It was a straightforward question—one that American presidents have typically refused to answer straightforwardly. Would the United States “vow to protect Taiwan” in the event of a Chinese attempt to conquer the island by force? On Thursday night, Joe Biden broke with protocol. “Yes,” Biden replied. “We have a commitment to do that.”
In fact, we don’t. In 1971, amid American efforts to exacerbate tensions between the Soviet Union and China and in pursuit of a presidential visit to the Chinese capital, the Nixon administration conceded to the mostly notional idea that Taiwan and the mainland were all part of “one China.” In 1979, the U.S. broke with the Republic of China in Taipei and recognized the People’s Republic of China in Beijing. But the United States never explicitly renounced its prior commitments to the defense of that island nation. That same year, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which neither guarantees that the U.S. would support the island militarily nor precludes it. The policy the U.S. subsequently adopted toward the region has been deemed “strategic ambiguity.”
Some have argued that America’s policy of deliberate vagueness has passed its sell-by date. Times have changed. The Soviet Union is no more. Communist China’s capacity to threaten American interests in the Pacific grows more pronounced by the day. America’s commitment to Taiwan’s defense is no longer a symbolic commitment to a fellow democracy but an acknowledgment of America’s increasingly vital strategic interests in the region. If Biden’s comments signaled a shift in U.S. policy, critics of “strategic ambiguity” would have welcomed this statement of the obvious, and the moderating influence a policy of deterrence may have on the Chinese Communist Party. But this was not a coherent policy shift.
Soon after Biden’s remarks, the White House scrambled to clean up after the president. “The President was not announcing any change in our policy and there is no change in our policy,” a White House spokesperson insisted. “The U.S. defense relationship with Taiwan is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act.” Which is to say, “we will continue to support Taiwan’s self-defense, and we will continue to oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo.” Ambiguity reigns once more. Order is restored.
The Biden administration may not, however, be able to put the toothpaste back in the tube. Biden himself acknowledged that the challenge posed by near-peer competitors like Russia and China is “whether or not they’re going to engage in activities that will put them in a position where they may make a serious mistake.” In geostrategic terms, a mistake—a miscalculation born of misplaced assumptions about how the United States would respond to acts of aggression that could trigger broader conflicts neither party wants—is easy to envision.
From Beijing’s perspective, the last decade has been one in which the United States has become an unreliable ally. Washington let Moscow invade and annex territory in Europe. It withdrew from Iraq in pursuit of no discernible strategic objective. It allowed Syria to implode and outsourced the job of stabilizing that nation to Russia. It looked helplessly on as China crushed democracy in Hong Kong in violation of its treaty obligations. It sacrificed a 20-year project in Afghanistan, even going as far as to abandon its own citizens in the process. An irredentist power could be forgiven for thinking the window of opportunity to take and hold long-sought objectives in defiance of the West is wide open.
That is the sort of ambiguity the United States doesn’t want. Indeed, America’s recent unreliability is the only reason that Washington’s commitment to Taiwan’s defense is a live issue. Given Joe Biden’s rhetorical commitment to defend the legitimate Afghan government and preserve a troop presence in the region sufficient to ensure the extraction of all Americans—commitments he never meant and subsequently abrogated—why should Taipei believe him now? Why should Beijing?
Biden may have inadvertently painted the United States into a corner, but his administration would be better served by treating what was likely a rhetorical gesture from the president as though it were a doctrine.
China’s aggression, its grotesque human rights violations, and the leveraging of access to its market to force Western commercial interests to defer to its authoritarian values are increasingly intolerable. Taiwan’s citizens have responded to the CCP’s hostility by sidelining its pro-engagement political parties, diversifying its economy away from dependence on the mainland, and openly allying with the United States. America’s investments in the island’s independence are now as material as they are ideological. Between congressionally mandated arms sales to Taiwan upending the “third communique” settlement, regular U.S. naval transits through the Strait, and the American public’s growing support for Taipei’s independence, “strategic ambiguity” has been dead and gone for some time. Uncertainty no longer favors strategic balance. It is, in fact, promoting instability.
It would have been nice if Joe Biden was articulating a coherent policy on the stage last night, but the White House has made it clear that the president doesn’t know what he’s talking about. That incomprehensibly foolish misstep could have disastrous implications. Washington should take this opportunity to restore stability to the region with a clear statement that leaves no room for uncertainty: The United States will go to war to defend Taiwan. But that would be to expect a level of competence from this administration we’ve not yet seen.