US President Biden’s latest Taiwan gaffe stokes tensions with Beijing

  • May 24, 2022
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PRESIDENT Joseph R. Biden is seeking to show US resolve against China, yet an ill-timed gaffe on Taiwan risks undermining his bid to curb Beijing’s growing influence over the region.

Whether intentional or not, Mr. Biden provoked China with a vow to defend Taiwan militarily. After saying that US policy on Taiwan “had not changed at all” during a news conference in Tokyo, he then answered “yes” when asked if the US would act “militarily” to defend the island in the event of a Chinese attack.

“It’s a commitment we made,” Mr. Biden added.

White House officials later walked back the remark, saying the president was only promising US aid to help Taiwan defend itself in the event of hostilities. That would be akin to what the US is doing in Ukraine, where Mr. Biden has vowed not to send troops.

“The policy has not changed at all, and I stated that when I made my statement,” Mr. Biden said Tuesday when pressed by reporters to clarify the US position.

The president’s remark nonetheless roiled Mr. Biden’s first trip to Asia since taking office and upstaged his roll-out of a new strategic framework for the region. It also cast new light on Washington’s decades-old approach of “strategic ambiguity” about whether US forces would defend Taiwan against China, while also adopting a “One China” policy under which Taiwan isn’t recognized as an independent country.

It’s a complicated policy, criticized both by Beijing and some US lawmakers, that has tripped up Mr. Biden and some of his predecessors in the past. Mr. Biden has made similar missteps on Taiwan at least twice as president, but in making the remark so close to Chinese territory and in the context of the Ukraine war, the impact was amplified.

Although the latest episode is unlikely to fundamentally alter the US-China relationship, it highlights the current tension around Taiwan at a time when Chinese officials have expressed concern about American efforts to box in their country. And Mr. Biden’s remark also opened him to criticism by domestic political opponents who have sought to portray the president, 79, as infirm and unfit for the job.

Senator Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, said that Mr. Biden’s comments represented a shift toward “strategic clarity” on Taiwan and that the president should outline a clear US commitment to defend the island “in clear, deliberate remarks from a prepared text.”

“Otherwise, the continued ambiguity and uncertainty will likely provoke the Chinese communists without deterring them — the worst of both worlds,” he said.

Indeed, one Chinese official suggested that Mr. Biden’s comment may have been deliberate, aimed at testing Beijing’s response to a policy change. The official, who asked not to be identified describing internal Chinese government discussions, portrayed such a potential US approach as dangerous.

China’s leaders have closely watched the Ukraine crisis unfold, taking note of Russia’s political and economic isolation as well as the massive international support for Kyiv as they consider their posture toward Taiwan.

And Mr. Biden spoke in Tokyo, the capital of a major Chinese rival, on a trip to strengthen the US alliance with new, Washington-friendly leaders of Japan and South Korea, two countries already unfriendly toward Beijing.

Mr. Biden’s previous comments about US support for Taiwan happened during domestic television interviews.

“The level of concern in Beijing about US policy toward Taiwan is already very high, and this episode will further heighten that concern, especially since it was said in Tokyo,” said Bonnie Glaser, Asia program director at the German Marshall Fund of the US.

While Mr. Biden’s intent may have been to deter a Chinese attack on Taiwan, “his messaging is confusing and may undermine deterrence,” Ms. Glaser added. The US’s policy of “strategic ambiguity” on Taiwan, which Mr. Biden has repeatedly backed during his five-decade Washington career, is intended to minimize the risk of a direct military confrontation with China.

White House officials said after Mr. Biden’s news conference that the president stands behind the “One China” policy and its commitment under the Taiwan Relations Act to provide the island with the military means to defend itself. Officials said that by answering “yes” when asked if the US would defend Taiwan, the president meant the US would supply military equipment to the island, not send troops.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin nonetheless denounced Mr. Biden’s comments on Monday and said the US should refrain from sending the wrong message on Taiwan, “to avoid causing grave damage to bilateral relations.”

Although Mr. Biden may have sought to evoke a Ukraine-like effort to keep Taipei supplied in the event of an invasion, the island would present an entirely different strategic challenge. It doesn’t share a land border with American allies, as does Ukraine, meaning China could more easily blockade its ports and airports to prevent resupply.

Mr. Biden’s comments set off a now-familiar cycle for White House aides, who have become accustomed to cleaning up the president’s remarks on world hot spots. After Mr. Biden declared in Poland that Russian President Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power,” his advisers insisted the president wasn’t advocating regime change.

And Mr. Biden told reporters that lawyers at the State Department might feel differently after he labeled Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a “genocide.”

Mr. Biden previously said the US would come to Taiwan’s defense during an ABC News interview in August and in a CNN town hall in October. The US abandoned its post-Chinese civil war position that it would defend Taiwan in the late 1970s when it normalized relations with Beijing.

Mr. Biden, who as a senator chaired the Foreign Relations Committee for about four years, has on other occasions used language that appeared to alter US policy on Taiwan, including by describing the island last year as “independent.”

President Donald Trump made a congratulatory phone call to Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, in December 2016 after her election — the first time a US president or president-elect had spoken directly to Taiwan’s leader since 1979. And Mr. Trump publicly mused before taking office about abandoning the “One China” policy, only to restate the US position in February 2017.

President George W. Bush agreed with an ABC News interviewer that the US had an obligation to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack and said that the US would provide “whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself.”

No matter the clean-up by White House officials, China has always assumed US involvement in any conflict with Taiwan, said Ryan Hass, the Cecilia Yen Koo Chair in Taiwan Studies at the Brookings Institution.

“Beijing always has had to base its military plans in the Taiwan Strait on an assumption of US military intervention, Mr. Hass said. “It would represent strategic malpractice for Beijing to assume anything otherwise.”

The Chinese Embassy in Washington declined to elaborate on the foreign ministry’s comments. The White House didn’t respond to a request for additional comments.

“The US will suffer the consequences and the American people may rebel if the US president wants to send American soldiers to fight in Taiwan,” said former Chinese diplomat Gao Zhikai.

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said last week that Mr. Biden may speak with Chinese President Xi Jinping in coming weeks, and Mr. Xi may decide to wait until that conversation before reaching judgments about the US policy direction toward Taiwan, Mr. Hass said. — Bloomberg