In an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes” on September 18, 2022, Biden vowed to protect the island in the face of any attack. Pressed if that meant the US getting “involved militarily,” the president replied: “Yes.”
Meredith Oyen, an expert on US-China relations at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, helps explain the background to Biden’s comments and untangles what should be read into his remarks – and what shouldn’t.
What did Biden say and why was it significant?
In an exchange on “60 Minutes,” Biden was asked directly if the US would “come to Taiwan’s defense” if it were attacked by China. He replied: “Yes, we have a commitment to do that.” He also confirmed that US intervention would be military.
By my count, this is the fourth time Biden as president has suggested that the U.S. will come to Taiwan’s aid militarily if the island is attacked. In 2021 he made similar remarks in an interview with ABC News and then again while taking part in a CNN town hall event. And earlier this year he said something similar while in Japan, marking the first time he has made the assertion while in Asia.
On each occasion he has made such a comment, it has been followed quite quickly by the White House’s walking back the remarks, by issuing statements along the lines of “what the president actually means is …” and stressing that this isn’t a shift away from the official US policy on China or Taiwan.
But I think that with each incident it is harder to prevaricate about Biden’s comments being an accident, or suggest that he in some way misspoke. I think it is clear at this point that Biden’s interpretation of the Taiwan Relations Act – which since 1979 has set out the parameters of US policy on the island – is that it allows for a US military response should China invade.
And despite White House claims to the contrary, I believe that does represent a departure from the long-standing policy of “strategic ambiguity” on Taiwan.
What does ‘strategic ambiguity’ mean?
Strategic ambiguity has long been the US policy toward Taiwan – really since the 1950s, but certainly from 1979 onward. While it does not explicitly commit the US to defending Taiwan in every circumstance, it does leave open the option of American defensive support to Taiwan in the event of an unprovoked attack by China.
Crucially, the US hasn’t really said what it will do – so does this support mean economic aid, supply of weapons or US boots on the ground? China and Taiwan are left guessing if – and to what extent – the US will be involved in any China-Taiwan conflict.
By leaving the answer to that question ambiguous, the US holds a threat over 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 rolled out. It was certainly effective when the US was in a much stronger position militarily compared with China. But it might be less effective as a threat now that China’s military is catching up with the US.
Leading voices from US allies in Asia, such as Japan, believe that “strategic clarity” might be a better option now – with the US stating outright that it would defend Taiwan if the island were attacked.
What is the history of US relations with Taiwan?
After the victory of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949, the defeated Republic of China government withdrew to the island of Taiwan, located just 100 miles off the shore of Fujian province. And until the 1970s, the US recognized only this exiled Republic of China on Taiwan as the government of China.
But in 1971, the United Nations shifted recognition to the People’s Republic of China on the mainland. In 1972, President Richard Nixon made a now-famous trip to China to announce a rapprochement and sign the Shanghai Communique, a joint statement from Communist China and the US signaling a commitment to pursue formal diplomatic relations.
A critical section of that document stated: “The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States Government does not challenge that position.”
The wording was crucial: The US was not formally committing to a position on whether Taiwan was part of the China nation. Instead, it was acknowledging what the governments of either territory asserted – that there is “one China.”
Where does US commitment of military support for Taiwan come from?
After establishing formal diplomatic relations with China in 1979, the U.S. built an informal relationship with the ROC on Taiwan. In part to push back against 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 the US to sell military items to help the island maintain its defense – setting the path for the policy of strategic ambiguity.
What has changed recently?
China has long maintained its desire for an eventual peaceful reunification of its country with the island it considers a rogue province. But the commitment to the principle of “one China” has become increasingly one-sided. It is an absolute for Beijing. In Taiwan, however, resistance to the idea of reunification has grown amid a surge of support for moving the island toward independence.
Beijing has become more aggressive of late in asserting that Taiwan must be “returned to China.” Domestic politics plays a role in this. At times of internal instability in China, Beijing has sounded a more belligerent tone on relations between the two entities separated by the Taiwan Strait. We have seen this over the past year with Beijing sending military aircraft into Taiwan’s Air Defense Zone.
Meanwhile, the Chinese assertion of increased authority over Hong Kong has damaged the argument for “one country, two systems” as a means of peaceful reunification with Taiwan.
How has the US position shifted in the face of Beijing’s stance?
Biden has definitely been more openly supportive of Taiwan than previous presidents. He 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 didn’t overturn the Taiwan Travel Act passed under the previous administration of Donald Trump. This legislation allows US officials to visit Taiwan in an official capacity.
In August 2022, US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, making her the highest-profile US politician to go to the island in decades.
Meanwhile, for the second time, Biden in his “60 Minutes” interview indicated a belief that it was up to Taiwan to decide its future, departing slightly from the usual line that the U.S. doesn’t support changes to the status quo. However, Biden has also said he does not support a unilateral declaration of independence from Taiwan.
So there has been a shift to a degree. But the White House is keen not to overstate any change. At heart, there is a desire by the US to not stray from the Shanghai Communique.
So is an invasion of Taiwan likely?
The current rhetoric from the US and response from China do raise the risk of conflict, but I don’t think we are at that point yet. Any invasion across the Taiwan Strait would be militarily complex.
It also comes with risks of backlash from the international community. Taiwan would receive support from not only the US – in an unclear capacity, given Biden’s remarks – but also Japan and likely other countries in the region.
Meanwhile, China maintains that it wants to see reintegration through peaceful means. As long as Taiwan doesn’t force the issue and declare independence unilaterally, I think there is tolerance in Beijing to wait it out. And despite some commentary to the contrary, I don’t think the invasion of Ukraine has raised the prospects of a similar move on Taiwan.
In fact, given that Russia is now bogged down in a monthslong conflict that has hit its military credibility and economy, the Ukraine invasion may actually serve as a warning to Beijing.