Written by Gerrit van der Wees
Image credit: Joe Biden by Prachatai/ Flickr, license: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
At a press conference on 23 May 2022, President Biden – who was in Tokyo to attend a meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and the launch of the Indo-Pacific Economic Forum (IPEF) – was asked by CBS reporter Nancy Cordes: “You didn’t want to get involved in the Ukraine conflict militarily for obvious reasons. Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?” “Yes,” Mr Biden answered flatly. “You are?” the reporter followed up. “That’s the commitment we made,” he said.
President Biden then added: “We agree with a One China policy. We’ve signed on to it and all the intended agreements made from there.” But the idea that, “that it (Taiwan) can be taken by force, just taken by force, is just not, is just not appropriate,” he said. Biden added he expected that such an event would not happen or be attempted.
The White House subsequently issued the customary statement that “our policy has not changed.” It added that the President had “reiterated our One China Policy and our commitment to peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. He also reiterated our commitment under the Taiwan Relations Act to provide Taiwan with the military means to defend itself.”
The remarks prompted an additional round of commentaries and criticism: Mr Biden had made similar statements twice earlier, in August 2021 and October 2021.
In August 2021, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos asked Biden whether withdrawal from Afghanistan might embolden China against Taiwan. In his reply, Biden equated the commitment to Taiwan with that to NATO, Korea, and Japan: “We have made—kept every commitment. We made a sacred commitment to Article Five that if, in fact, anyone were to invade or take action against our NATO allies, we would respond. Same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with—Taiwan. It’s not even comparable to talk about that.”
In October, Biden restated his commitment even more forcefully and clearly at a CNN town hall moderated by Anderson Cooper. An audience member asked, “China just tested a hypersonic missile. What will you do to keep up with them militarily? And can you vow to protect Taiwan?”
Biden answered: “Yes and yes. We are—militarily, China, Russia, and the rest of the world knows we have the most powerful military in the history of the world. Don’t worry about whether we’re going to—they’re going to be more powerful. …”Anderson Cooper then intervened to clarify: “So, are you saying that the United States would come to Taiwan’s defence if China attacked?”
Biden: “Yes. Yes, we have a commitment to do that.”
Thus, President Biden seems clear in his convictions as he has now emphasised the same commitment three times in a row, but each time his clear commitment prompts a backlash and a storm of commentary and criticism. The problem seems to be twofold:
- The Administration has not really been able to enunciate clearly what its commitments are in the case of an attack/invasion by China, and
- Many in the press and think-tank world mistakenly equate “current policy” with “strategic ambiguity.”
More on each of these points follow:
Clear Enunciation of US Commitments Under the TRA
When referring to current policy, US officials state that this is “our One China policy,” based – in that order – on the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), the Three Communiques, and the 1982 Six Assurances.
It is also significant to note that recently the US has begun to emphasise that “our One China policy” is very different from the PRC’s “One China Principle.” but that warrants another article.
Among these three sets of documents mentioned, the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 – which has the force of US law – is the document that contains US commitments to (help) defend Taiwan. Most observers generally emphasise Art. 1 (b)(5), which says that it is the policy of the US to “…provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character,” indicating that through these sales, the US will help defend Taiwan. That is also the clause the White House referred to when it stated: “He also reiterated our commitment under the Taiwan Relations Act to provide Taiwan with the military means to defend itself.”
But there is a second clause – Art.1(b)(6) – which says: It is the policy of the US “to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardise the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.” This second clause provides the backbone for the legal basis for the US to play a direct role. The framers of the TRA certainly intended the US to maintain the capacity and use it when the situation warranted it. Moreover, an invasion by China (=any resort to force) is certainly one of the circumstances requiring action.
Observers may have noted that in his China speech at George Washington University on 26 May 2022, US Secretary of State Tony Blinken did emphasise the “any” in the resort to force clause.
One additional point on the TRA: some observers emphasise the commitment to Taiwan is not quite equal to the one to treaty allies like Japan, ROK or NATO. However, the TRA in Section 2 (c) says:
“The President is directed to inform the Congress promptly of any threat to the security or the social or economic system of the people on Taiwan and any danger to the interests of the United States arising therefrom. The President and the Congress shall determine, in accordance with constitutional processes, appropriate action by the United States in response to any such danger.”
Thus, under current policy, the US not only has to maintain the capacity but shall decide on appropriate action to counter any resort to force. Such action is to be determined by the President in consultation with Congress. The same is the case with NATO and other treaty allies. I.e. the action is not automatic either.
“Strategic Ambiguity” is not a Policy
The second major problem is that many in the press and think tanks mistakenly equate current policy with “strategic ambiguity.” One example is a headline by Reuters, stating that “US President Joe Biden said on Tuesday there had been no change to the policy of strategic ambiguity on Taiwan.” For sure, Biden stated that there had been no policy change, but he did not use the term “strategic ambiguity” in any way, which is not part of the USG lexicon.
As I have emphasised before, the concept of “strategic ambiguity” is less of an actual “policy” but has somehow gotten a life of its own in the echo chambers of the think tanks and media in Washington. If we follow this interpretation, the Administration can rightly say that “policy has not changed,” as “strategic ambiguity” in and by itself is not “policy.”
This interpretation was reinforced recently when I reread Robert Suettinger’s 2003 book “Beyond Tienanmen.” Mr Suettinger served as China Director at the US National Security Council in the mid-1990s, when the term “strategic ambiguity” gained traction when Joseph Nye used it several times in testimony before Congress. Here is what Suettinger had to say about it:
“…Former assistant secretary of defence for international security affairs Joseph S. Nye Jr. had used the term in congressional testimony in October 1995 to describe the overall nature of US-China relationship, in which there were many strategic interests in common but also some major disagreements on important issues. Unfortunately, the term came to be used by journalists and commentators as a shorthand way to describe the US position on China and Taiwan – that Washington resisted specifying under what conditions it would invoke the Taiwan Relations Act and how it would respond to various types of PRC military pressure on Taiwan.“ (emphasis added – GvdW)
“Although Nye continued to say that ‘nobody knows’ how the United States would react to a Chinese attack on Taiwan, other administration officials refrained from using the term ‘strategic ambiguity.’ It was never used in official policy documents. Lake declared it anathema in the NSC, and Lord went to great lengths to disavow the term in public testimony and speeches. During the brewing crisis in the Taiwan Straits, the administration tried to stress it was seeking clarity of policy, not ambiguity. The term, however, had staying power and was an easy catchphrase for critics to use as a characterisation of Clinton’s policy. Its incessant use put the administration on the defensive.” …
It is thus important for the present debate to realise that “strategic ambiguity” was never used in official policy documents (so, is it a “policy” at all?). Moreover, key people at the time, like NSC advisor Anthony Lake and Assistant Secretary Winston Lord, considered it anathema and disavowed the term.
President Biden’s enunciations of US commitment to Taiwan’s security are a welcome move toward clarifying the issue that the US will itself come to Taiwan’s defence. These commitments are spelt out in the Taiwan Relations Act. It would thus be good for US officials to reinforce them instead of undermining them by seemingly “walking back” the President’s statements.
The press and think tanks need to reassess their understanding of “strategic ambiguity,” come to a clearer understanding of its origins – as reiterated in the quotes from NSC Director Robert Suettinger’s book – and come to an understanding that it does not equate policy. Rather, it is at best a mode of operation determining how to measure a response. As described above, the policy itself on how to (help) defend Taiwan is laid down clearly in the Taiwan Relations Act.
Gerrit van der Wees is a former Dutch diplomat. From 1980 through 2016, he served as chief editor of the Taiwan Communique. He teaches the history of Taiwan at George Mason University and East Asian issues at George Washington University.