You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

On Taiwan, Joe Biden Just Said What Everybody Already Knows

The official U.S. policy is ambiguous and incoherent. Biden spoke the truth—but it’s a truth with some ominous implications.

Biden at the Quad Leaders’ summit
Yuichi Yamazaki/Getty Images
Biden at the Quad Leaders’ summit on May 24 in Tokyo

President Biden’s decision during Monday’s joint press conference in Tokyo with the Japanese prime minister, Fumio Kishida, to state categorically that the United States will intervene militarily should China attack Taiwan has provoked a great deal of anger in Beijing and a great deal of discomfort in much, if not most, of the American foreign policy establishment, very much including many of the president’s own supporters both outside and even inside the administration. An emblem of this was that, within hours of Biden’s remarks, the State Department was, as the Beltway euphemism has it, “walking back” the president’s comments and insisting U.S. policy vis-à-vis Taiwan had not in fact changed.

The problem, of course, is that this policy, which dates from 1979 when the U.S. moved to recognize the People’s Republic of China as “the sole legal Government of China”—and to “de-recognize” the Republic of China, i.e., Taiwan—was completely incoherent and self-contradicting when it was agreed to and is, if anything, more so today. On the one hand, the U.S. accepted and continues to accept Beijing’s view that Taiwan is not, as the island claims to be, a separate sovereign entity. But on the other, Washington has never accepted the Chinese claim that Taiwan is part of China. This contradiction is even contained in the December 1978 U.S.-Chinese joint communiqué, in which the text in Chinese reads that the U.S. “recognizes” that Taiwan is part of China, but that in English states that the U.S. “acknowledges the Chinese claim” that Taiwan is part of China.

To add to the confusion, shortly after the U.S. closed its embassy in Taiwan and Washington and Beijing exchanged ambassadors, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which states that U.S. ties with the PRC rest “upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means”—something Beijing has not committed to either at the time or since. The U.S. also committed itself to provide Taiwan with “arms of a defensive character” and to “maintain the capacity of the U.S. to resist any resort to force [by Beijing] or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people of Taiwan.”

In Washington, this U.S. stance goes under the name of “strategic ambiguity.” But that term, which can indeed be usefully applied to Israel’s long-standing policy of not acknowledging that it has an arsenal of nuclear weapons that it might use in the event it felt itself existentially threatened by its enemies (read: Iran), makes no sense with relation to Taiwan. If anything, self-defeating contradiction in terms would be a better phrase for it. The U.S. does not recognize Taiwan but will defend it (means unspecified), while providing Taiwan with the means to defend itself militarily … but only with “defensive weapons,” which in military terms is not just ambiguous but meaningless, since arguably even nuclear weapons (to the extent one accepts the doctrine of mutually assured destruction) could be classified as defensive.

In reality, Washington’s policy of strategic ambiguity has only worked, and can only work, if China is not really in earnest about reconquering its renegade province (as it sees it) by force. At the time of the U.S. and the PRC’s mutual recognition, China was too weak to do this. And after the Chinese embraced perestroika (though not, of course, glasnost) and went (authoritarian) capitalist during the Deng Xiaoping era, and as it rose to become in effect the world’s workshop and second-largest economy, it may have seemed reasonable to assume that the more China joined the world system—raising hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in the process—the less likely it would be to put all of this at risk by going to war.

Of course, this same logic governed the conventional wisdom that when China regained Hong Kong it would honor its engagements to allow the city to operate under more democratic rules. The argument was that allowing the financial center to be governed differently from the rest of the PRC was in Beijing’s economic interests and even its reputational political ones. But that hope came to dust with the imposition in 2020 of harsh national security laws and the suppression of the democracy movement that arose in their wake. When China talks about “one China,” it is now clear that it means just that: one China under one system.

Where Taiwan is concerned, earlier hopes that China might offer a “soft” reunification, as it did initially in Hong Kong, with the island being allowed to retain its democratic identity and some degree of autonomy, are not even being suggested anymore. The only question is whether, as some believe, China is finally going to try to seize the island by force and whether its saber-rattling of the last couple of years—military aircraft encroaching on Taiwanese airspace, naval exercises that appear to simulate what the Chinese Navy would do if called upon to support the invasion—should be taken as a sign of an impending war.

President Biden already was taking a harder pro-Taiwan line last August, promising that the U.S. would come to Taiwan’s aid should it be attacked and creating much of the same consternation and confusion in the State Department as his statement this week has given rise to. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has clearly hardened Biden’s view, and at the Tokyo press conference he said as much, stating that events in Ukraine had made America’s responsibility to defend Taiwan “even stronger.”

Biden clearly believes that Russia’s move risks emboldening the Chinese to invade. Whether he is correct in this is impossible to know, though many of those who dismiss such fears also dismissed Biden’s prediction before Moscow attacked that it would do so. Another view also holds that Biden’s alarm is misplaced, not because Beijing might not have been initially emboldened by the Russian assault but rather because the unexpectedly sturdy resistance Russian forces have been met with has in fact had a chastening effect on Chinese military planners. Those who tend to this view point out that an invasion would be hugely costly for a Chinese military that hasn’t a fraction of the combat experience Russian forces have, and that the last war the Chinese fought was against Vietnam in 1979—and it was roundly defeated.

The core problem for Washington is that the doctrine of strategic ambiguity that was developed at the end of the ’70s today seems long past its sell-by date. It is this that Biden has recognized, even if his State Department has not. China is different now—more self-confident, more intransigent, and probably more militarily competent as well. And Taiwan is very different, having become an exemplary democracy in an age when democracy seems almost everywhere in retreat (in my view, including in the U.S.). After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, to imagine that the possibility of similar Chinese action is remote seems like the height of wishful thinking. To the extent that the so-called post–World War II “Long Peace” ever existed at all, it has ended in Bucha and Mariupol, and this holds true in East Asia every bit as much as it does in Eastern Europe.

The question of whether Biden was wise or unwise to say publicly and emphatically what everyone in both Beijing and Washington knows perfectly well to be the case, which is that the doctrine of strategic ambiguity is about as useless as the Maginot Line, is actually secondary. Beijing may affect indignation, but it understands perfectly well that, despite Ukraine, the U.S. continues to refocus its military center of gravity away from the Middle East and Europe and toward the Pacific, and that it is cementing or strengthening military relationships with Australia through the AUKUS agreement; with South Korea; and, most importantly of all, with a Japanese government that seems to have both the will and the political support to amend its Basic Law and vastly increase its military power—through the recently announced doubling of its defense budget from 1 percent of its gross domestic product in 2021 to 2 percent in 2022—and the ways that power can be used.

Surely this, and not Biden’s rhetorical flourishes, is what Americans need to try to think through and agree to a position on. Is China the principal military threat to the U.S. and its Asian allies? If so, how can that threat be met and how far should the U.S. be willing to go in order to meet it? Up to going to war with China to defend Taiwan? Or should the U.S. in effect stand down, hoping for the maintenance of the status quo vis-à-vis Taiwan, trying every possible diplomatic means, but, should China invade, acknowledging that there is nothing it can do?

If the latter is really the choice Americans wish to opt for, then it is difficult to see what the point would continue to be of maintaining the enormous military establishment the U.S. now has. It seems highly unlikely, though, that this will be the choice Washington will make; indeed, every indicator points the other way. Moreover, for the U.S. to abandon Taiwan to its fate really would in effect be to say that U.S. military guarantees are worthless. There is an ideological dimension too: that of the legitimacy of U.S. power. A realist and, self-evidently, an anti-imperialist would say that legitimacy was bogus anyway. But even those who take the opposite view will be hard-pressed to defend the legitimacy of U.S. power if it is not used to defend Taiwan. For if that democracy is not worth defending by force of arms, what country is worth defending? This, it seems to me, is the debate we should be having.