To deter China from Taiwan, Biden must reassure

Last week, in an unwritten moment, President Biden bluntly warned that if China invades Taiwan, the United States will come to defend the island.

“We’ve made a commitment,” Biden told reporters at a press conference in Tokyo.

Including military action?

“Yes,” he replied.

That’s not what US policy toward Taiwan says — at least not officially.

The White House and the State Department hastily tried to catch up with the president’s words.

“Our policy has not changed,” they emphasized.

Biden critics called it a blunder, but the statement was not a slip of the tongue. Biden has spoken the same language on Taiwan three times in nine months. When a president offers his personal version of the policy three times in a row, it’s pretty much official — even if it’s not published in a formal communiqué.

What Biden did was openly say what has been implied for years: The United States is willing to threaten force to stop China from invading Taiwan.

Until now, those hints have been embedded in a policy known as “strategic ambiguity.” The president made it less ambiguous.

Chinese hawks hailed the rhetorical shift as a welcome burst of clarity. Others feared it would incite China to reckless action.

The Chinese response was anger.

“If the US continues to go astray, there will be irreparable consequences… and the US will have to pay an unbearable price,” said Wang Wenbin, spokesman for the State Department.

Why such a storm over the word ‘commitment’? A little history can help.

China considers Taiwan part of its national territory, and so did the rulers of Taiwan, the US-backed losers of the Chinese Civil War who fled to the island when the communists took power in 1949.

In 1979, when President Carter recognized Beijing as China’s only legitimate government, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act. It obliged the United States to supply weapons to the island’s government. However, it did not oblige the United States to intervene militarily against a Chinese invasion; that remained unclear. The idea was to deter China without directly opposing its push to recapture Taiwan.

That balance was relatively easy to maintain when China was weaker.

But over the past two decades, China has grown stronger and become an assertive regional power: building military bases in the South China Sea, bullying weaker neighbors like the Philippines, and harassing Taiwan’s armed forces with air and naval raids.

Chinese officials have mocked the United States as a declining power. After the US’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, one of Beijing’s official newspapers said the lesson for Taiwan was that if war breaks out, “the US military won’t come to help.”

That’s when Biden first said publicly that the United States is committed to defending Taiwan, as is the US commitment to its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

His intention, then and now, was clear: to make Chinese President Xi Jinping think long and hard before considering an invasion.

But by announcing the union as he did, he caused consternation in his own foreign policy bureaucracy.

“I don’t think the confusion helps,” said Bonnie S. Glaser, director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund.

Glaser supports the goal of stopping China from invading Taiwan, but said it is not clear whether Biden’s warnings will do so.

“What will deter China and what will provoke China? It’s not clear we know,” she said. “The Chinese think we are testing their bottom line to see if they will react if we broach one of their core interests like Taiwan. If they think we’re encouraging [Taiwan to declare] independence, they might be tempted to use force.”

It is also not clear whether the United States can defeat a Chinese invasion. The Chinese navy is the largest in the world, although its ships are smaller and less sophisticated than those of the US and its allies. A 2018 study commissioned by Congress warned that the United States “might struggle to win or maybe lose a war against China.”

So to maintain his commitment to Taiwan, Biden has work to do. He has already received support from Japan, Australia and other allies. His government has urged Taiwan to improve its defenses, drawing lessons from Ukraine’s success in repelling a larger invader. And Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III is expected to seek more troops in the Pacific.

Paradoxically, while strengthening deterrence, Biden needs to reassure China that the United States is not surreptitiously encouraging Taiwan to declare independence. That means reaffirming the ‘One China’ policy he only briefly mentioned in his comments last week and assuring Xi he means it when he says he doesn’t want to change the status quo.

If he can do all that, last week’s unwritten statement could someday be remembered as a step toward deterring war in Asia — not the moment Biden accidentally provoked one.

Leave a Comment