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Why Biden’s off-the-cuff comment about defending Taiwan matters

Biden hasn’t discarded longtime policy toward Taiwan, but it sounds like he has.

President Joe Biden speaks during a news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at Akasaka Palace in Tokyo, Japan, on May 23.
Evan Vucci/AP
Jonathan Guyer covers foreign policy, national security, and global affairs for Vox. From 2019 to 2021, he worked at the American Prospect, where as managing editor he reported on Biden’s and Trump's foreign policy teams.

President Joe Biden had sought to make his first Asia tour about forging a new economic framework for the region, deepening relations with the heads of state of Japan and South Korea, and advancing diplomacy among countries in the Indo-Pacific. But one off-script comment derailed those goals.

On Monday at a news conference in Tokyo, Biden was asked by a journalist: “Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?”

“Yes,” said Biden. “That’s the commitment we made.”

Biden’s remark might be a big deal. US policy toward Taiwan has been one of “strategic ambiguity” for four decades — supporting Taiwan’s independence without quite saying so. As part of the “One China” policy, the US does not recognize the democratic island nation of Taiwan, but maintains “a robust unofficial relationship” with it, according to the State Department. (The US supports Taiwan with weapons and has deep economic ties with the country.) In a phrase, Biden broke down that convention.

At the same time, it wasn’t a particularly revelatory moment. It was actually the third time that Biden has said something along these lines. In October 2021, Biden stated a similar “commitment” to Taiwan. In August 2021, Biden compared the US approach to Taiwan to its pledge to defend NATO countries. (An official then walked back those remarks).

All of those comments reveal a lot about Biden’s tendency for undisciplined, off-the-cuff responses — another example is his remark in late March that Russian President Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power” — but don’t necessarily represent major policy shifts.

Today, once again, the White House quickly disavowed Biden’s statement. “As the president said, our policy has not changed,” a White House official said.

Before his takeoff to Asia, Biden’s team didn’t want to concede that the trip was really all about responding to China’s global influence. Now, Biden has said, in as many words, that the trip is really all about countering China.

How dangerous is Biden’s Taiwan comment?

The diplomatic gymnastics of the “One China” policy may seem absurd. The US doesn’t officially recognize the country of Taiwan, and yet it sells the country lots of weapons to defend itself, under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act.

But Asia experts say that the “One China” policy remains the best approach to East Asia.

The “One China” policy is imperfect, but any changes to the status quo could lead to an even more intensive arms race or escalation of threats, says Van Jackson, a scholar of international relations at the University of Wellington in New Zealand.

“The ‘One China’ policy is a terrible interim solution, and it’s the best we got,” he told me. “If you’re going to clarify strategic ambiguity, if you’re going to try to declare two nations, if you’re going to give up on ‘One China’ policy, you’re just asking for conflict.”

There is no immediate resolution to the conflict between China and Taiwan, but saying that the US would back Taiwan militarily in essence is poking China. A comment like this from Biden could lead to the Chinese government drawing the worst-case conclusions about what US security interests are in Taiwan: that the US, in contradiction of its stated diplomatic policy, is reinforcing a military commitment to Taiwan. It’s something the US has historically avoided saying aloud.

Meanwhile the Biden administration has not said enough about the need for an effective level of diplomacy that will revitalize the “One China” policy in ways that could avoid escalations. “To my mind, the United States needs to be clear that we’re not engaged in an effort to create a strategic ally in Taiwan, because that’ll be the shortest path to conflict with the Chinese,” said Michael Swaine of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. “And the United States is not in a position where it can assume that that conflict will go in its direction.”

Swaine has pointed out that the Biden Pentagon’s top Asia official, Ely Ratner, made an unprecedented comment last year about Taiwan’s strategic importance to the US. Ratner testified to Congress and said that Taiwan is “critical to the region’s security and critical to the defense of vital US interests in the Indo-Pacific.” The comment was “reckless,” according to Swaine, a clear indication that Biden’s team was going to take risks surrounding the long-standing “One China” policy.

As a Financial Times correspondent wrote at the time, “This may well be remembered as the moment Washington came clean on its intentions regarding Taiwan.”

Biden’s one-liner in Japan could take its place as a new, more important turning point.

Many national-security observers in Washington have noted that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been an opportunity for the Chinese government to study what the US does when a country that is not quite a US or NATO ally is threatened.

The entire US playbook is on display, from comprehensive sanctions that severed much of Russia from the world economy to the rapid arming of Ukraine.

Biden’s remark fortifies the notion that official Washington sees conflict with China as a real possibility — and would be ready to back Taiwan in the event of a war that, without doubt, would have no winners.

Biden is a gaffe machine, in contrast to his very disciplined team

It’s hardly news that Biden puts his foot in his mouth. Throughout his career, he has been known for his gaffes. His verbal slippages have been a recurring trend as the US has played a delicate role in the Ukraine war.

In pushing back against Russia, the Biden administration has been carefully navigating a role on the sidelines — supporting Ukraine against Russia assault with billions of dollars of weapons, intelligence sharing, and diplomatic assurances, but being careful not to come into direct conflict with Russia, a nuclear power.

Yet Biden himself has often said the things that you’re not supposed to say, and in the process become the administration’s id.

In the days before the war, Biden said that if Russia pursued a “minor incursion” of Ukraine it would shape the US response — which outraged many observers, including Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who said there was no such thing as a minor incursion.

Biden called Putin a “war criminal,” before such a statement was the official policy of the administration, leading spokesperson Jen Psaki to say that Biden was “speaking from his heart.”

Visiting Poland at the end of March, Biden said of Putin, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power” — too close to saying that the US is in the business of regime change in the Ukraine war. Like all of the Biden statements, there was a White House walk-back.

The president has a way of cutting through the diplo-speak of a press conference and dispensing with nuance.

Biden’s persistent oratory missteps contrast with the unusually disciplined nature of the rest of the administration. Biden administration officials exhibit incredible cool and control, often in complete paragraphs that might as well have been torn from the page of a presidential briefing book.

“Our view, as we’ve expressed many times, is that we are concerned about peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and the ratcheting up of tensions. And we believe that China is contributing to the ratcheting up of those tensions through provocative military activities around Taiwan and around the Strait,” Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, said in a press briefing in Anchorage last week, en route to Asia.

“From our perspective, our position has been clear and consistent,” he added.

That is, until his boss, the president, chimes in.

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