In May 2001, the new US president told an interviewer that the United States was obligated to go to war with China if it attacked Taiwan. The United States would do “whatever it took” to defend the island, George W Bush vowed.
Then-Senator Joe Biden was not impressed. Taking to the Washington Post to pen “Not So Deft On Taiwan,” Biden scolded the president. “Words matter, in diplomacy and in law,” he wrote. The fact was that the United States possessed no formal obligation to defend Taiwan. As Biden explained, the United States had purposefully abrogated such a commitment and adopted the Taiwan Relations Act, for which Biden had personally voted in 1979. True, the law required the United States to help Taiwan to defend itself and declared a threat to the peace and security of the region to be “of grave concern to the United States.” But it did not obligate American forces to fight on the island’s behalf.
To Biden, no small nuance was at stake. “There is a huge difference between reserving the right to use force and obligating ourselves, a priori, to come to the defense of Taiwan,” he wrote. “The president should not cede to Taiwan, much less to China, the ability automatically to draw us into a war across the Taiwan Strait.”
Bush soon learned the wisdom of following official US policy on Taiwan. By 2003, he publicly opposed Taiwan’s plans to hold a referendum for fear that it would stoke pro-independence sentiment. Two decades later, however, President Biden is making a potentially more consequential error than Bush ever did.
In comments that aired Sunday on 60 Minutes, Biden said that the United States had an obligation to defend Taiwan and would use force “if in fact there was an unprecedented attack.” This is his fourth such statement in a little over a year, rendering it less and less plausible that the president is merely committing a “gaffe,” as the now-ritual White House walk-backs issued each time would have one believe.
On this occasion, Biden went even further. While claiming that the United States continues to adhere to the One China policy forged in the 1970s, Biden in the same breath contradicted that policy. “Taiwan makes their own judgments about their independence,” he said. “We are not moving — we’re not encouraging their being independent. We’re not — that — that’s their decision.” Biden implied that the United States is indifferent to Taiwan’s declared political status, regards the issue as one for the people of Taiwan alone to decide, and would stand behind whatever decision Taiwan makes.
Longstanding US policy says otherwise.