Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2021.11.05

Deciphering Biden's remarks on defending Taiwan

The U.S. president's comments on Taiwan’s security are potentially game-changing, especially for Japan

the japan times on October 29, 2021

International Politics/Diplomacy

There he goes again. U.S. President Joe Biden’s remarks last week about defending Taiwan raised a lot of eyebrows in Tokyo. When asked in a CNN town hall meeting whether “the U.S. would come to Taiwan’s defense if China attacked,” the president said “Yes, we have a commitment to do that.”

No wonder, following the president’s remarks, White House press secretary Jen Psaki had to clarify that “The president was not announcing any change in our policy nor has he made a decision to change our policy,” meaning the “strategic ambiguity” of the United States in the event of an emergency in Taiwan.

Japan’s mainstream media interpreted this story in varying ways. While the majority reported Biden said he had a “responsibility” to defend Taiwan, others translated the remarks as he had an “obligation” to do that. Some reported that Biden said he had a “pledge” or “promise” to defend the island.

None seem to have comprehended what Joe Biden really wanted to say about Taiwan’s defense. Some in Tokyo even wondered if Washington changed its traditional strategic “ambiguity” to “clarity.”

All of that said, Biden’s latest remarks on Taiwan’s defense is potentially game-changing for various reasons.

Although Biden’s remarks may not officially change the existing U.S. policy vis-a-vis Taiwan, this does not prevent Biden from feeling a personal commitment to defend Taiwan. Perhaps it is most likely that the president harbors such a personal commitment.

The conservative Wall Street Journal criticized the president saying, “Mr. Biden’s frequent public confusion about the major issues of the day is a reason for the growing public concern.” That said, it may be closer to the truth if we consider this to be Biden’s “true intention” rather than an “occasional confusion.”

Even if this were to be the case, it is unlikely, at least now, that Biden’s aides will follow up on his personal commitment and begin to change the policy of “strategic ambiguity” that the U.S. has maintained since the 1970s. If that happened, it would naturally require close consultations with allies in the region.

This is because the U.S. “strategic ambiguity” about a Taiwan contingency has been the most effective mechanism for it and its allies in East Asia to deter an armed attack on Taiwan by China. If this policy were to change, we need to firmly reestablish a new deterrence framework.

Since Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, the policy of “strategic ambiguity” has worked fairly well to simultaneously deter a Chinese invasion of the island and prevent Taiwan from declaring independence, thereby maintaining the fragile politico-military status quo in East Asia.

And yet, voices are growing in Washington in favor of changing the policy because it is losing its effectiveness for dealing with and deterring China, with its rapidly growing military capabilities.

Nonetheless, Japan and the United States must maintain, at least for a while, the policy of “strategic ambiguity” for the following reasons:

Japan’s position on Taiwan is, as stated in the 1972 Japan-China Joint Communique, that while the Government of the People’s Republic of China “reiterates that Taiwan is an inalienable part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China,” the government of Japan fully understands and respects this stand of China.

It is Japan’s hope that the Taiwan issue will be resolved peacefully through talks between the parties on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. If the island is to be peacefully reunified with the People’s Republic of China, Japan will naturally accept this. As long as peaceful talks continue between the parties, the Taiwan issue will be recognized as a domestic problem of China.

On the other hand, in the unlikely event that China were to attempt to unify Taiwan by force and an armed conflict were to erupt, the circumstances would be fundamentally different, and Japan would have no choice but formulate an appropriate response.

This is the essence of the agreement, as former Vice Foreign Minister Naokazu Kuriyama wrote, that was reached after long negotiations between Japan and China. By doing this, the Japanese government officials at the time installed a mechanism for deterring “Taiwan contingencies” in the Japan-China Joint Communique of 1972.

If the U.S. were to abandon its “strategic ambiguity” for Taiwan and shift to a “strategic clarity,” the tacit understanding among Japan, the U.S. and China regarding the maintenance of the status quo on the Taiwan issue would be undermined.

If this happens, Japan’s security policy toward China will have to be drastically revised. If Japan wishes to avoid this, it will have to significantly enhance Japan’s own deterrence measures. I wonder if the Japanese government, and especially its political leaders, are ready after the general election to be held on Oct. 31.