Joe Biden made a potentially dangerous statement on Monday. In Tokyo, he gave a flat “yes” to a reporter’s question of whether he was willing to “get involved militarily to defend Taiwan”. “That’s the commitment we made,” the president claimed. In fact, the United States scrapped its formal commitment to defend Taiwan in 1979, replacing a treaty of alliance with the Taiwan Relations Act, which obligates the United States to help equip Taiwan to defend itself.
This is the third time in less than a year that Biden has publicly declared that the United States would use force to keep Beijing from seizing the island. Once again, the White House scrambled to clarify that the US position has not actually changed: the United States continues to adhere to a One China policy and maintain “strategic ambiguity” rather than clarity as to whether it would defend Taiwan. This approach is a wise one that, as many administration officials recognize, has served the United States well. But repeated gaffes risk being interpreted as changes in policy. They increase the chance of damaging peace and stability between the world’s two leading powers.
For decades, China has refrained from attempting to conquer Taiwan by force but has retained the threat to do so. Many analysts believe that Beijing would prefer to use gradual pressures toward “reunification” than to mount a costly and risky campaign of sudden conquest. The possibility of full-scale Chinese aggression can never be discounted, especially in light of the country’s growing military capabilities and international ambitions. One reason Beijing’s calculus could change, however, lies in Washington. If the United States appears to regard Taiwan as an irrevocable strategic asset that could never join with the mainland, then China may resort to plan B: launch an invasion out of fear that it must act now or accept that Taiwan is lost forever.
No single presidential utterance is likely to cause President Xi Jinping of China to make a policy decision of enormous consequence. Xi and Biden know each other from direct and continuing conversations. The People’s Liberation Army already takes seriously the possibility that the United States would intervene militarily in defense of Taiwan. So Biden’s comment, in and of itself, may have little effect.
More troubling, however, is the larger policy drift in Washington to which the gaffe contributes. Over the past few years, members of Congress have increasingly called for strategic clarity about using force to defend Taiwan and have promoted other steps to restore the appearance of diplomatic relations between Washington and Taipei. Under Donald Trump’s administration, the United States loosened restrictions on high-level contacts with Taiwanese officials, and the Biden administration has issued new guidelines to reflect “our deepening unofficial relationship”. Most important, these measures have accompanied the growing hostility across US-China relations, as the world’s two leading countries engage in intensifying economic, technological and security competition.