One observer said that the president’s statement that the United States would defend Taiwan from a Chinese invasion “doesn’t really have the markings of an off-the-cuff remark.”
By categorically promising a U.S. military reaction if China attempts to invade Taiwan, President Joe Biden has escalated tensions between the two countries.
In an interview that aired on CBS’ “60 Minutes” on Sunday, Vice President Joe Biden stated that the United States military would defend Taiwan “if in reality there was an unprecedented attack” on the sovereign island.
However, Biden’s remarks marked the fourth time since August 2021 that he has said that the United States would militarily defend Taiwan in the case of a Chinese invasion effort. He did not specify what an “unprecedented” attack on Taiwan would entail. And in each instance, aides have retracted statements that seemed to break with the long-standing U.S. policy of “strategic ambiguity” with regard to the country’s commitment to supporting Taiwan.
Given Beijing’s escalating military intimidation of Taiwan, Biden’s remark underscores the administration’s realization that the U.S. must use a stronger deterrence against it. The persecution stems from China’s worries that the island is headed inexorably toward independence.
“I think we can all agree that it was not a mistake at this point – four times in a row… Oriana Skylar Mastro, a center fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, explained that this “means what’s happening is that there are people in the administration who think that by demonstrating a greater willingness to defend Taiwan, that’ll help reestablish deterrence.”
By vowing to defend Taiwan militarily, Biden sets a new precedent for his administration’s willingness to respond to the potential Chinese assault with greater frankness. It also reflects growing worries about Beijing’s intentions in the wake of the live-fire military exercises it conducted around the island after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s divisive trip to Taiwan last month, as well as the ongoing transgressions of the median line between Taiwan and China by Chinese military aircraft.
Former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs and vice president for international security and diplomacy at the Asia Society Policy Institute Daniel Russel told POLITICO that “no previous president has chosen to prejudge the decision that he will take in the event of a hypothetical Chinese military action.” This was a sit-down interview where it seems the White House would have anticipated that this question would be clearly a fair game and one would have expected to prepare the president for the answer that he wanted to give. As a result, it doesn’t really have the hallmark of an off-the-cuff comment.
“If President Biden plans to defend #Taiwan, then he should make sure the US military has the capability to do so. […] Rhetorical support that isn't backed up by real capabilities is unlikely to strengthen deterrence," says @BonnieGlaser, @GMFAsia. https://t.co/ORGOhzEbWt
— German Marshall Fund (@gmfus) September 19, 2022
Conflict over Taiwan
In Taipei, people applauded after Biden’s comments.
Taiwan’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said in a statement on Monday that it “extends its profound appreciation to President Biden for once again emphasizing the staunch and rock-solid US security commitment to Taiwan.”
But Beijing was enraged by his remarks.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ning stated on Monday that the United States’ comments “seriously violate the pledge the United States made not to support Taiwan independence.”
The Chinese Communist Party views the “historical mission” of “reunification with Taiwan,” a region that it has never governed. It’s also essential to Xi Jinping’s credibility as he runs for re-election as China’s president the following month. Director of the Taiwan Affairs Office for the Chinese government Liu Jieyi called “national reunification,” Beijing’s code for annexing Taiwan, an “inevitable requirement” of Xi’s aggressive “national rejuvenation” program in July.
In a white paper on Taiwan released by the Chinese government last month, it was stated that “We will not renounce the use of force and we reserve the option of taking all necessary measures.”
The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the 1982 Six Assurances, and the U.S.-China Three Communiqués all outline the U.S.’s relationship with Taiwan. According to the TRA, the US is obligated “to maintain the United States’ capacity to resist any use of force or other types of coercion that might undermine the security, or the social or economic system, of the people of Taiwan.” None of those documents expressly bind the United States to engage in military action to defend Taiwan from a Chinese invasion. However, the TRA implies that the U.S. is actively sustaining the status quo on the island.
Republicans in Congress applauded Biden’s remarks.
I’m pleased that the president has, once more, expressed a firm stance on Taiwan’s defense. Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a leading Republican, said in a statement, “I hope this marks the end of flip-flopping on U.S. security interests for Taiwan.
Beijing holds no surprises
White House representatives hastily asserted that Biden’s comments were consistent with the Three Communiqués agreement in an effort to appease Beijing.
At a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace event on Monday, Kurt Campbell, the U.S. National Security Council’s Indo-Pacific coordinator, said, “The president’s statements speak for themselves, [and] I do think our policy has been consistent, has unchanged, and will continue.”
The administration’s answer shows an effort to warn Beijing of the possible repercussions of an attack on Taiwan while reiterating the U.S. commitment to peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.
Director of @GMFAsia, @BonnieGlaser asserts that “China has long assumed that the US would defend Taiwan if attacked […] I suspect that China focuses greater attention on US capabilities to defend Taiwan, which many people question.” https://t.co/KWlr7K31Rp
— German Marshall Fund (@gmfus) September 20, 2022
Retired Vice Adm. Robert Murrett, professor of practice at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School for Professional Public Policy, said in an interview that the administration’s statements and the President’s speech on this were intended to increase the deterrent effect on China and allow us to maintain tensions at a somewhat lower level.
The People’s Liberation Army will not be surprised by Biden’s remarks because they have always considered the possibility of American military intervention when planning for potential military action against Taiwan.
The PRC is firmly convinced that we will support Taiwan, and I believe they are preparing accordingly. So I’m not sure how much [Biden’s statement] helps to deterrence,” said Aaron Friedberg, professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University and a former deputy assistant for national security affairs in the Office of the Vice President, to POLITICO.
Threat and bluster
Due to Beijing’s increasing bellicosity toward the island, some China analysts have called on the administration to reevaluate current U.S. government commitments to China over Taiwan’s status as a result of Biden’s remarks.
According to David R. Stilwell, a former assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, “so far, everything Xi has done since 2012 is to make it even less desirable for Taiwan to be part of his grand ‘rejuvenation’ project.” “Why do we still persist on this one-China policy, I wonder? Why don’t we make an update?
Beijing has long threatened the United States with a harsh retaliation if it tries to change the status quo across the Taiwan Strait.
China’s Foreign Ministry stated last month that “the Taiwan dispute is the most crucial and delicate issue at the very heart of China-U.S. ties.” Any attempts by the United States to alter its relationship with Taiwan, according to the ministry, are “like playing with fire, are exceedingly dangerous.”
That might not just be a bluster.
According to Russel, “any action by the US or by the US president that looks to support the worst-case scenario in Beijing’s perspective boosts their resentment, their paranoia, their wrath [and] reinforces their most extreme right-wing elements.” It hinders the possibility of any sort of settlement or collaboration between us and quickens the deterioration of our strategic rivalry.
The difficulty for the Biden administration is to strike a balance between its determination to thwart a hypothetical Chinese invasion of Taiwan and its awareness of its willingness to shed blood and spend money to keep the island out of Beijing’s hands.
“Most people believe that the United States will take action to defend Taiwan. What are the real expenses we are ready to bear is the crucial question. Skylar Mastro from Stanford remarked. Are we still going to fight after 10,000, 20,000, or 30,000 deaths? There is nothing in Biden’s statement that clarifies the situation for the Chinese.