In an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes” on Sept. 18, 2022, Biden vowed to protect the island in the face of any attack. Pressed if that meant the U.S. getting “involved militarily,” the president replied: “Yes.”
Meredith Oyen, an expert on U.S.-China relations at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, helps explain the background to Biden’s comments and untangles what should be read into his remarks – and what shouldn’t.
What did Biden say and why was it significant?
In an exchange on “60 Minutes,” Biden was asked directly if the U.S. would “come to Taiwan’s defense” if it were attacked by China. He replied: “Yes, we have a commitment to do that.” He also confirmed that U.S. intervention would be military.
By my count, this is the fourth time Biden as president has suggested that the U.S. will come to Taiwan’s aid militarily if the island is attacked. In 2021 he made similar remarks in an interview with ABC News and then again while taking part in a CNN town hall event. And earlier this year he said something similar while in Japan, marking the first time he has made the assertion while in Asia.
On each occasion he has made such a comment, it has been followed quite quickly by the White House’s walking back the remarks, by issuing statements along the lines of “what the president actually means is …” and stressing that this isn’t a shift away from the official U.S. policy on China or Taiwan.
But I think that with each incident it is harder to prevaricate about Biden’s comments being an accident, or suggest that he in some way misspoke. I think it is clear at this point that Biden’s interpretation of the Taiwan Relations Act – which since 1979 has set out the parameters of U.S. policy on the island – is that it allows for a U.S. military response should China invade. And despite White House claims to the contrary, I believe that does represent a departure from the long-standing policy of “strategic ambiguity” on Taiwan.
What does ‘strategic ambiguity’ mean?
Strategic ambiguity has long been the U.S. policy toward Taiwan – really since the 1950s, but certainly from 1979 onward. While it does not explicitly commit the U.S. to defending Taiwan in every circumstance, it does leave open the option of American defensive support to Taiwan in the event of an unprovoked attack by China.
Crucially, the U.S. hasn’t really said what it will do – so does this support mean economic aid, supply of weapons or U.S. boots on the ground? China and Taiwan are left guessing if – and to what extent – the U.S. will be involved in any China-Taiwan conflict.
By leaving the answer to that question ambiguous, the U.S. holds a threat over China: Invade Taiwan and find out if you face the U.S. as well.
Traditionally, this has been a useful policy for the U.S., but things have changed since it was first rolled out. It was certainly effective when the U.S. was in a much stronger position militarily compared with China. But it might be less effective as a threat now that China’s military is catching up with the U.S.
Leading voices from U.S. allies in Asia, such as Japan, believe that “strategic clarity” might be a better option now – with the U.S. stating outright that it would defend Taiwan if the island were attacked.
What is the history of US relations with Taiwan?
After the victory of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949, the defeated Republic of China government withdrew to the island of Taiwan, located just 100 miles off the shore of Fujian province. And until the 1970s, the U.S. recognized only this exiled Republic of China on Taiwan as the government of China.