Cross Strait

Did he just say that

US strategic ambiguity gets more ambiguous


A gaffe over Taiwan or a message?

Back in 2001 George W Bush suggested that America would do “whatever it took” to help Taiwan defend itself if the island ever came under attack. This bold statement by the then US Commander-in-Chief was given short-shrift by the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joe Biden.

“Words matter, in diplomacy and in law,” chastised Biden, warning Bush in an op-ed in the Washington Post against breaking with a longstanding position of ‘strategic ambiguity’ vis-a-vis American military support for Taiwan.

“As a matter of diplomacy, there is a huge difference between reserving the right to use force and obligating ourselves,” Biden added.

And yet it sounded like he was saying something rather similar to Bush during a question-and-answer session broadcast by CNN late last week, when he was asked whether the US military would defend Taiwan from an attack by mainland China.

“Yes, we have a commitment to do that,” Biden answered, marking his second notable departure from America’s established policy on Taiwan in a matter of weeks.

The other? He was asked in August for a response to claims that the chaotic exit from Afghanistan had signalled that Washington couldn’t be relied on to meet its commitments to its allies in NATO. Biden pushed back, insisting that the US would “respond” if its partners were under attack. “Same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with Taiwan,” he also confirmed to journalists.

On both occasions White House officials have later made clear that Washington still adheres to the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which promises assistance for Taiwanese efforts to defend itself but stops short of committing to a formal defence pact.

This is the policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’. It makes Beijing think twice about mounting an invasion but also discourages the Taiwanese from agitating for independence themselves.

Shortly after the comments in August, Biden himself said he had spoken to Chinese President Xi Jinping and that the two men had agreed to “abide by the Taiwan agreement”. Still, the Chinese foreign ministry responded immediately to his newest contribution last week, urging the US “to be cautious with its words and actions” and insisting that there was “no room for compromise” on the situation.

The Chinese had hoped that the American approach would revert to the norm after a fractious period in which Donald Trump took steps to deepen ties with Taiwan by sending senior-level health and trade officials to Taipei. Previous administrations had avoided official exchanges in an effort not to antagonise Beijing.

However, the Biden administration hasn’t done much to dial down the tensions since he took office, initiating new US-Taiwan trade and investment talks in June and confirming a major arms sale in August.

In an interview with CNN this week, Tsai Ing-wen became the first Taiwanese president in decades to publicly acknowledge the presence of US troops on the island for training purposes. With the threat from Beijing growing “every day”, Tsai stopped short of revealing how many US military personnel are on the island but said it was “not as many as people thought” (CNN had no translation issues with her declaration – she spoke in English).

Another furore occurred Tuesday when US Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a statement calling for UN members to support Taiwan’s “meaningful participation in the UN system”, which he insisted was not a “political issue” but a “pragmatic one”. This prompted a fierce reaction from Beijing – irked by Blinken’s straying into what it considers an off-limits area in violation of the ‘One China’ policy. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian warned that such talk posed “seismic risks” to Sino-US relations.

Some experts have also speculated that Biden’s recent slip of the tongue was deliberate. “It’s not a formal statement of strategic clarity, but a de facto signal to Beijing not to underestimate us,” claimed Matt Pottinger, a former deputy national security adviser, in comments to Axios, an online news platform.

Others see the comments more as a personal blunder by the president, arguing that it would be disastrous to dump a policy that has kept the peace across the Taiwan Strait for decades.

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