Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2022.06.08

Biden's diplomatic brinkmanship on Taiwan's 'strategic ambiguity'

There is no doubt the U.S. presidents remarks were deliberate, and not a gaffe as some have suggested

the japan times on May 28, 2022

International Politics/Diplomacy

Amid the international upheaval over the Russian invasion of Ukraine, U.S. President Joe Biden reassured America’s allies and friends in the Indo-Pacific that its priorities and foreign policy remain unchanged.

That said, while basically trying to maintain “strategic ambiguity” over a Taiwan contingency, Biden made remarks that rendered the policy a little less ambiguous and which did not go over as well as he may have hoped.

When asked if he was willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan at Monday’s joint news conference in Tokyo, Biden said, “Yes. That’s the commitment we made.” He added: “The idea that it can be taken by force is just not appropriate. It will dislocate the entire region and be another action similar to what happened in Ukraine. And so, it’s a burden that is even stronger.”

No wonder Beijing was furious. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson responded: “The U.S. has been racking its brains to play with words when it comes to the “One China” principle. I want to remind the U.S. side that no forces, the U.S. included, can hold back the Chinese people’s endeavor to reunify the nation” and “change the fate of the ‘Taiwan independence’ forces who are doomed to fail.”

In Tokyo, there was a mixture of approval and consternation over the remarks. While some were encouraged by Biden’s words, others expressed concern his comments may destabilize the region. Many editorials in Japan’s major newspapers ignored Biden’s commentary on Taiwan, but many other media outlets, both Japanese and foreign, suggested that Biden had changed the longstanding U.S. policy of strategic ambiguity over the Taiwan issue.

Such reports are not necessarily accurate. Certainly, Biden’s stated position differed from what the U.S. government has long maintained. Moreover, this is in fact the third time the U.S. president has made such statements. There is no doubt that it was not a mere “gaffe” or “rhetorical flourish” this time. It was rather deliberate even though U.S. government officials, in contrast to Biden’s comments, have tried to maintain that there has been no change in the U.S.’ Taiwan policy.

Who is telling the truth, and what does this all mean? The following are some of my personal observations regarding the diplomatic achievements made during the Japan-U.S. summit and other meetings, including a “Quad” gathering, hosted by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo earlier this week.

Despite the crisis in Ukraine, the U.S. has demonstrated both domestically and internationally that its strategic priority continues to be deterring China in the Indo-Pacific region. Some countries, including Japan, were concerned that U.S. attention would once again turn toward Europe. President Biden reaffirmed that the U.S.’ Indo-Pacific strategy remains unchanged.

This series of developments was also important in determining the future of the Indo-Pacific region. A new president was inaugurated in South Korea and the center-left Labor Party won the general election in Australia. Despite these changes in political leadership in the region, the major trend toward a free and open Indo-Pacific remains unwavering.

Much progress was made in the Kishida-Biden summit meeting. On Ukraine, the leaders reaffirmed the unity of the Japan-U.S. alliance over the events there. Regarding North Korea, it was confirmed that Japan, the U.S. and South Korea will work more closely over the issue. And in regards to China, both leaders clarified their strong opposition to any attempt to change the status quo in the region by force.

They reaffirmed the “extended deterrence” of the U.S. and the economic version of the “two-plus-two” meeting to be held in July. The U.S. supports the Group of Seven summit to be held in Hiroshima next year. Japan supports the U.S.-launched Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity and expressed its determination to increase defense spending. These were all newsworthy enough, but they were all overshadowed by Biden’s remarks on Taiwan.

Is the U.S. really changing its Taiwan policy? Traditionally, the bottom line of U.S. policy toward Taiwan has been that of strategic ambiguity, in which the U.S. does not clarify what its response would be in the event of a Chinese military invasion of Taiwan. By keeping America’s intentions ambiguous, the U.S. posture is meant to deter Chinese aggression. In this regard, President Biden’s remarks may have contradict the longstanding policy.

Has the U.S. abandoned strategic ambiguity? Hardly. According to CNN, a senior White House official said that “Biden’s statement is not a change in Taiwan policy. Military involvement refers to arms sales to Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act, and we are not considering sending U.S. military units to Taiwan in the event of an emergency.”

Nonetheless, Biden may now be trying to slightly modify the existing strategic policy on Taiwan to be less ambiguous with the hope of deterring China by making it known what the U.S. will do in response to an attack on the island.

On Ukraine, the U.S. continues its military engagement through arms shipments and other means while not actually putting boots on the ground, i.e., a direct military intervention. In the event of a contingency in Taiwan, Biden would probably do much the same, to include, though, the deploying U.S. military units if needed.

Whether this all will deter China remains to be seen. Already Beijing has lashed out at Biden’s statements.

The only thing that can be said now is that the future U.S. policy will depend on China’s response. If Beijing responds in an aggressive manner, Washington’s strategic ambiguity will eventually become “strategic clarity.” On the other hand, if China restrains itself, the current new strategic ambiguity approach will likely continue.