On Monday, President Joe Biden met his Chinese counterpart President Xi Jingping on the sidelines of a summit in Bali, Indonesia. Biden supposedly told Xi that the United States would respond if China did not use its leverage to better contain North Korea’s rogue behavior. Although Biden may not realize that he is merely rehashing a failed policy approach dating back to the Reagan administration. Biden also reportedly complained to Xi about China’s increasing belligerence toward Taiwan, a country it historically has never really controlled.
Xi would be correct to be confused about Biden’s position on and commitment to Taipei. After all, Biden has repeatedly promised to defend Taiwan, only to have his National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan or other senior unnamed staffers clarify that the president did not mean what he said.
Then there was the White House’s anger when, three months ago, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi traveled to Taiwan. Her trip came in defiance of both mainland Chinese warnings and a White House request that she cancel (or indefinitely postpone) her visit.
Pelosi was not the first Democrat to defy a Democrat in the White House to do the right thing on Taiwan. In 1979, Sen. Ted Kennedy, a liberal Democrat who once called for the recognition of the People’s Republic of China from the floor of the UN, spearheaded the Taiwan Relations Act much to the annoyance of President Jimmy Carter. Enacted on the same day the U.S. established relations with Beijing, the Act both declared that “the United States will make available to Taipei such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability” and also put China’s communist rulers on notice that the United States might respond militarily to an invasion of the island. Beijing was furious but buried its anger when the Carter administration offered them the most-favored-nation status.
When it comes to the defense of Taipei today, Biden’s red lines mean less if his concept of Taiwan does not include the entirety of Taiwan. Here, the devil is in the details. According to the text of the Taiwan Relations Act, “The term ‘Taiwan’ includes, as the context may require, the islands of Taiwan and the Pescadores.” The problem, of course, is that Taiwan is much more than the main island and the Pescadores [Penghu] islands. It also includes the offshore islands Quemoy and Matsu (epicenter of the Eisenhower-era Taiwan crisis), Pratas [Dongsha] island near Hong Kong, and Taipeng Island.
What the United States essentially does would be analogous to NATO’s collective defense commitments to the United States, excluding Maine, Hawaii, and Idaho.
The Taiwan Policy Act of 2022 is a good step to updating the U.S. commitment to Taipei and bringing the bilateral relationship between the United States and Taiwan into the 21st century. Still, its failure to upgrade the Taiwan Relations Act’s definition of what constitutes Taiwan to include all Taiwanese territory opens the path for Xi to attack Taiwan without fear of consequence. The repeated contradictions of Biden by his staff replace strategic ambiguity with strategic confusion. To not extend the umbrella of the Taiwan Relations Act and Taiwan Policy Act over the entirety of Taiwan would add to this strategic negligence.
It is time for Congress to act to end a loophole that Xi could, both literally and figuratively, drive a tank through.
Author Biography: Dr. Michael Rubin, a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he specializes in Iran, Turkey, and the broader Middle East. A former Pentagon official, Dr. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, and both pre-and postwar Iraq. He also spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. For more than a decade, he taught classes at sea about the Horn of Africa and Middle East conflicts, culture, and terrorism, to deployed US Navy and Marine units. Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005). Dr. Rubin has a PhD and an MA in history from Yale University, where he also obtained a BS in biology.