the US hasn’t said exactly what it will do – so does this support mean economic aid, a supply of weapons, or a supply of American boots on the ground? China and Taiwan leave it unclear whether – and to what extent – the US will be involved in the Sino-Taiwan conflict.
Leaving the answer to that question vague, the US threatens China: Invade Taiwan and find out if you face the US as well.
Traditionally, this has been a useful policy for the US, but things have changed since it was first implemented. It was certainly effective when the US was in a stronger position militarily than China. But it may be less effective as a threat now that China’s military is catching up with the US
Prominent voices from US allies in Asia, such as Japan, believe that “strategic clarity” may be a better option now – the US has explicitly stated that it will defend Taiwan if the island is attacked.
So could Biden’s comments point to this change?
There seems to be a pattern: Biden says something outspoken about defending Taiwan, and then goes back. If no one in Washington was backing down on the comments, it would seem like a deliberate change in policy by the Biden administration.
But the fact that the White House has always been quick to clarify the comments suggests to me that this was not necessarily intentional. Biden seems to be trying to signal greater support for Taiwan, and perhaps reassuring US allies in Asia.
But I am a historian, not a strategist. It could be that it’s some advanced chess game that I can’t figure out.
What is the history of US relations with Taiwan?
Following the victory of the Communist Party of China in 1949, the defeated government of the Republic of China withdrew to the island of Taiwan, located just 100 miles off the coast of Fujian Province. And by the 1970s, the United States recognized this Chinese-in-exile Republic of Taiwan as the government of China.
But in 1971, the United Nations transferred recognition to the People’s Republic of China on the mainland. In 1972, President Richard Nixon made a famous visit to China, signing an agreement and the signing of the Shanghai Communic, a joint statement by Communist China and the US to pursue formal diplomatic relations. Went. An important section of that document stated: “The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait are one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States government does not challenge that position.”
The wording was important: the US did not formally commit to the position whether Taiwan was part of the nation of China. Instead, it was acknowledging what the governments of any given region say – that there is “one China”.
Where does the US commitment to military support for Taiwan come from?
After establishing formal diplomatic relations with China in 1979, the US forged an informal relationship with the ROC over Taiwan. To protest President Jimmy Carter’s decision to recognize Communist China, US lawmakers passed the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979. That act outlined a plan to maintain close ties between the US and Taiwan and included provisions for selling military goods to the US. Help the island maintain its defense – setting the path for a policy of strategic obscurity.
What’s changed recently?
China has long longed for a peaceful reunification of its country with an island it considers a rogue province. But commitment to the principle of “one China” has become increasingly one-sided. This is an absolute must for Beijing. But in Taiwan, however, there has been increased resistance to the idea of reunification amid increasing support for moving the island toward independence.
Beijing has recently become more aggressive and insisted that Taiwan “should be returned to China.” Domestic politics plays a role in this. At a time of internal instability in China, Beijing has played a more belligerent tone on relations between the two entities separated by the Taiwan Strait. We have seen in the past year that Beijing has sent military aircraft into Taiwan’s air defense area.
Meanwhile, the Chinese claim of increased authority over Hong Kong has damaged the argument of “one country, two systems” as a means of peaceful reunification with Taiwan.
How has America’s stance changed against Beijing’s?
Biden has certainly been supportive of Taiwan more openly than previous presidents. He has officially invited a representative from Taiwan to his inauguration – a first for an incoming president – and has repeatedly made it clear that he views Taiwan as an ally.
He also did not change the Taiwan Travel Act passed under Donald Trump’s previous administration. This law allows US officials to visit Taiwan in an official capacity.
So there has been a change to an extent. But the White House does not want to exaggerate any changes. At heart, America wishes not to stray from Shanghai Communique.
So is there a possibility of an invasion of Taiwan?
I don’t think we are anywhere near it now. Any aggression in the Taiwan Straits would be militarily complicated. It also comes with the risk of backlash from the international community. Taiwan will receive support not only from the US – in a vague capacity, judging by Biden’s remarks – but also from Japan and other countries in the region.
Meanwhile, China says it wants to see reunification through peaceful means. As long as Taiwan doesn’t force the issue and declare independence unilaterally, I think Beijing has the tolerance to wait for it. And despite some comments to the contrary, I do not think that the invasion of Ukraine has increased the chances of a similar move on Taiwan. In fact, given that Russia is now embroiled in a months-long conflict that has dented its military credibility and economy, Ukraine’s invasion may actually serve as a warning to Beijing.