President Biden is a famously imprecise speaker. He sometimes makes statements that convey his emotions more than any specific policy views (like his declaration in March that Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power”).
Biden seemed to do it again yesterday. In response to a reporter’s question, he said that the U.S. would take stronger military action to defend Taiwan against China than it has taken to help Ukraine fight Russia. If that were to happen, it could risk a broader war with China.
Biden may have been just committing another one of his gaffes. White House aides in the room when he said it — during a news conference in Tokyo, alongside Japan’s prime minister — were surprised, according to my colleague Zolan Kanno-Youngs, who was there. Afterward, the White House put out a statement claiming, implausibly, that Biden was restating U.S. policy.
But there is reason to suspect that Biden’s remarks had some strategic intent, even if he didn’t mean exactly what he said. One sign is that Biden made similarly hawkish comments about Taiwan twice last year. “This is the third time Biden has said this. Good,” Matthew Kroenig of Georgetown University wrote yesterday. “Washington is helping Beijing to not miscalculate.”
Today’s newsletter explains why U.S. policy toward Taiwan has shifted since Biden took office.
Taiwan can sometimes seem like merely one of many tensions between the U.S. and China, along with tariffs, intellectual property, climate change, human rights, Ukraine and more. For China’s leaders, however, Taiwan is singular.
When Zhou Enlai, China’s premier, met with Henry Kissinger in 1971 to re-establish relations between the two countries, Zhou had only one focus. The U.S. and the United Nations needed to stop recognizing the government in Taipei and treat Beijing as the only legitimate representative of China, Zhou said. Taiwan, after all, was where the losers of China’s civil war had fled, after the Communist Party took over the mainland in 1949.
Kissinger and his boss, President Richard Nixon, agreed to Zhou’s demands, and Nixon’s successors found subtler ways to support Taiwan. The U.S. sold arms to Taiwan’s government and warned Beijing not to invade, without detailing how the U.S. might respond. The policy became known as “strategic ambiguity,” and it has endured. It has largely succeeded, too. Taiwan remains a prosperous democracy.
But some U.S. officials believe that strategic ambiguity is unlikely to work as well in the future as it did in the past. Under Xi Jinping, China has become more aggressive in multiple ways, and Xi has said that reunification with Taiwan “must be fulfilled.” (My colleague Michael Crowley delved into the debate over strategic ambiguity in this article last year.)
The central problem for the U.S. is that it might not be able to stop Xi if he chose to attack. The American public is tired of faraway wars with uncertain connections to national security — an attitude that limits any U.S. president’s options. China’s leaders, on the other hand, would view a conflict in Taiwan as a vital domestic matter and devote vast resources to victory.
For these reasons, the surest way to protect Taiwan is to make China’s leaders believe that even if they could win a war, it would be costly enough to destabilize their regime.
Biden’s string of comments about Taiwan can serve this goal. He has signaled that an invasion of Taiwan would demand a major U.S. response, while remaining vague about what exactly it would be.
“Biden didn’t say anything about sending U.S. troops into combat over Taiwan, and we shouldn’t assume that’s what he meant,” my colleague Edward Wong, who covers the State Department, said. There are other options — like providing U.S.-made airplanes — that would also qualify as more aggressive than the aid to Ukraine.
As Michael Crowley, who also covers international affairs, says, “The U.S. retains the official policy of ambiguity, but Biden’s comments give it a hawkish lean.”
Russia’s problems in Ukraine make this message more credible. The U.S. and its allies have responded to Putin’s invasion by imposing harsh sanctions on Russia and sending weapons to Ukraine. And Russia’s leaders have learned that a full-scale war can expose military weaknesses that were previously hidden.
“I’m not at all sold on any imminent Chinese attack,” said my colleague Eric Schmitt, who covers security issues from Washington. “I think Russia’s debacle in Ukraine has given Xi pause.”
China would have some advantages that Russia does not: For one thing, Taiwan is an island that its allies would have a hard time resupplying. But China would also have distinct challenges: Its rise has depended on its integration into the global economy, and a war in Taiwan would threaten that integration.
Of course, Biden’s tough talk — whether deliberate or careless — does bring risks. Strategic ambiguity worked partly because it kept Taiwan from becoming a high-profile test of Beijing’s strength. Biden’s comments have the potential to make Xi look weak if he chooses to stand down. “The confusion and misstatements are more likely to undermine deterrence than strengthen it,” Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the German Marshall Fund, wrote yesterday.
At this point, though, the U.S. may need to choose between the risks of looking too aggressive and of looking too weak.
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