Opinion | International

Biden should end the confusion and say America will defend Taiwan

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Joe Biden has just become the third president in 20 years to declare or strongly imply that the United States will defend Taiwan against an attack from China. He also became the third president to stand corrected by the foreign policy establishment within and outside government. 

In April 2001, George W. Bush answered affirmatively when asked whether America would protect Taiwan. When pressed, he said we would do "Whatever it took." In August 2020, Donald Trump was asked the same question in a Fox interview. He responded, "China knows what I'm gonna do. China knows." His tone suggested firm action.

During a CNN Town Hall last week, Biden was asked about China's test of a hypersonic missile. "What will you do to keep up with them militarily, and can you vow to protect Taiwan?" Biden replied, "Yes, and yes." Host Anderson Cooper followed up, "So are you saying that the United States would come to Taiwan's defense if China attacked?" Biden answered, "Yes. Yes, we have a commitment to do that."  

The three-yes response aroused immediate attention in Washington, Taipei and Beijing. Two weeks before, the president had reported on his 90-minute telephone conversation with Chinese leader Xi Jinping and made this curious statement: "I've spoken with Xi about Taiwan. We agree ... we'll abide by the Taiwan agreement. We made it clear that I don't think he should be doing anything other than abiding by the agreement." He did not specify what U.S.-China "agreement" he meant. And in an ABC interview in August, Biden mentioned the U.S. pledge to protect NATO allies and added, "Same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with Taiwan."  

After each of these comments, questions were raised about whether Biden was simply confused or was indicating that America's policy toward Taiwan and the strategic ambiguity surrounding it had changed. In each case, the stock official reply was that the U.S. position remains as is. The State Department said last week, "The president was not announcing any change in our policy and there is no change in our policy."

But the pattern presents a perplexing question for Americans and interested foreign observers.  Why have presidents of both parties periodically, and emphatically, made slips of the tongue indicating that the United States will go to war with China over Taiwan if necessary to save it?

The obvious follow-up question is this: Did Washington decide secretly at some point that it will defend Taiwan if China attacks - and even made that clear privately to Beijing, as Trump's tone implied? If China has been sternly warned, why are U.S. officials averse to uttering the words and declaring the commitment publicly? There are at least three reasons, two of which relate to anticipated Taiwanese behavior, the third to China's. 

The most common speculation is that Washington does not want to give independence-minded Taiwanese any encouragement to push ahead and provoke Beijing into responding militarily.  The core "red line" in China's Anti-Secession Law is a declaration of independence by Taiwan. The last time Taiwan even considered such an action was in 2003, when then-President Chen Shui-bian proposed a referendum on the question. Irate Washington officials warned that if Taiwan precipitated conflict with China, it could not count on American support and would be on its own. Taiwan's voters decided not to take the chance and declined even to formalize the referendum.

The second scenario Washington wishes to avoid would have Taiwan, knowing the U.S. would intervene, failing to take the necessary measures to bolster its own defenses. This concern about a "free-rider" mentality is not unique to Taiwan. Trump made it a point of contention with America's more formal allies, such as Japan, South Korea and NATO. He was criticized for abrasiveness, but it got results, as Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg acknowledged. The fear is misplaced with President Tsai Ing-wen, who has committed Taiwan to its own strong self-defense posture, with or without American backup.

The third basis for finessing an explicit U.S. warning to China is to avoid throwing down a gauntlet to Beijing that China's hardliners would consider a direct challenge to Chinese sovereignty and nationalist pride. As long as the deterrent message is conveyed and understood privately, it is argued, the public ambiguity saves China's face and relative stability is preserved.

Adherents to that view can point to a recent speech by Xi after a week of sharply heightened tensions because 150 Chinese combat aircraft had entered Taiwan's Air Defense Identification Zone. On Oct. 9, Xi used more conciliatory language about Taiwan, saying "peaceful unification" is China's goal. He did not mention that the default position in China's Anti-Secession Law provides for the use of "non-peaceful means" whenever China decides it has waited long enough for Taiwan to submit "peacefully." 

Interestingly, Vladimir Putin, whose Russian forces recently have been exercising with China's, chimed in a few days later, saying he sees no reason that China and Taiwan cannot unify without the need to use force. He said Beijing could achieve its goal of "peaceful reunification" using its economic leverage over Taiwan: "China is a huge powerful economy, and in terms of purchasing parity, China is the economy No. 1 in the world, ahead of the United States now." 

It remains to be seen if this was a spontaneous intervention by Putin to lower U.S.-China tensions or was done in coordination with Beijing. In any event, while Biden will welcome the breather, he and his administration should not feel any obligation to divert from the course he said he is on: "I don't want a cold war with China. I just want to make China understand that we are not going to step back. We are not going to change any of our views."

Ceasing China's multiple violations of Taiwan's air defense identification zone - which should not have occurred - does not entitle Beijing to any reward on Taiwan, trade, maritime freedom, human rights, or other issues. Offering concessions, such as paying ransom, will simply encourage future pressure for more. Biden needs to proceed with the Taiwan Representative Office name change, and with inviting Taiwan to the Summit for Democracy, the RIMPAC 2022 naval exercise, and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief joint exercises.

Publicly declaring America's intention to defend Taiwan will end the need to consult administration oracles, eliminate any lingering doubts or confusion in Beijing, and advance the cause of regional peace and stability. 

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 is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.

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