Biden’s Taiwan Position Is Not an Accident

In Japan earlier this week, President Biden, responding to a direct question, gave a direct answer:

Reporter: “Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan, if it comes to that?”

President Biden: “Yes.”

According to Asia watchers in Washington, this simple statement may have either upended 40 years of U.S. policy regarding Taiwan, precipitated a major crisis with China, or could need to be walked back by the White House staff.

It may be possible, though, that the president was not changing U.S. policy, but rather reshaping the existing policy to adjust for changes in geopolitics over the past 40 years (the rise of China) and over the past 90 days (Russia’s invasion of Ukraine).

Q1: What has U.S. policy on Taiwan been?

A1: Over the past 40 years, U.S. policy toward China and Taiwan has been complicated. It is based on the “One China Policy,” where the United States acknowledges China’s assertion that there is only one China, though it does not concede its agreement with China on that view. The United States also recognizes China diplomatically as a country but does not offer the same type of recognition to Taiwan—a self-governing democratic island home to more than 22 million people. U.S. policy is also based on the Taiwan Relations Act, which sets in U.S. law a requirement that the United States make available defense articles and defense services necessary for Taiwan to defend itself.

Nothing in existing U.S. law or policy commits the United States to using its military to defend Taiwan if it were to be attacked. However, U.S. policy does hold both China and Taiwan to an expectation of resolving any differences they may have through peaceful means.

Q2: Why does strategic ambiguity matter?

A2: Strategic ambiguity has, for 40 years, allowed the United States to uphold relations with Taiwan while deepening diplomatic and economic engagement with Beijing. Abandoning strategic ambiguity could be viewed as escalatory by Beijing and jeopardize stability in the Indo-Pacific.

In practice, much of U.S. policy involving China and Taiwan has rested on the concept of strategic ambiguity. The idea is that by avoiding making commitments or setting redlines, the United States is best able to deter violence and avoid having to make a choice on whether it would get involved in a conflict, because neither China nor Taiwan would want to initiate a fight given the likelihood of losing. Last fall, there was a debate among China experts on whether it was time to end strategic ambiguity.

Though not explicit, the debate may have been spurred by a statement last August by President Biden that the United States would respond if “anyone were to invade or take action” against NATO, Japan, South Korea, or Taiwan. At the time, the administration clarified there was no change in policy. However, Biden made a very similar statement again only two months later.

Q3: What was the context for President Biden’s statement?

A3: The president has now made essentially the same statement three times. In the most recent instance, however, the statement appears to be well considered and offered in a context that may explain the president’s thought process.

Prior to his one-word answer to a specific question, the president offered a detailed exposition of his thinking.

President Biden begins by explicitly affirming existing policy: “Our policy toward Taiwan has not—Taiwan—has not changed at all. We remain committed to supporting the peace and stability across the Taiwan Straits and ensuring that there is no unilateral change to the status quo.”

He then describes Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the importance of Russia not emerging from such an act without enduring consequences. Then, he brings it back to the China-Taiwan situation, quoted in fu­ll below:

“And the reason I bother to say this [about Russia’s invasion]—it’s not just about Ukraine: If, in fact, after all [Vladimir Putin has] done there’s a rapprochement met between China—I mean, excuse me, between the Ukrainians and—and Russia, and these sanctions are not continued to be sustained in many ways, then what signal does that send to China about the cost of attempting—attempting to take Taiwan by force? They’re already flirting with danger right now by flying so close and all the maneuvers they’ve undertaken.

But the United States is committed. We’ve made a commitment. We support the One China policy. We support all—all that we’ve done in the past, but that does not mean—it does not mean that China has the ability—has the—excuse me, the jurisdiction to go in and use force to take over Taiwan.

So, we stand firmly with Japan and with other nations that—not to let that happen. And my expectation is it will not happen; it will not be attempted.

And my expectation is—a lot of it depends upon just how strongly the world makes clear that that kind of action is going to result in long-term disapprobation by the rest of the community.”

That is when the reporter asks, “Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan, if it comes to that?”

And he answers, “Yes.”

President Biden was making clear that under his administration, the United States would not sit idly by and watch as a large, autocratic country attempted to invade and demolish a free and democratic people. Based on congressional action on Ukraine and travel to Taiwan, there is bipartisan support for the president’s position.

Q4: Why is the president straying from established policy?

A4: President Biden appears to be learning lessons from what did not work with Russia in Ukraine. As Russia built up forces for its invasion of Ukraine, President Biden stated declaratively that committing U.S. troops to Ukraine was, “not on the table.” The objective, presumably, was to avoid a localized conflict becoming a global nuclear exchange. If that was the only aim, it has worked—so far. If the aim was to deter Russia’s invasion through confidence building, the plan did not work, as many have noted.

By explicitly linking his position to both Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and to “militarily” supporting Taiwan, President Biden suggests a level of support for Taiwan at least as rigorous as Ukraine is currently receiving, though potentially this could be something greater. Arguably, this represents the president (and surrounding team) is applying lessons from not deterring Russia to deter China from a similar action.

Does this alter the long-standing level of strategic ambiguity of whether the United States will become involved in a conflict involving Taiwan? Yes. It does not, however, remove ambiguity. It does not commit U.S. forces to fighting in, from, or near Taiwan—nor does it rule out the possibility. It does not commit the United States to involvement should Taiwan initiate hostilities.

Q5: Is this a needed policy change?

A5: The current U.S. policy regarding Taiwan is, well, long-standing. It was crafted in an era when China’s GDP amounted to 6 percent of U.S. GDP, the Soviet Union was the greatest threat to the United States and its allies, and China’s only military advantage lay in sheer numbers rather than any plausible set of capabilities. Today, numerous countries are worried about China’s informational, political, economic, and even military efforts to assert its sovereignty beyond any internationally recognized perimeter. China’s military continues a 30-year trajectory of modernization and high-tech expansion. And it continues to engage in provocations against Taiwan in the air—as President Biden noted—and against Japan both at sea and in the air.

A policy crafted in times past to uphold a status quo that no longer exists certainly needs to be reexamined, if not fully transformed. President Biden’s recurrent formulation seems a modest shift aiming to signal both continuity with past practice and the clarity of U.S. resolve.

John Schaus is a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

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John Schaus

John Schaus

Former Senior Fellow, International Security Program