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Analysis: Biden’s new stance of strategic confusion on Taiwan

This is now the American position on Taiwan after President Joe Biden said, for at least the third time, that the US would be willing to intervene militarily should the Chinese attack, before the White House again walked it back.

His remarks quickly reverberated around the world, sparking seething anger in Beijing, an opportunistic welcome in Taipei and reigniting a smoldering debate over Taiwan on Capitol Hill.

Now everyone is scrambling to find out whether Biden committed yet another gaffe, after repeatedly getting ahead of his own stated diplomatic positions, or has ditched decades of US foreign policy.

•The US approach on an issue more likely than any other to spark a war with China has long been governed by the policy of “strategic ambiguity” over exactly how the US would respond to an invasion of Taiwan. This is meant to keep a lid on the showdown by deterring China by keeping open the possibility of a US military response. At the same time, it’s aimed at depriving Taiwan of US assurances that could prompt it to push for official independence. The goal is to preserve the status quo and to avoid a war in Asia — and it has worked, allowing Washington to walk the tightrope of relations with both sides.

What Biden said

•On his first trip to Asia as President, Biden was asked in Tokyo, in the light of his refusal to use military force to defend Ukraine, whether he would go further and get involved militarily to defend Taiwan. “Yes,” Biden replied. “That’s the commitment we made.”

•To be clear, the US does not have any commitment to defend Taiwan militarily in the event of a Chinese attack. Biden, not for the first time, appears to be conflating US diplomatic agreements governing relations with Beijing that recognize China’s claims to self-governing Taiwan and a US law that requires the government to provide defensive arms to the island democracy.

What does it mean?

•So, is the President — who ran claiming to be a foreign policy expert — confused? Or is he shifting US policy? A White House statement said Biden merely restated US undertakings under the Taiwan Relations Act “to provide Taiwan with the military means to defend itself.”

•But that is clearly not what Biden said. The hurried damage control effort will fuel Republican claims that Biden is old and lacks the mental acuity to be President. But faceless aides will not take the decision about what to do if China attacks Taiwan — the President will.

•So, if he repeatedly says the US will use military force to defend the island, shouldn’t he be taken seriously? Will Beijing believe Biden or his aides? And what does this mean for his credibility among Chinese leaders? Because what is crucial in this tense geopolitical standoff is not necessarily what Biden’s position is, but what Beijing thinks it is. The US seems now to have less a policy of strategic ambiguity than one of strategic confusion.

How Ukraine has changed the game

•The President’s latest remarks come in an important context. They follow the robust US response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Biden confounded expectations and revived the Cold War alliance to counter Moscow and is effectively fighting a $40 billion proxy war against the Kremlin. So, it’s not unreasonable to think Biden is more hawkish than anyone believed — and that could translate to Taiwan. Or again and more importantly, it could cause Beijing to change its behavior based on a perception that the US has already done so.

•The President’s comments also carried extra symbolic weight because they came in Asia during a tour dominated by his effort to form a broad front of regional allies to counter China’s emergence as a superpower rival. This dynamic means precision in US statements is even more important.

Why is China so angry?

•It is impossible to overstate the existential nature of this issue for leaders in Beijing and its centrality to the DNA of the ruling Communist Party. The split between the mainland and Taiwan, around 100 miles to the southeast, came when nationalist forces fled there after losing a long civil war with the communists. The idea that Taiwan is part of the motherland is fundamental to modern Chinese doctrine. President Xi Jinping has said the island must be unified with the mainland — even though the People’s Republic of China has never governed it — and has not ruled out doing so by force.

•From Beijing’s point of view, Biden is inserting himself deeper into an internal matter. This at a time when China, asserting its growing might, has been sending record numbers of planes into the island’s self-declared Air Defense Zone. “We urge the US to stop saying or doing anything in violation of the one-China principle and the three China-US Joint Communiqués,” China’s Taiwan Affairs Office spokesperson Zhu Fenglian said Monday, adding, “Those who play with fire will certainly burn themselves” — a phrase that Chinese officials have used in the past to warn Washington over the issue.

•Biden’s remarks also come at a time of political tension inside China’s ruling elite. Xi is expected to claim a historic third term this fall but is under pressure over the slowing economy and the country’s failure to beat Covid-19. Biden’s remarks could pour gasoline on an already nationalistic tinderbox.

How it’s playing in Washington

•Biden has forced Republican hawks to both question his acumen and praise his strong approach — a sign of how this issue scrambles politics in Washington. “I do think that’s a premature comment, off-the-cuff, and everybody listens to the commander-in-chief,” Republican Rep. Michael McCaul told CNN’s New Day on Monday. But McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, also added: “I personally kind of like it because it does provide a deterrent message that we will defend Taiwan. Coming from the President it’s very, very strong.”

•There’s fierce debate on Capitol Hill about dispensing with strategic ambiguity altogether with hardliners in both parties calling for a policy of “strategic clarity” under which the US states openly that it will defend Taiwan if attacked. The reasoning is that since China is now far more powerful and threatening to Taiwan, the United States needs to make its position clearer. The problem, however, is that this move would be seen as highly provocative in Beijing and could make China even more aggressive. It may fuel the independence movement in Taiwan. Both of which could lead the US into a costly naval battle close to the Chinese coast for which Americans have not been prepared.

•There’s another huge source of uncertainty. Even if the US toughens its position, there’s no certainty a future President would stand by it. Would Donald Trump in a possible second term, or another America First nationalist, go to war with China to defend democracy after working to erode it at home?

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