Biden, Taiwan, and the End of Strategic Ambiguity? Not Quite

CommentaryMany trees have been killed, and much ink spilled over President Joe Biden’s explicit commitment to defending Taiwan. In May, Biden repeatedly reiterated that the United States would come to Taiwan’s aid should it be attacked by the Chinese regime. Moreover, Biden has doubled down on his vow to back Taiwan, adding that the United States was militarily committed to coming to the island’s defense. The pearl-clutchers immediately went ballistic, mostly criticizing Biden for abandoning the long-held policy of “strategic ambiguity” regarding cross-strait relations. According to the principles of strategic ambiguity, the United States recognized the People’s Republic of China as the “true” China, politically and diplomatically, while also accepting that Washington did not recognize “Taiwanese independence.” At the same time, Washington opposed the use of force by Beijing to settle the question of Taiwan’s status and also that it reserved the right, as laid out in the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979, to “make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.” All of this is classic diplospeak intended to both deter and reassure Beijing—that Washington would not encourage Taiwan to declare its independence while also deterring China from thinking that the United States would tolerate an invasion of Taiwan. The TRA, along with the “Six Assurances,” are the very essence of strategic ambiguity and basically give Washington the best of both worlds. Has Biden’s remarks really changed this much? According to the pearl-clutchers, it has. According to a recent article in The Washington Post, Biden is abandoning strategic ambiguity for a new hawkish stance. The critique is that Biden fails to understand the underlying nature of strategic ambiguity, that “it is not merely designed to deter China … [but] is intended to also keep Taiwan’s ambitions from becoming overly aggressive.” In other words, Biden’s remarks could be construed as writing Taipei a blank check to ultimately declare independence. This would undermine the whole intent of strategic ambiguity. Some have condemned Biden’s apparent new “strategic clarity,” others have welcomed it, and many more are simply confused. Oddly enough, conservatives and Republicans who generally support Taiwan’s self-rule now seem, for the most part, to be the strongest supporters of continued strategic ambiguity, while Democrats are suddenly cheering Biden’s “get-tough-with-China” approach. All of this, frankly, is hyperventilating. Of course, this “yes-we-will-defend-Taiwan” commitment on the part of Biden is not a one-off gaffe; he repeated it in several different press conferences. Several times, too, his own White House tried to walk back this statement, essentially arguing that there is “no official change” to U.S. policy toward Taiwan. That was unsuccessful as well as Biden kept undercutting his own officers, reiterating his explicit commitment to Taipei’s defense. As one journalist put it, the president “Beetlejuiced” the end of strategic ambiguity. Did he, though? If anything, Biden is only slightly removing the nuance from strategic ambiguity. The U.S. commitment to defend Taiwan was always implicit in the TRA and the Six Assurances; the president is making it only slightly less implicit. Two points are important to remember. First, the United States reserves for itself to decide how, when, and with what resources it will defend Taiwan. As a corollary, Washington will also reserve the right to determine which “defense articles and defense services” are necessary to meet Taiwan’s requirement for “sufficient self-defense capabilities.” Four upgraded U.S.-made F-16 V fighters fly during a demonstration at a ceremony at the Chiayi Air Force in southern Taiwan on Nov 18. 2021. (Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images) Second, Washington is still not giving Taipei carte blanche to declare independence. If anything, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen probably got a phone call immediately after Biden’s remarks to remind her of this. If anything should remind us that strategic ambiguity is still the standing order of the day, one need look no further than a recent speech made by U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to the Shangri-La Dialogue recently held in Singapore. In his remarks, Austin reaffirmed long-standing U.S. policy toward cross-strait relations. According to Defense News, this included “opposition to Taiwanese independence, although he stressed that the Taiwan Relations Act, the so-called three U.S.-China joint communiques and the Six Assurances policy will still guide American policy.” In addition, Austin “stressed the US government’s determination to uphold the status quo that has served the region well. It’s official U.S. policy to recognize Beijing as representing China and to acknowledge its view that it has sovereignty over Taiwan, althoug

Biden, Taiwan, and the End of Strategic Ambiguity? Not Quite

Commentary

Many trees have been killed, and much ink spilled over President Joe Biden’s explicit commitment to defending Taiwan. In May, Biden repeatedly reiterated that the United States would come to Taiwan’s aid should it be attacked by the Chinese regime.

Moreover, Biden has doubled down on his vow to back Taiwan, adding that the United States was militarily committed to coming to the island’s defense.

The pearl-clutchers immediately went ballistic, mostly criticizing Biden for abandoning the long-held policy of “strategic ambiguity” regarding cross-strait relations. According to the principles of strategic ambiguity, the United States recognized the People’s Republic of China as the “true” China, politically and diplomatically, while also accepting that Washington did not recognize “Taiwanese independence.”

At the same time, Washington opposed the use of force by Beijing to settle the question of Taiwan’s status and also that it reserved the right, as laid out in the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979, to “make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.”

All of this is classic diplospeak intended to both deter and reassure Beijing—that Washington would not encourage Taiwan to declare its independence while also deterring China from thinking that the United States would tolerate an invasion of Taiwan. The TRA, along with the “Six Assurances,” are the very essence of strategic ambiguity and basically give Washington the best of both worlds.

Has Biden’s remarks really changed this much? According to the pearl-clutchers, it has. According to a recent article in The Washington Post, Biden is abandoning strategic ambiguity for a new hawkish stance. The critique is that Biden fails to understand the underlying nature of strategic ambiguity, that “it is not merely designed to deter China … [but] is intended to also keep Taiwan’s ambitions from becoming overly aggressive.”

In other words, Biden’s remarks could be construed as writing Taipei a blank check to ultimately declare independence. This would undermine the whole intent of strategic ambiguity.

Some have condemned Biden’s apparent new “strategic clarity,” others have welcomed it, and many more are simply confused. Oddly enough, conservatives and Republicans who generally support Taiwan’s self-rule now seem, for the most part, to be the strongest supporters of continued strategic ambiguity, while Democrats are suddenly cheering Biden’s “get-tough-with-China” approach.

All of this, frankly, is hyperventilating. Of course, this “yes-we-will-defend-Taiwan” commitment on the part of Biden is not a one-off gaffe; he repeated it in several different press conferences. Several times, too, his own White House tried to walk back this statement, essentially arguing that there is “no official change” to U.S. policy toward Taiwan.

That was unsuccessful as well as Biden kept undercutting his own officers, reiterating his explicit commitment to Taipei’s defense. As one journalist put it, the president “Beetlejuiced” the end of strategic ambiguity.

Did he, though? If anything, Biden is only slightly removing the nuance from strategic ambiguity. The U.S. commitment to defend Taiwan was always implicit in the TRA and the Six Assurances; the president is making it only slightly less implicit.

Two points are important to remember. First, the United States reserves for itself to decide how, when, and with what resources it will defend Taiwan. As a corollary, Washington will also reserve the right to determine which “defense articles and defense services” are necessary to meet Taiwan’s requirement for “sufficient self-defense capabilities.”

Epoch Times Photo
Four upgraded U.S.-made F-16 V fighters fly during a demonstration at a ceremony at the Chiayi Air Force in southern Taiwan on Nov 18. 2021. (Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images)

Second, Washington is still not giving Taipei carte blanche to declare independence. If anything, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen probably got a phone call immediately after Biden’s remarks to remind her of this.

If anything should remind us that strategic ambiguity is still the standing order of the day, one need look no further than a recent speech made by U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to the Shangri-La Dialogue recently held in Singapore.

In his remarks, Austin reaffirmed long-standing U.S. policy toward cross-strait relations. According to Defense News, this included “opposition to Taiwanese independence, although he stressed that the Taiwan Relations Act, the so-called three U.S.-China joint communiques and the Six Assurances policy will still guide American policy.”

In addition, Austin “stressed the US government’s determination to uphold the status quo that has served the region well. It’s official U.S. policy to recognize Beijing as representing China and to acknowledge its view that it has sovereignty over Taiwan, although Washington also considers Taiwan’s status as unsettled,” the report said.

In Austin’s own words, he stated that Washington and the Biden administration “categorically oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo from either side. We do not support Taiwan independence. And we stand firmly behind the principle that cross-strait differences must be resolved by peaceful means.”

These remarks are a classic embrace of a continued strategy of strategic ambiguity, as clear as it can be (and, yes, as ironic as it may sound). Strategic ambiguity stands, and Biden’s remarks do not change the basic planks of this policy. If anything, the president has simply fired a metaphorical “shot over the bow” at Beijing, to clarify U.S. commitments to a free Taiwan.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.


Follow

Richard A. Bitzinger is an independent international security analyst. He was previously a senior fellow with the Military Transformations Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore, and he has held jobs in the U.S. government and at various think tanks. His research focuses on security and defense issues relating to the Asia-Pacific region, including the rise of China as a military power, and military modernization and arms proliferation in the region.