President Joe Biden said that the United States government would defend Taiwan if China invades it, a declaration that comes at a time when tensions between the Beijing and Taipei government are at an all-time high with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) sending a record number of fighter jet planes through Taiwan’s air defense zone.
Biden said this during a televised town hall at CNN, where a young student asked Biden “can you vow to protect Taiwan?”, to which the President answered with a blunt yes. When pressed again by moderator Anderson Cooper if the United States “would come to Taiwan’s defense?” the president said, “yes, we have a commitment”.
The president was also asked about the ways the United States military can keep up militarily with the Chinese armed forces, to which Biden said that it was clear that “China, Russia, and the rest of the world know we are the most powerful military in the history of the world” and that he should not worry about they become more powerful. This assertion comes a few days after the Financial Times reported that the Chinese military successfully tested a hypersonic missile, surprising American military intelligence.
However, soon after the President’s statements were picked off by media outlets, a White House official said that Biden “was not announcing any change in our policy and there is no change in our policy”, also saying that the administration will continue to treat Taiwan under the framework of the Taiwan Relations Act and that the government would “continue to support Taiwan’s self-defense” and “oppose any unilateral changes on the status-quo”.
Biden Administration sends mixed signals over its commitment to defend Taiwan
Since the United States restored normal relationships with Communist China in the 1970s, Washington D.C. kept a policy of “strategic ambiguity” towards Taiwan, which more or less means that while the U.S. can continue to sell weapon and military systems to the island, neither Taiwan nor China will be sure if the United States will rush to defend the democratically elected government of Taiwan if China invaded. This policy is usually understood within the “One China Policy”, in which the U.S. government recognizes the Beijing government as the only legitimate government of China.
Just a day before Biden apparently promised a commitment towards the defense of Taiwan against any potential Chinese invasion, Biden’s nominee to ambassador to China, Nicholas Burns, said at a Senate hearing that the US should continue the current policy of strategic ambiguity towards the defense of Taiwan. Burns said that “We’re better off, and we’ll be more effective, in staying with the One China policy of the last four decades”.
Burns also said that the U.S. does have a commitment with the Taipei government, but one that is limited to the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which he says gives the United States the “imperative of helping Taiwan defend itself” and that it was the responsibility of the American government to “make Taiwan a tough nut to crack”.
Although the policy of strategic ambiguity has worked over the last fifty years, legislators from both parties have recently expressed their concerns about its usefulness in today’s environment, with Republican Senator Thom Tillis (NC) and Rep. Ami Bera (D-CA) saying that they both agree of moving towards a more explicit commitment towards maintaining Taiwan’s integrity.
Burns’ statements, which are in par with that of the White House official, do not mention a direct commitment of the American military if the Chinese army invades Taiwan, only that the U.S will continue the policy of ambiguity it has pursued since the late 1970s. These explanations of American policy towards Taiwan seem to be in direct contradiction with what the President said today in live TV to the American people, where he said that America will go to Taiwan’s aid in case of invasion.
While it appeared during the Town Hall that Biden was cementing an ironclad commitment to defending Taiwan, the fact that White House officials were so quick in clarifying the President’s remarks and the comments of Biden’s nominee to the China ambassadorship show us that there is probably no major change in U.S policy in the short term, although it does raise some doubts about the dissonance between the President’s statements and his advisors.