The deliberately vague U.S. position on its willingness to defend Taiwan isn’t gone, Joe Biden told reporters on Tuesday, 24 hours after pledging a military intervention if the democratic island were to be attacked by China.
The president answered “no” when asked in Tokyo whether his calmly spoken commitment to defend Taiwan had broken the policy known as “strategic ambiguity,” which for more than 40 years has seen past presidents and officials purposely skate around the question of possibly deploying American forces to the Taiwan Strait.
“The policy has not changed at all. I stated that when I made my statement yesterday,” Biden said, according to reporters covering the final day of the first Asia tour of his presidency.
The policy Biden referenced on Monday was the U.S.’s “one China” policy, which recognizes the legitimacy of the Chinese government in Beijing, but acknowledges—rather than recognizes or accepts—the position that Taiwan is part of China.
Among the policy’s elements is the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which requires Washington to sell Taipei arms of a defensive character so the island can maintain a credible deterrent against Beijing.
The law, which Biden supported in his days as a senator, also requires the U.S. to maintain its own military capacities in the region, so as to prevent any attempts to alter by force what is known today as the “status quo” across the Taiwan Strait.
Crucially, the “one China” policy, which has been around since the 1970s, doesn’t include a concrete commitment to defend Taiwan in the event of Chinese aggression, unlike Article 5 obligations under NATO or other bilateral defense treaties. Washington’s deliberate policy has been not to rule out U.S. military intervention either—hence the strategic ambiguity.
It’s why the president turned heads and reportedly surprised a few of his own officials when, standing next to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan, he answered “yes” when asked whether he would intervene militarily.
“That’s the commitment we made,” Biden said. “We agree with the one China policy…But the idea that it can be taken by force—just taken by force—is just not appropriate.”
Biden went to great lengths to draw parallels between the next Taiwan Strait crisis and Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, to which his administration has committed tens of billions of dollars but no American troops. The president suggested U.S. resolve and responsibility would be on the line if China were to move on Taiwan.
“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,” he said.
Earlier, Biden said the Chinese were “already flirting with danger,” but noted: “My expectation is it will not happen; it will not be attempted.”
It was the third time since last August that Biden had publicly committed to defending Taiwan. As in the previous occasions, the White House has sought to walk back his comments by emphasizing no change to the U.S. one China policy.
But Biden’s officials can’t specifically address his commitment to defend Taiwan without appearing to swing strategic ambiguity in the other direction—by clarifying the U.S. definitely wouldn’t intervene.
As such, what many perceived as a gaffe the first and second time around now appears to be an unequivocal personal pledge from the president himself, even though the government’s longstanding position on the subject remains unchanged.
It’s worth noting, however, that it would fall to Biden to decide potential U.S. actions in response to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Congress would also be involved, but support for Taipei in the legislative branch has rarely been in doubt.
Both advocates and critics of strategic ambiguity debate one central theme—deterrence. Those who propose maintaining the policy of uncertainty say the U.S. can avoid provoking the Chinese leadership into an attack, especially if Beijing perceives Washington as actively denying China the chance to “unify” Taiwan under its own terms.
A public commitment, advocates say, also needs to be backed by credible military capabilities, but not everyone is confident U.S. forces can repel a Chinese attack even if they wanted to.
Critics of ambiguity, however, argue that Beijing’s increased assertiveness in recent years must be checked with decisive U.S. resolve, in the same way previous administrations had widened security commitments to treaty allies Japan and the Philippines. A move to “strategic clarity” would also force the Pentagon to more actively adjust its force posture for a war over Taiwan, they say.
The perennial debate aside, policymakers in Washington and Beijing may be most concerned about the apparent disconnect between Biden’s thinking and that of his senior officials, who upon entering office last year strongly advocated for maintaining the strategic ambiguity of the last four decades.
Proponents have included, among others, Kurt Campbell, the Indo-Pacific coordinator on the National Security Council; Daniel Kritenbrink, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the State Department; and Ely Ratner, assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs at the Defense Department.
China on Monday protested Biden’s remarks.
Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for its Foreign Ministry, said Beijing had “no room for compromise or concession” when it came to Taiwan, which it considers among its core interests.
“No one should underestimate the strong resolve, determination and capability of the Chinese people in safeguarding national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” said Wang, repeating a now oft-quoted declaration by Chinese leader Xi Jinping at the Communist Party‘s centennial last summer.
For its part, the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan has stressed that national defense is its own responsibility. Her cabinet has reacted typically calmly despite the stir created by Biden’s comments, which some in Taipei will view as favorable.
At a press conference on Tuesday, its Foreign Ministry spokesperson Joanne Ou thanked the U.S. for its continued “rock-solid” support and committed to bolstering its self-defense.
President Biden returns to Washington on Tuesday.