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Reasons Biden’s ‘Gaffe’ About the US Defending Taiwan Doesn’t Matter


  • While in Japan in May, President Joe Biden said the US had made a ‘commitment’ to defend Taiwan.
  • US officials hastented to say there was no change to the policy of “strategic ambiguity” on defense of Taiwan.
  • There are three reasons Biden’s comments, only the latest he’s made about defending Taiwan, don’t really matter.

In an age of rapid news cycles, when controversies often emerge and fade away in hours, if not days, US President Joe Biden’s declaration in late May that the United States would defend Taiwan if it were attacked by China might seem like ancient history.

But given the weightiness of the topic, recent calls for creating a “Pacific NATO” and the heightened focus in recent months on a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan similar to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the remarks, which caused quite a stir at the time, warrant a second look.

At a joint press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio during Biden’s recent visit to Tokyo, a reporter drew a parallel to Ukraine, making the distinction between the weapons the US is providing Kyiv in its war against Russia and getting “involved in the Ukraine conflict militarily.” She then asked Biden, “Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan, if it comes to that?”

Biden responded bluntly and without hesitation, “Yes,” before adding, “That’s the commitment we made.”

President Joe Biden speaks during a news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at Akasaka Palace, Monday, May 23, 2022, in Tokyo.

Biden at a news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo, May 23, 2022.

AP Photo/Evan Vucci


The clear implication was that the US would go beyond merely supplying weapons in helping to defend Taiwan, setting off a flurry of diplomatic activity by US officials trying to walk back the president’s comments.

Their concern was that Biden’s declaration would undermine the United States’ long-held policy of “strategic ambiguity” with regard to its security commitments to Taiwan, whereby the US provides Taiwan with weapons and other forms of assistance but remains vague on whether it would send US forces to defend the island in order to avoid antagonizing Beijing.

The reactions to Biden’s declaration were wide-ranging. Like the White House officials busy walking it back, some observers saw it as a consequential gaffe in need of disavowal. Others viewed it as an important insight into the president’s thinking, representing an acknowledgement that, in the aftermath of the war in Ukraine, vague statements of commitment are no longer acceptable.

Still others noted that, whether or not it was meant to signal a change in the United States’ formal posture, actions are ultimately more important that words in doing so, given that this is not the first time Biden has made such statements. And the most ardent advocates of a firmer security commitment to Taiwan called for Biden to immediately back up his words with material commitments of support.

Taiwan China amphibious landing military exercise

Taiwanese troops train to respond to an attempted amphibious landing by Chinese forces during an exercise in southern Taiwan, May 30, 2019.

Kyodo News Stills via Getty Images


With the controversy having died down in the intervening weeks, it’s a good time to take stock of whether Biden’s comment really matters. There are three reasons for arguing it doesn’t.

First, making clear that the US is committed militarily to the defense of Taiwan is, as some of the above commentators noted, not a new policy. The US provides military aid to Taiwan and even has a troop presence on the island. While neither is at the level needed to repel an invading force, they are bolstered by the Taiwan Relations Act, which was adopted as law in 1979 and remains in effect.

The act directs the president “to inform the Congress promptly of any threat to the security … of the people on Taiwan and any danger to the interests of the United States arising therefrom,” upon which the president and Congress are to “determine, in accordance with constitutional processes, appropriate action by the United States in response to any such danger.”

Though not legally considered a mutual defense treaty, the act’s defense clause is consistent with those found in other US military pacts throughout the region. That includes its longstanding alliance with Japan, which states that the two parties “individually and in cooperation with each other … will maintain and develop, subject to their constitutional provisions, their capacities to resist armed attack.”

Taiwan has long been considered of key strategic importance to the United States, to such a degree that Washington has already participated in two wars with China, in 1954 and 1958, over incursions on Taiwanese-administered islands in the strait that separates it from the mainland. A third crisis in 1996 nearly brought the two countries to war again.

Taiwan air force F-16 fighter jet

Taiwan air force ground crew run to a US-made F-16V for an emergency takeoff during an exercise in southern Taiwan, January 15, 2020.

AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying


Second, despite the distinction made by the reporter in Tokyo, just what exactly is meant by “military involvement” is hard to nail down. As we know from the war in Ukraine, it can mean a wide range of active participation, even if no US troops are directly involved in the fighting.

Providing arms, sharing intelligence, assisting with logistics and advising on battle plans are all forms of “military support” that can play a critical role in one party defeating another on the battlefield.

Moreover, in a world in which the global economy can be “weaponized,” economic pressure can be immensely valuable as an instrument of war, as evidenced by the economic hardship Russia is experiencing due to sanctions imposed by the US, Europe and other states.

Third, and related, the commitment made by the United States, whether in Biden’s comment or in the Taiwan Relations Act’s defense clause, is neither ironclad nor predefined. But this is not an anomaly.

When leaders make statements of resolve or sign treaties committing one side to the defense of another, they frequently leave room for interpretation. Consider what is often viewed as one of the United States’ strongest alliance commitments: Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which is often held up as an ironclad, even sacred, commitment by the United States to come to the defense of its NATO allies.

The treaty does state that the allies shall consider “an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America … an attack against them all.” Often overlooked, however, is that Article 5 goes on to state that in the event of such an armed attack, each ally will assist whoever is attacked by taking “such action as it deems necessary.”

Taiwan army soldiers M60 tank

Taiwanese soldiers on US-made M60-A3 tanks after a life-fire exercise in central Taiwan, January 17, 2019.

SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images


In other words, an attack on a NATO member does not automatically trigger the deployment of US troops to that ally’s territory. The US could instead use airpower to help defend its ally, or it could provide arms. It could even limit its support to logistical assistance.

Indeed, that was exactly what the NATO allies provided to the United States the only time Article 5 has been invoked — at Washington’s request following the attacks of 9/11 — in the form of AWACs to help patrol the American airspace.

In short, what steps are to be taken, and who exactly will take them, in the event of an attack on a NATO ally is not preordained, but rather the result of a decision by the North Atlantic Council and, ultimately, each member state.

There is one caveat to all of this. While Biden’s comment didn’t necessarily commit the US to any particular course of military action in the defense of Taiwan, it did complicate the ability for Washington to maintain the facade of upholding the “one China policy,” by which the US officially recognizes Beijing as the sole legal government of China without explicitly acknowledging or denying its sovereign control over Taiwan.

Every time that Biden, or any US president, makes a statement reaffirming a commitment to protect Taiwan, it inches the US further away from the ambiguity inherent in the one China policy.

The journalist Michael Kinsley famously said a gaffe is when a politician lets slip a truth that was not supposed to be revealed. Biden’s comment may have been a gaffe in this sense, in line with the many other times he has “misspoken.”

But if so, it was a gaffe that, in letting slip the truth, did not reveal much new information. Biden knows full well what he was saying: If Taiwan is attacked, the US will help defend it, in one way or another, as it has always done.

Paul Poast is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science and a nonresident fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.



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