President Joe Biden has hinted (not for the first time) that the US will intervene “military” if China tries to invade Taiwan. _
In an interview with CBS “60 Minutes” on September 18, 2022, Biden vowed to protect the island in the face of any attack. Asked if that meant “military involvement” by the United States, the president replied: “Yes.”
The remarks appeared to deviate from decades of official U.S. positions on Taiwan. But White House officials said the remarks did not represent any change in policy toward Taiwan.
Meredith Oyen, an expert on U.S.-China relations at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, helped explain the context of Biden’s remarks and shed light on what should and should not be read in his remarks.
What did Biden say and why is it important?
During the “60 Minutes” exchange, Biden was asked directly whether the United States would “defend Taiwan” if Taiwan were attacked by China. He replied: “Yes, we have a commitment to do so.” He also confirmed that the United States would intervene militarily.
By my count, this is the fourth time since Biden became president that the United States will provide military assistance to Taiwan if it is attacked. In 2021, he made similar remarks in an interview with ABC News and then again at a CNN town hall event. He made similar remarks in Japan earlier this year, his first in Asia.
Every time he makes such comments, the White House quickly walks back on them, issuing a statement along the lines of “The president actually meant…” and emphasizing that this is not a shift away from official U.S. policy toward China or Taiwan.
But I think that every time an incident occurs, it’s very difficult to prevaricate that Biden’s remarks were an accident, or to imply that he somehow said something wrong. I think that, at this point, Biden’s interpretation of the Taiwan Relations Act (which has set the parameters of US policy toward Taiwan since 1979) is clear that the US could respond militarily if China invaded. Despite the White House’s claims to the contrary, I think this is indeed a departure from the longstanding policy of “strategic ambiguity” toward Taiwan.
What does “strategic ambiguity” mean?
Strategic ambiguity has long been part of US policy toward Taiwan — since the 1950s, indeed, but certainly since 1979. While it does not expressly commit the United States to defend Taiwan under all circumstances, it does leave open the option of U.S. defensive support for Taiwan in the event of an unprovoked Chinese attack.
Crucially, the U.S. hasn’t really said what it will do — so does that support mean economic aid, arms supplies, or U.S. presence on the ground? Both China and Taiwan are speculating about whether and to what extent the United States would become involved in any China-Taiwan conflict.
By ambiguously answering this question, the United States has issued a threat to China: Invade Taiwan and see if you also confront the United States.
This has traditionally been a useful policy for the US, but things have changed since it was first introduced. This certainly works when the US military position is much stronger than China’s. But now that China’s military power is catching up with the United States, the threat may be less effective.
Leading voices from US allies in Asia, such as Japan, argue that “strategic clarity” may now be the better option – the US’ outspoken statement that it will defend Taiwan if it is attacked.
What is the history of US-Taiwan relations?
After the Chinese Communist victory in 1949, the defeated ROC government retreated to the island of Taiwan, just 100 miles off the coast of Fujian Province. Until the 1970s, the United States only recognized the Republic of China in exile on Taiwan as the Chinese government.
But in 1971, the United Nations switched to recognizing the mainland of the People’s Republic of China. In 1972, President Richard Nixon made a famous visit to China, announcing a rapprochement between the two countries and signing the Shanghai Communiqué, a joint statement by communist China and the United States signaling a commitment to formal diplomatic relations. A key part of the document states: “The United States recognizes that all Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait believe there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States government will not challenge this position.”
The wording is crucial: The United States has not formally stated its position on whether Taiwan is part of the Chinese nation. Instead, it recognizes the two governments’ claim that there is “one China”.
Where does the United States’ commitment to Taiwan’s military support come from?
After establishing formal diplomatic relations with China in 1979, the United States established informal relations with the Republic of China on Taiwan. U.S. lawmakers passed the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979, in part to oppose President Jimmy Carter’s decision to recognize communist China. The bill outlines plans to maintain close ties between the United States and Taiwan and includes provisions for U.S. military sales to Taiwan. Help the island maintain its defenses – paving the way for a policy of strategic ambiguity.
What has changed recently?
China has long hoped for the eventual peaceful reunification of its country with the island, which it sees as a rogue province. But the commitment to the “one China” principle has become increasingly one-sided. For Beijing, this is absolutely true. In Taiwan, however, resistance to the idea of reunification has grown as support for the island’s move toward independence has grown.
Beijing has recently become more aggressive in declaring that Taiwan must “return to China”. Domestic politics play a role in this. Amid domestic instability in China, Beijing has struck a more belligerent tone on relations between the two entities separated by the Taiwan Strait. We saw this last year when Beijing sent military aircraft into Taiwan’s air defense zone.
At the same time, China has advocated stronger jurisdiction over Hong Kong, undermining its claim of “one country, two systems” as a means of peaceful reunification with Taiwan.
How has the U.S. position changed in the face of Beijing’s position?
Biden is certainly more openly pro-Taiwan than his predecessors. He formally invited representatives of Taiwan to his inauguration, a first for an incoming president, and has repeatedly made clear that he views Taiwan as an ally.
Nor has he overturned the Taiwan Travel Act passed by the previous Donald Trump administration. The legislation allows U.S. officials to visit Taiwan in an official capacity.
In August 2022, Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, visited Taiwan, making her the most high-profile US politician to visit Taiwan in decades.
At the same time, Biden stated for the second time in the “60 Minutes” interview that Taiwan’s future should be determined by Taiwan, which is slightly different from the consistent position of the United States that it does not support changing the status quo. However, Biden also said that he does not support a unilateral declaration of Taiwan’s independence.
So in a way there has been a shift. But the White House is reluctant to exaggerate any changes. Deep down in the United States, it is hoped that the Shanghai Communiqué will not be deviated from.
So is it possible to invade Taiwan?
Current U.S. rhetoric and China’s response do increase the risk of conflict, but I don’t think we’re there yet. Any invasion across the Taiwan Strait would be militarily complicated. It also risks a backlash from the international community. Taiwan would have support not only from the United States (the extent of which is unclear, given Biden’s remarks), but also from Japan and possibly other countries in the region.
At the same time, China insists that it wants to achieve reintegration through peaceful means. As long as Taiwan doesn’t force this issue and unilaterally declare independence, I think Beijing can tolerate waiting for this issue to be resolved. Despite some comments to the contrary, I don’t think that invading Ukraine would increase the likelihood of similar actions against Taiwan. In fact, the Ukrainian invasion may actually be a warning to Beijing, given that Russia is now mired in a months-long conflict that has taken a toll on its military credibility and its economy.
This is an update to an article originally published on May 24, 2022.