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Did Biden’s Taiwan Remarks Represent a US Policy Change?

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Did Biden’s Taiwan Remarks Represent a US Policy Change?

“Strategic ambiguity” is not a policy; it is a tactic. The difference matters.

Did Biden’s Taiwan Remarks Represent a US Policy Change?
Credit: Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

In the aftermath of the fall of Kabul, U.S. President Joe Biden gave an interview to ABC News on August 18, discussing a wide range of aspects of the American withdrawal and its repercussions.  The interviewer, George Stephanopoulos, also asked Biden about the implications for U.S. credibility elsewhere in Asia, saying: “You talked about our adversaries, China and Russia. You already see China telling Taiwan, ‘See? You can’t count on the Americans.’”

In his answer, Biden stated:

We have made — kept every commitment. 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. Same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with– Taiwan. It’s not even comparable to talk about that.

The fact that he mentioned “Taiwan” in the same breath as “NATO allies, Japan and South Korea” – countries that have formal security guarantees from the United States – was greeted in Taiwan as a welcome step in the direction of “strategic clarity.” One commentator, Taiwanese academic Su Tzu-yun, said the remarks were indicative of a broader U.S. shift toward “constructive strategic clarity” on Taiwan.

Another Taiwan-based commentator, Taiwan Thinktank Director Lai I-chung, said Biden’s remark is an affirmation of U.S. commitments made in response to criticism about his handling of Afghanistan. “There is no reason to blow one sentence out of proportion,” he said. “Biden’s grouping of Taiwan together with other allies should be understood as an acknowledgment that Washington has a commitment to the country, and not that the nature of the commitments are identical,” he added.

But the matter subsequently prompted a heated debate in the United States on whether Biden had “changed policy.” The United States has formal defense treaties with NATO, Japan, and South Korea, but not in the case of Taiwan, where the commitments are laid down in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act and the 1982 Six Assurances by President Ronald Reagan.

The confusion was exacerbated when, later the same day, an unnamed official explained that “U.S. policy has not changed.” Below, I examine what has changed, and what hasn’t.

“Strategic Ambiguity” Is Not a Policy

In order to get a clear understanding of the issue, it is essential to make a distinction between “policy” on the one hand and “means” or “tactics” on the other hand.

A policy is generally understood to be a set of aims or goals, and these are laid down in documents and statements by the government. Policies remain steady over a longer period of time, but do change when there are fundamental changes in the circumstances on the ground, or when a new government sets new priorities and goals.

Means or tactics are approaches or methods designed to achieve the stated policy. These vary according to the circumstances and can be quickly changed to adapt to new circumstances.

Most of the reporting and criticism of Biden’s statement focused on whether he had “deviated” from the strategic ambiguity concept, which leaves unstated whether the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense, letting the U.S. response depend on the circumstances.

The problem with this argument is that it elevates “strategic ambiguity” to the level of “policy.”  This is fundamentally wrong. It is and remains a mere tactic designed to achieve a goal: in this case “peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.” It is not a goal in and of itself. There is no document that states that U.S. policy toward Taiwan includes “strategic ambiguity” in any way.

The fact that “strategic ambiguity” is not part of U.S. policy was actually reinforced on August 19, the day after Biden’s interview, when in a press conference at the State Department, spokesman Ned Price elaborated on what U.S. policy toward Taiwan is.

Price stated:

[W]e will continue to support a peaceful resolution of cross-strait relations consistent with the wishes and best interests of the Taiwan people. We urge Beijing, as we have before, to cease its military, diplomatic, economic pressure against Taiwan, and instead to engage in meaningful dialogue. We do have an abiding interest in peace and security across the Taiwan Strait. We consider this central to the security and stability of the broader region, of the broader Indo-Pacific. Events elsewhere in the world, whether that’s in Afghanistan or any other region, are not going to change that.

When it comes to our engagement with the people on Taiwan, we’ve spoken to this before. We believe in deepening those connections consistent with our “one China” policy, with the Taiwan Relations Act, with the Six Assurances and the Three Communiques. That remains our policy…

Thus, “peaceful resolution of cross-strait relations consistent with the wishes and best interests of the Taiwan people,” “peace and stability across the Strait,” and “deepening our engagement with the people on Taiwan” are all key elements of and objectives in U.S. policy toward Taiwan.  These have not changed, and have even been reinforced by Biden’s statement.

Moving Toward “Strategic Clarity”

That said, “strategic ambiguity” versus “strategic clarity” is still an essential debate, but – again – it should not be elevated to the level of “policy.” A good debate is needed in order to sharpen our collective senses and wisdom on how to push back against China’s increasing aggressiveness.

Advocates of “strategic clarity” have argued that it is precisely this new belligerent posture by China that would warrants a shift to “strategic clarity”: making it clear to China that in the case of Chinese military moves against Taiwan, the United States would unequivocally respond should Taiwan come under Chinese armed attack.

The problem in the current debate, however, is that almost all commentators present “strategic ambiguity” vs. “strategic clarity” as an “either-or” proposition. It would be helpful if we could change the perspective by seeing it more as a continuum: Where on the spectrum between “ambiguity” and “clarity” should the United States be positioned?

The fact is that over the past years – through the U.S. government’s words and actions – the United States and other like-minded countries have significantly shifted in the direction of “clarity.” Today, it is much more certain than it was even two or three years ago that the United States, with assistance from Australia, Japan, and others, would come to Taiwan’s defense in the case of an attack. Thus, the needle has shifted a long way in the direction of “strategic clarity” already.

So, when Biden made his statement equating the defense of Taiwan with that of Japan, South Korea, and NATO, this did not constitute a change of U.S. policy toward Taiwan. But it was a welcome move in the right direction and a step toward “strategic clarity,” strengthening U.S. resolve and determination to defend Taiwan in the case China attacks the democratic island or uses other coercive methods to force its will on the people of the island.