Written by Gerrit van der Wees.
Image credit: Public Domain.
On Sunday, September 18, 2022, CBS 60 Minutes broadcast an interview with President Joseph Biden, in which he reiterated – for the fourth time – that the U.S. has a longstanding commitment to defend Taiwan in case of an attack by China.
In answer to a question by CBS correspondent Scott Pelley, who asked Mr Biden: “What should Chinese President Xi know about your commitment to Taiwan?” The President answered: “We agree with what we signed onto a long time ago. And that there’s one China policy, and Taiwan makes their own judgments about their independence. We are not moving– we’re not encouraging their being independent. We’re not– that– that’s their decision.”
“But would U.S. forces defend the island?” Pelley asked. “Yes, if in fact, there was an unprecedented attack,” Mr Biden said. “So unlike Ukraine, to be clear, sir,” Pelley asked, “U.S. forces, U.S. men and women would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion?” “Yes,” the President said.
Three times before
This is the fourth time in just over a year that President Biden has made similar points: At a press conference on May 23 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.
Mr Biden had made similar statements twice earlier, in August 2021 and October 2021. First, in August 2021, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos asked Biden whether withdrawal from Afghanistan might embolden China against Taiwan. Then, in October 2021, Mr Biden restated his commitment even more forcefully and clearly at a CNN town hall moderated by Anderson Cooper.
In each case, the White House subsequently issued a by-now customary statement that “our policy has not changed” and added language along the lines 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.”
What is happening?
It certainly looks like President Biden has a clear vision of U.S. commitments, as he has now emphasised the same points four 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 been able to enunciate clearly what American 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 U.S. Commitments under the TRA
When referring to current policy, U.S. 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.
Among these three sets of documents mentioned, the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 – which has the force of U.S. law – is the document that contains U.S. commitments to (help) defend Taiwan. Most observers generally emphasise Art. 1 (b)(5), which says that it is the policy of the U.S. to “…provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character,” indicating that through these sales, the U.S. 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 U.S. “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 U.S. to play a direct role. The framers of the TRA certainly intended the U.S. to maintain the capacity but also to use it when the situation warranted it. Moreover, an invasion by China (=any resort to force) certainly seems one of the obvious circumstances requiring action.
Thus, under current policy, the U.S. not only has to maintain the capacity but – in accordance with Section 2c of the Taiwan Relations Act — shall decide on appropriate action to counter any resort to force. Such action is to be determined by the President in consultation with Congress. This commitment is not the same as a treaty obligation but, in most aspects, very similar to that of NATO and other treaty allies. I.e., the action requires a decision by the President in consultation with Congress.
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 “U.S. President Joe Biden said on Tuesday there had been no change to the policy of strategic ambiguity on Taiwan.” For sure, Biden noted that there had been no policy change, but he did not in any way use the term “strategic ambiguity”, which generally is not part of the USG lexicon.
As 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. Suppose we follow the interpretation that it is not part of the policy. In that case, 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 Tiananmen.” Mr Suettinger served as China Director at the U.S. National Security Council in the mid-1990s. 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 (page 259):
…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 the US-China relationship, in which 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 U.S. 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. …
President Biden’s enunciations of U.S. commitment to Taiwan’s security are a welcome move toward clarifying the issue that the U.S. will come to Taiwan’s defence. As shown here, these commitments are spelt out clearly in the Taiwan Relations Act. It would thus be good for U.S. officials to reinforce them instead of undermining them by seemingly “walking back” the President’s statements, which have been incredibly damaging to the President’s credibility.
The press and think tanks, on their part, need to reassess their understanding of “strategic ambiguity”: they need to come to a clearer understanding of its origins – as reiterated in the quotes from former NSC Director Robert Suettinger’s book – and arrive at the unavoidable conclusion that it does not equate policy. Rather, it is, at best, a mode of operation determining how to calibrate a response. As described above, the policy itself on how to (help) defend Taiwan is laid down clearly in the Taiwan Relations Act.
In any case, several publications concluded after the President’s fourth set of remarks that “Strategic ambiguity towards Taiwan is dead” and that there is “No more strategic ambiguity on Taiwan.” That would indeed provide some strategic clarity.
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.