While answering questions at a press conference in Tokyo with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida last week, U.S. President Joe Biden directly linked a potential China-Taiwan conflict to Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine. Arguing that the danger of invasion was closer than ever, evidenced by repeated Chinese incursions into Taiwan’s air defense zone, Biden opened himself up to the inevitable question of whether the United States would defend Taiwan, if invaded. Biden gave positive confirmation and suggested, like Ukraine, that the “idea that [Taiwan] can be taken by force” was inappropriate.
Almost immediately, Biden’s advisors began to walk back his statement, noting that Biden was not suggesting a change in the longstanding U.S. policy of strategic ambiguity, the practice of being intentionally ambiguous on the status of Taiwan. Gen. Lloyd Austin, the U.S. defense secretary, offered further clarifications, noting that Biden’s comment “highlighted our commitment under the Taiwan Relations Act to help provide Taiwan the means to defend itself.” This wasn’t the only time Biden’s advisors had to retract a statement on Taiwan. Last August, Biden said that Taiwan would be included in the mix of countries America would defend against potential provocation.
After multiple Biden fumbles on the American policy of strategic ambiguity, some have suggested that it might be time to dispense with the idea that it can now be maintained, or that the Biden administration doesn’t yet have a sound foreign policy on Taiwan amid changing geopolitical conditions. The truth is that Biden isn’t too comfortable with dramatic change and the first year of his administration’s foreign policy toward East Asia provides ample evidence of that.
First, Biden has some leeway with regard to a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan. The island is not Ukraine. Chinese ships carrying soldiers, and an assortment of military vehicles, artillery, ammunition, and provisions, would have to cross the Taiwan Strait, which spans 128 kilometers at its narrowest point. Air transportation would be limited. Taiwan is in the middle of establishing anti-ship missile squadrons to fend off a potential Chinese naval invasion. It also has fairly advanced, home-grown anti-ship missiles that can strike targets up to 400 kilometers away.
As a part of its agreement under the Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. agreed to make “defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.” While Taiwan has been equipped with a range of American tanks, it requested and was denied access to newer F-16 fighter jets during the Obama administration. Current upgrades such as the receipt of M109A6 Paladin self-propelled howitzers have been delayed significantly due to supply chain issues. The Biden administration has tried to steer the flow and complement of weapons to Taiwan that are best suited to respond to a Chinese invasion, and in the middle of heightened tensions, the U.S. brought advanced F-22s from Hawaii as a part of Operation Pacific Iron in 2021. While these developments suggest that Biden is living up to American obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act, it doesn’t suggest a major shift in policy.
However, by gaffing on multiple occasions, Biden has clearly elevated the temperature in the region, and provoked a series of angry outbursts from Chinese officials. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Wang Wenbin warned that no country should underestimate Beijing’s “firm resolve, staunch will, and strong ability” to protect its territorial interests. Wang reiterated that “No one should stand in opposition to the 1.4 billion Chinese people.”
Yet, it hasn’t just been Biden that has raised eyebrows in Beijing. A number of U.S. lawmakers have visited Taiwan recently, including Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and five Republican lawmakers, each of whom were praised by Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen for their visit. One Republican Senator, Josh Hawley of Missouri, introduced a bill to fast-track arms sales to Taiwan by hastening Congressional approval and eliminating potential roadblocks, while another, Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) urged the Taiwanese “to get more serious about their own defense spending.”
It is the more hawkish of Republican lawmakers that have pushed Congress to act on Taiwan, with Hawley suggesting that “Beijing will stop at nothing in its quest to dominate the Indo-Pacific and then the world.” This rhetoric is akin to that of Niall Ferguson, a historian who suggested last year that the fall of Taiwan to the Chinese could be the “American Suez,” referencing Great Britain’s loss of the Suez Canal to Egypt under President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1956. That event, Ferguson noted, marked the end of Britain’s status as a Great Power.
Biden, however, is not swayed by hawkishness or Congressional bravado. At best, he is a foreign policy incrementalist, pursuing smaller policy changes rather than sweeping ones. This is characteristic of his overall policy toward China, as well as his Senate career and campaign for the presidency. He is less inclined to be transformative, possibly out of lifelong pragmatism. Even as he was pushed by a Japanese defense official to “be strong” against an aggressive China while he was still president-elect, his Taiwan policy is not too different from Trump, his predecessor, who also accelerated arms sales to the island.
Biden’s gaffes may signal his turn toward more aggressive rhetoric, but it doesn’t represent the administration’s abandonment of strategic ambiguity. It takes two sides to amplify regional tensions. China has resumed sending warplanes into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ), at one time in late January sending 39 planes in a single day, including nuclear-capable bombers. Chinese aggression around Taiwan’s ADIZ has increased dramatically, doubling last year. Statements by Biden that set off alarm bells for Beijing do more to reassure a nervous Taiwan, though they also leave allies like Japan and Australia in a difficult spot.
It is not Biden who leads the chorus in suggesting the abandonment of the status quo policy on Taiwan. Numerous commentators, including this one, have suggested a policy of clarity rather than ambiguity. Former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo is among the main proponents of this change, recommending that the U.S. openly defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion. Clarity for Abe provides some assurance for Japan, but of course there are many downside risks, including dramatic escalation under a scenario in which Taiwan declares independence. The possibility of independence, without crystal clear assurances from Taiwan that it would not take this step, would be enough to deter a cautious Biden from abandoning the current policy.