With the right words, Biden could help China avoid making a wrong move toward Taiwan
President Biden has been chipping away at America’s longstanding policy of strategic ambiguity on a potential defense of Taiwan. Four times he has stated unequivocally that his administration will defend Taiwan.
Just as faithfully, State Department and White House spokespersons responded to each Biden defense commitment by “clarifying” that U.S. policy regarding Taiwan has not changed and is still governed by the Taiwan Relations Act (1979), the three Sino-U.S Communiques (1972, 1979, 1982) and the Six Assurances (1982).
A similar pattern of presidential commitments to defend Taiwan, followed by administration assurances of policy continuity, occurred with President Bush in 2001 and President Trump in 2020.
The only way to reconcile these alternating and seemingly inconsistent messages would be to accept them both at face value and conclude that the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) — which declares “any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States” — was tantamount to a resuscitation of the Mutual Defense Treaty that President Carter had just terminated weeks earlier.
The problem with that view is that the TRA only requires Washington to “maintain the capacity to resist any [Chinese] resort to force or other forms of coercion” against Taiwan, not to exercise it. And even that language was apparently considered merely precatory, going unnoticed and unmentioned through 10 presidential terms until it appeared almost in passing in a State Department release in May 2022.
Indeed, when China fired missiles toward Taiwan in the Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1995-1996, Chinese officials confronted Assistant Defense Secretary Joseph Nye and asked what the United States would do if China attacked Taiwan. Nye never mentioned the TRA, responding, “We don’t know and you don’t know; it would depend on the circumstances.”
Defense Secretary William Perry, asked the same question on a subsequent Sunday talk show, said Nye’s statement perfectly described U.S. policy and he repeated it verbatim. Each subsequent administration, rather than addressing a direct U.S. role in defending Taiwan, has focused on the TRA language requiring the U.S. to provide “defense articles and defense services … to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability” — not unlike current U.S. policy providing non-kinetic support for Ukraine after Russia’s invasions.
This policy of strategic ambiguity, as it became known, in part reflected Washington’s concern that a pro-independence Taiwan government would exploit a U.S. defense shield and do something that could provoke a Chinese attack. But it also confirmed Washington’s own hesitation about the wisdom of going to war with China over Taiwan — i.e., Nye’s “we don’t know [what we would do].” Chinese leaders have reason to believe they do know what the U.S. would do, based on what it did, and didn’t do, in the 1996 crisis — and now the 2022 crisis.
President Clinton dispatched two carrier battle groups to the region to send a message to Beijing. As Perry put it, according to The Associated Press, “Beijing should know, and this will remind them, that while they are a great military power, the premier — the strongest — military power in the western Pacific is the United States.”
But, after China threatened “a sea of fire” if U.S. ships entered the Strait, they turned away. Kurt Campbell, Biden’s China adviser, who was in the Clinton administration, often calls the episode “our own Cuban missile crisis; we had stared into the abyss.”
China has played on U.S. indecision about challenging China militarily over Taiwan by building anti-access, area denial capabilities to increase the costs and risks of U.S. intervention. Its attack submarines and anti-ship ballistic missiles have created the new “circumstances” Nye said would determine the U.S. response to Chinese aggression. In at least one important respect, the strategy has succeeded. Since the 1996 confrontation, only one U.S. carrier battle group has entered the Strait (in 2007), even though the Pacific commander at the time, Adm. Timothy Keating, defiantly told the protesting Chinese: “We don’t need China’s permission to use these international waters. We will do so whenever … we choose to.”
But, starting with Bush’s pledge to do “whatever it took” to defend Taiwan, to Trump’s growling “China knows what I’m gonna do,” to Biden’s multiple references to “a sacred obligation” to defend Taiwan against an unprovoked attack (he said “unprecedented”), American commanders in chief — except for President Obama — have concluded that U.S. national security requires a commitment to defend Taiwan
Nevertheless, incremental progression toward strategic clarity through haphazard presidential remarks lacks the policy coherence needed to gain administration credibility in the mind of the one person whose assessment of U.S. intentions matters most: China’s leader, Xi Jinping.
Xi recently tested the Biden administration’s resolve after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) visited Taiwan by precipitating the Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis with an unprecedented show of force using live-fire exercises, missile launches, fighter aircraft operations, and a temporary naval blockade of the island — far eclipsing the 1995-1996 crisis and creating “a new normal.”
Washington’s only response, after the crisis passed, was to resume its regular Strait transits, this time with cruisers rather than smaller combatants, but still no carrier. Meanwhile, China’s paltry contingent of two operational carriers makes regular passages through the Strait, reinforcing Beijing’s claim to sovereignty over what the rest of the world considers international waters.
Despite recent Russian setbacks in Ukraine, Xi has reiterated his support for Putin’s war and reaffirmed China’s claim to Taiwan. Biden’s naked fear of Putin’s nuclear threats, which has inhibited U.S. and NATO support for Ukraine, was echoed recently by a warning of “World War III” from national security adviser Jake Sullivan. Chinese officials are encouraged to continue raising a similar specter over Taiwan.
Xi and his colleagues have additional ways to assess the Biden administration’s appetite for confrontation with China over Taiwan. Despite U.S. and NATO commitments to Ukraine’s security and territorial integrity, there was no substantive response to Russia’s 2014 invasion of Eastern Ukraine and seizure of Crimea. Beijing may well convince itself to expect little more than economic sanctions, moral denunciations and limited weapons support for Taiwan, but no direct military intervention.
Biden’s personal commitment to Taiwan’s security is welcome, but his random responses to reporters’ questions, like Trump’s stream-of-consciousness tweets, lack official gravitas and are no substitute for a thoughtful, well-staffed declaratory administration policy that America will defend Taiwan. Strategic clarity will help China’s planners avoid a catastrophic strategic miscalculation.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He served in the Pentagon when Vladimir Putin invaded Georgia and was involved in Department of Defense discussions about the U.S. response. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.