Welcomed by some, decried by others, U.S. President Joe Biden’s latest public guarantee that the U.S. military will fight alongside Taiwan against China has mostly elicited confusion among observers. As on previous occasions, several White House officials somewhat disingenuously insisted that Biden’s comments did not indicate a change in U.S. policy toward Taiwan.
U.S. National Security Council Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell said on September 19 that “our policy has been consistent and is unchanged” because the U.S. objective of maintaining the status quo has not changed. This reasoning, however, lacks cogency because “policy” refers as much to the methods and strategy for achieving a goal as to the goal itself. If a U.S. administration decided to pursue the longstanding goal of peace across the Taiwan Strait by halting all arms sales to and diplomatic support for Taiwan, no one would believe this wasn’t a policy change.
The day after Campbell’s sophistry, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said Biden was merely answering “a hypothetical question,” not announcing a change in U.S. policy. This explanation, as well, is logically flawed, erroneously implying that the answer to a hypothetical question cannot possibly reveal underlying policy. In fact, hypothetical questions are a good way to expose plans and intentions, which is why policymakers often refuse to answer them.
The canon of U.S. policy toward Taiwan is complex. Biden may be unfamiliar with it and uninterested in mastering it. Nevertheless, whether intentionally or not, his brief regurgitation departed from previous U.S. policy in two ways.
First, as on three other occasions during his presidency, Biden moved from “strategic ambiguity” toward “strategic clarity” by pledging to send U.S. military forces to fight on Taiwan’s side in the event of war. In making this statement, Biden referred to “what we signed onto a long time ago.” In previous statements, he similarly mentioned a U.S. “commitment” to militarily defend Taiwan. But the U.S. government has never “signed onto” such a “commitment.” The only thing that comes close is the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979, a U.S. domestic law, which carefully avoids pre-committing the United States to intervention in a Taiwan Strait war. The TRA says only that Washington will “maintain the capacity of the United States to resist” a military attack against Taiwan, would view an attack or blockade against Taiwan with “grave concern,” and will provide Taiwan with arms.
Second, Biden strayed from previous U.S. policy by implying assent to Taiwan independence. (Taiwan is presently de facto independent but not de jure or formally independent because a few key linkages with China remain, including use of the name “Republic of China” and certain verbiage in Taiwan’s constitution.) The summary of U.S. policy toward Taiwan on the U.S. Department of State’s website specifies that “We oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo from either side; we do not support Taiwan independence.” (Interestingly, the “we do not support Taiwan independence” line was removed from the website in late May, before being added back in about a week later.)
Biden’s statement on September 18 was subtly but significantly different. “Taiwan makes their own judgments about their independence,” he said. “We are not encouraging their being independent. That’s their decision.” Taiwan deciding to become formally independent would fit the U.S. definition of a unilateral change of the status quo. Biden’s latest statement, however, indicated this would not disqualify Taiwan from automatic U.S. military intervention.
Biden’s position here contrasts starkly with U.S. Taiwan policy during the George W. Bush presidency. Perceiving that Taiwan’s then-President Chen Shui-bian was steering his country toward severing its formal links with China, with a cross-strait war the likely result, U.S. officials worked both publicly and behind the scenes to halt the movement toward de jure independence. They delivered warnings implying that Taiwan could not count on U.S. intervention if Washington assessed that the Taipei government brought on war by recklessly provoking Beijing.
Biden’s movement toward greater strategic clarity arguably has the virtue of eliminating the scenario in which Beijing would decide to attack only if it believed the United States would not intervene. Almost certainly, however, any cross-strait war plan drawn up by Beijing already assumes that the U.S. will join the fight. This greatly discounts any advantage from abandoning strategic ambiguity.
On the other hand, there are disadvantages from the standpoint of U.S. interests to what Biden is doing. Guaranteed U.S. military support might embolden pro-independence politicians in Taiwan to push for formal and total separation from China, reprising the scenario the Bush administration faced during the Chen presidency. Although it is reasonable for Taiwanese nationalists to wish for statehood, the U.S. government has generally viewed the diplomatic indignities suffered by Taiwanese as the necessary price of geopolitical stability – as in avoiding a cross-strait war. Current Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen has been cautious about pushing for de jure independence, but her term-limited tenure will conclude in 2024 and her successors might be more risk-acceptant.
The expectation of a U.S. rescue in the event of war might also encourage defense free-riding by Taiwan. The need for defense reforms, increased defense spending, better military training, and a more efficient defense strategy are by now well-recognized, but already-slow implementation could lose what little momentum it has if Taiwan’s people expect the United States will fight their war for them.
Biden’s statements pre-committing U.S. intervention are explainable as attempts by his administration to counter what they see as an increasing danger that China will soon attempt to annex Taiwan by military force. An underlying assumption is that Beijing’s decision on whether and when to attack Taiwan is based on feasibility – that is, China’s leadership will go to war when the generals think they can win, based on their capabilities and resolve versus those of their adversaries. In that case, the appropriate response is to deter a Chinese attack by demonstrating increased U.S. capabilities and resolve. A guarantee of U.S. intervention is an upgrade in resolve compared to strategic ambiguity.
It is plausible, however, that the Chinese really believe their accusations that the U.S. government is “salami slicing” and “hollowing out” the U.S. One China policy. Indeed, there has been a steady parade of U.S. gestures of increased support for the Taipei government throughout the Trump and Biden administrations, with the visit by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi only the most high-profile example. The Chinese argue that their military signaling and exercises near Taiwan are a reaction to what they see as an increasing U.S. effort to permanently close off the possibility of Taiwan politically rejoining China.
Biden’s four public statements pre-committing U.S. military intervention play into this Chinese fear, but Biden’s September 18 remarks added the new element of U.S. acquiescence to Taiwan independence.
China’s leadership doesn’t view the Taiwan issue as simply a military problem, but rather as a political issue that fundamentally involves the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party to rule China. A show of U.S. determination will not necessarily deter Beijing from opting for war, even if victory is uncertain. Rather, the conclusion that Washington is unalterably committed to keeping Taiwan outside of China could persuade Beijing that war is unavoidable
Some of the confusion surrounding Biden’s Taiwan statements can be dispelled. Despite its denials, the Biden administration has, at minimum, adjusted U.S. policy toward Taiwan. It leans closer to strategy clarity on U.S. intervention and is less worried about a Taiwan government dragging the United States into war by declaring de jure independence from China. The Biden team thinks these adjustments will prevent a Chinese miscalculation. Unfortunately, that may itself be a miscalculation.