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Strategic Ambiguity On Taiwan Is Dead

Joe Biden
U.S. President Joe Biden attends the Quad leaders’ summit, in Tokyo, Japan, May 24, 2022. Yuichi Yamazaki/Pool via REUTERS

Biden’s Latest Defense Pledge to Taiwan: Gaffe or the Real U.S. Policy? President Joe Biden has once again roiled the geopolitical waters of East Asia with his latest statement on U.S. policy toward Taiwan. At a May 23, 2022, news conference during his visit to Japan, Biden strongly indicated that he would go further on behalf of Taiwan’s defense than he has been willing to do with respect to Ukraine.  It is a significant distinction and an escalation of the U.S. commitment to Taipei. Biden has steadfastly refused to deploy U.S. forces in Ukraine, although Washington has provided tens of billions of dollars in weapons as well as intelligence assistance to help Kyiv defeat Russian forces.  When a reporter asked: “Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?” Biden answered flatly: “Yes.” There appeared to be no waffling either.  “You are?” the reporter followed up, making it clear that he was talking about direct U.S. military intervention. “That’s the commitment we made,” Biden replied.

Biden’s last statement was factually inaccurate. U.S. policy regarding Taiwan is governed by the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which was enacted when Washington shifted official diplomatic relations to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Under the TRA, the United States pledges only to sell Taiwan weapons of defensive nature and regard any PRC attack on the island as a severe breach of the peace in East Asia. If the latter occurs, the president and Congress are obligated to consult about an appropriate response. There is no official commitment for Washington to defend Taiwan, however, despite Biden’s implication to the contrary. Indeed, U.S. administrations over more than 4 decades have pursued a policy of “strategic ambiguity”—playing coy about what Washington’s response would be if the PRC resorted to military force.

It is tempting to dismiss Biden’s comment as simply the latest clumsy incident by a notoriously gaffe-prone president of a notoriously gaffe-prone administration. There are mounting reasons, though, to conclude that a more severe situation is taking place with respect to Taiwan policy. Biden has made too many similar statements about Washington’s alleged defense commitment to the island to believe that all of his comments are merely verbal blunders.

During an August 2021 interview with ABC News, host George Stephanopoulos asked the president if Washington’s allies could still rely on U.S. protection in light of the disorderly withdrawal from Afghanistan. Biden responded:  “We made a sacred commitment to Article Five that if in fact, anyone were to invade or take action against our NATO allies, we would respond.” He goes on: “The same alliance had been forged with Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan,” he stated [Emphasis added]. During an October 21, 2021, CNN town hall session, the president was asked explicitly whether the United States would defend Taiwan from a PRC attack.  Biden responded unhesitatingly: “Yes, we have a commitment.”

In all previous episodes, administration officials, including Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, scrambled to “clarify” (walk back) the president’s comments to assure the news media and international leaders (especially PRC leaders) that U.S. policy had not really changed and that the TRA still determined that policy. Both Austin and the White House staff tried to execute the same maneuver on this latest occasion.

However, there are strong reasons to conclude that the president’s repeated “gaffes” accurately reflect his actual policy regarding Taiwan. Under both Biden and his predecessor Donald Trump, Washington’s security relationship with Taipei has blossomed to the point that it has restored many of the features of the full-fledged bilateral security alliance that existed before 1979.

It’s also important to understand that if a crisis erupts in the Taiwan Strait, the fateful decision about the U.S. response will not be made by Lloyd Austin, Jake Sullivan, the White House press secretary, or any other figure who might favor greater restraint. Joe Biden will make that decision. It shouldn’t be that way; no single official should have such power. Yet, despite language in the Constitution giving Congress, not the president, the authority to make decisions about going to war, it is unlikely that Biden would do more than “consult” Congress, if he deigned to do even that much. For more than seven decades, Congress has abdicated its responsibility for issues of war and peace and allowed an unrestrained, imperial presidency to flourish. It is highly improbable that the legislative branch would now attempt to rein in Biden in the midst of a Taiwan crisis.

The unpleasant reality is that the U.S. commitment to Taiwan’s defense has expanded dramatically in recent years, with little congressional debate and hardly more significant public discussion about the enormous potential costs and risks. Strategic ambiguity is dead. Biden is not guilty of making repeated verbal gaffes about U.S. policy toward Taiwan, although it is understandable why that impression persists. He is stating the truth about the substance of U.S. policy, however covertly the shift has taken place.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor to 19FortyFive, is the author of 12 books on international affairs, including America’s Coming War with China: A Collision Course over Taiwan (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

Written By

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in security studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of 12 books and more than 900 articles on international affairs.  His books include (with Doug Bandow) The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2004).

14 Comments

14 Comments

  1. Joe Comment

    May 24, 2022 at 8:47 pm

    The fact that you had to write all these paragraphs to explain the meaning of what he said, full of “tempting to dismiss” and “however” and “it’s important to understand” type verbiage, is good evidence that the ambiguity still exists. The difference is one of emphasis: the US wants to make sure China understands the gravity of the situation before making its plans to invade Taiwan.

  2. Error404

    May 24, 2022 at 10:50 pm

    Biden a walking-dead hitlerian zombie who has stupidly baited a NUCLEAR POWER into a war in europe and now wants to repeat the same stupid act in east asia.

    Biden is no statesman, neither is he any leader of caliber. His mind is strained by hunter scandal, james scandal and big guy scandal, typical of people like biden. And bill clinton.

    To confront those notorious people of deadly scandals at the other end of the pacific, china needs to cooperate with russia to develop space-based nukes and one-shot killer ICBMs like the rs-28, or even rs-24.Or co-develop rs-26.

    This is because scandals-hit hitlerian zombie nations deserve or require obligatory nuke sanitization and nothing less.

    The current crisis in europe today involves a straight fight with hardened hitlerian neo-nazists & their backers AND there’s no way out except (use of) nukes.

    As for china, the danger from the hitlerian zombies nation is extremely most serious, by at least one significant order of magnitude compared to the danger that rose up ’31 -‘ 45.

    But first, china must pull xi jinping down from his high horse and either string him up at the nearest lamp post or exile him to europe.

    • Joe Comment

      May 25, 2022 at 9:05 pm

      Error404: If, say, North Korea comes demanding that Russia hand over Vladivostok, would Putin do it? Or is Putin a “walking dead hitlerian zombie who would stupidly bait a NUCLEAR POWER” by trying to defend established borders?

    • Adversity

      May 26, 2022 at 12:36 am

      Curious how you think he baited Putin into invading Ukraine? As far as I know this decision is on Putin and Putin only.

      Or do you truly believe that verbally reassuring allies of our commitments to defense counts as aggression against China and Russia? If so, I think you should tune down your media consumption. Enough is enough, we must make a stand.

      • PJ London

        May 28, 2022 at 8:35 am

        The US will happily make a stand, to the last Ukrainian, to the last Taiwanese, but has learned that the American “boots on the ground” are a joke.
        They are happy to kill a couple of million Iraqis or Afghanis, but let 20 US soldiers be ambushed and the whole lot run back to the USA.
        Any government that depends on the US has been in for a terrible shock.
        Like people in America depending on the police for protection, they talk a good game, but put their safety ahead of anything else.

  3. Brigadier V Mahalingam

    May 25, 2022 at 12:57 am

    Biden has managed to confuse everyone including the Americans. Going by US’ actions in Afghanistan, Middle East and Ukraine, I don’t expect US to put boots on ground. In all likelihood, US might arm and fund terror organisations to contain China. This has been the pattern all along.

    • Joe Comment

      May 25, 2022 at 9:44 am

      Brigadier V Mahalingam: Taiwan is much more important to the US than Afghanistan and Ukraine. And the party that rules Mainland China today was once called a terror organization.

  4. from Russia with love

    May 25, 2022 at 4:03 am

    amazing! people who life teaches nothing 🙂
    you just tried to put pressure on Russia (the largest exporter of hydrocarbons, food and fertilizers) with the help of Ukraine (also a major exporter of food) and got a food and energy crisis. did it teach the United States something? No! now you need to make a war in the Asian region and lose nearly a trillion dollars worth of imports from China! great idea! it’s funny to watch the US try to commit such a perverted act of suicide 🙂

    • Joe Comment

      May 25, 2022 at 8:27 pm

      from Russia with love: If the Mainland takes Taiwan, why would they stop there? Russia holds some historically Chinese territory like Primorsky, Amur and Khabarovsk. If they come to reclaim it, should “life teach” Russia to give them back and avoid war in the Asian region losing a lot of imports?

  5. Tom

    May 25, 2022 at 10:25 am

    As long as Russian trolls are allowed to publish their propaganda on this site I’ll not support this business model. There are many other sites that free of this annoyance.

  6. Kidneys Located

    May 25, 2022 at 10:38 am

    Yes, Your right.

  7. Stefan Stackhouse

    May 25, 2022 at 9:35 pm

    All that is left is for the books to start coming out: “You Can Profit From the Coming Nuclear Apocalypse”.

    • PJ London

      May 28, 2022 at 8:47 am

      You mean like this one :
      “How To Profit From The Coming Nuclear Holocaust”, written by Steve Skeates and illustrated by Paul Kirchner.

      1945 does not allow pictures, but if you google the title, the cover is delightful.

  8. Grant Allen Hodges

    May 27, 2022 at 7:47 am

    Biden is worse than a stopped clock which is, of course, right twice a day. But in the case of Taiwan, the U.S. has strategic interests. It would hurt US if China takes Taiwan. So we shouldn’t let them do it. China will do what they have always done, which is make lots of noise and stump around Tiananmen Square in rows . . . but they will not invade. They know that if the U.S. defends Taiwan, China will certainly lose.

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