President Joe Biden is changing Washington’s policy on Taiwan. And it’s about time.
On Sunday’s 60 Minutes, Biden was asked whether the U.S. would defend Taiwan from a Chinese military assault. He replied: “Yes, if in fact there was an unprecedented attack.”
Making such a pledge breaks with Washington’s traditional approach to Taiwan’s security. In the past, the nature of America’s commitment to defend the island has been left purposely vague, a policy known as “strategic ambiguity.” Biden is making the matter much less ambiguous.
The White House has argued that U.S. policy remains unchanged. In its basic form, that’s true. The Biden administration still upholds the “one China” policy that has formed the foundation of U.S. relations with China, and Taiwan, for more than 40 years. But Biden’s latest statement is not just Biden being Biden, misspeaking. He has made such comments before. Back in May, in Tokyo, he was asked a similar question at a press conference and gave a similar answer.
This time, Biden added the important detail that U.S. troops would be dispatched to defend the island. Biden is sending a message that the U.S. has Taiwan’s back in the face of rising Chinese aggression.
Critics argue that, in doing so, the president is unnecessarily antagonizing Beijing and elevating the danger of conflict. Jessica Chen Weiss, a Cornell University political scientist, called Biden’s comments “dangerous” because they “strengthen perceptions that the U.S. is issuing Taiwan a blank check” to change the status quo. Michael D. Swaine, the director of the East Asia program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, tweeted that “Biden’s statements make [Taiwan] less secure [and] increase the chance of the U.S. being pulled into war.”
Biden certainly faces risks by altering American policy. Chinese leaders, who consider Taiwan an integral part of China, are already suspicious that Washington is working to undermine the idea of “one China” and drawing the island ever tighter into the U.S. camp. To the Chinese leadership, the U.S. is standing in the way of its dream of unification and national renewal.
Washington has shown signs that it is increasing support for Taiwan. Last month, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan despite furious Chinese protests, and Washington and Taipei opened trade negotiations. Biden’s latest remark will surely add to Beijing’s insecurity over the future of Taiwan. That may contribute to a cycle of reaction and counterreaction that could deteriorate into outright conflict.
Worse for the U.S., though, would be to pretend that nothing has changed in East Asia. The fundamentals of Washington’s Taiwan policy were laid down when the U.S. opened formal diplomatic relations with Communist China in 1979, and Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which provided a framework for continued ties to Taiwan in the absence of official recognition. The arrangement has helped keep the peace in the region ever since. But the China of 2022 is not the China of 1979.
Back then, China’s leaders desired a partnership with the U.S. to develop their country’s poverty-ridden economy and to contend with the Soviet Union (then a mutual enemy for Beijing and Washington). They were never happy that Washington persisted in supporting Taiwan: China’s top leader at the time, Deng Xiaoping, scolded then-Senator Biden on this point when the two met in Beijing in April of that year. But the Communist leadership was willing to set its concerns over Taiwan’s status aside to pursue the two countries’ shared interests.
No longer. Chinese President Xi Jinping has turned to nationalist causes to rally domestic support for his ever more repressive regime as the Communist Party’s standard measure of its legitimacy—rapid economic development—runs out of steam. In this context, Taiwan is a plug-and-play issue for Xi, ready-made to tap the patriotic sentiments of the Chinese public.
Beijing has escalated both its hostile rhetoric and its displays of hard power toward Taipei. Over the past two years, Beijing has engaged in a campaign of military intimidation against Taiwan, regularly sending squads of jet fighters buzzing near the island. That effort reached a new and dangerous level last month when Beijing responded to Pelosi’s visit with extensive military exercises that surrounded the island, creating a partial blockade for the first time. The backdrop to these actions is Beijing’s drive to build its military capabilities and alter the regional power balance with the U.S.
Beijing’s new aggressive posture toward Taiwan also breaks the long-standing practice that has preserved the peace, and that cannot be taken lightly. Facing such altered circumstances, policy makers in Washington have to ask whether their traditional approach to Taiwan can still serve its main objective: maintaining stability in the Taiwan Strait. Now that China’s leaders appear to be concluding that unification with Taiwan on their terms may be possible only with the use of force, the established U.S. policy could be insufficient. The weaknesses of Washington’s strategic ambiguity are becoming apparent as Beijing’s ambitions grow and relations between the U.S. and China deteriorate.
Today, Beijing’s leadership views the U.S. as a power in decline, and it may believe that American society is too divided to muster the political will for a distant foreign war. That perception could lead to miscalculation, raising the risk of conflict. In that case, deterring Beijing from any attempt to resolve the Taiwan issue by force of arms may require a firm declaration of American intent. So making clear to the Chinese that the U.S. will fight for Taiwan may now be necessary.
Yet the other part of Biden’s 60 Minutes statement is important, too. “Taiwan makes their own judgments about their independence,” he said. “That’s their decision.” He added that the U.S. is not encouraging Taiwanese independence—and an alteration of that stance would be a drastic shift in Washington’s policy. In fact, Biden is reiterating only what has always been self-evident in U.S. policy: The future of Taiwan must be decided by the people of Taiwan, not imposed on them by Beijing.
Biden may be deliberately choosing to present a U.S. shift on Taiwan in a series of impromptu remarks, in effect creating a revised strategic ambiguity—a new version that strongly hints at American intentions but avoids any formal commitment. That could be a method of strengthening deterrence without alienating Beijing too much. It may at some point become necessary for the president make a clear and indisputable statement of American policy.
Either way, Washington should not be fearful of charting this new course: China is changing, and U.S. policy has to change with it. The debate over Biden’s comments reveals that the world is entering an era in which the comfortable assumptions that have kept the peace need reassessment. Clinging to old ideas, even long-successful ones, carries risks of its own.