Joe Biden’s increasingly assertive rhetoric over the Taiwan issue hit headlines again last week after an interview with CBS 60 Minutes aired on Sunday. Most notably, when asked whether American troops would protect Taiwan against an “unprecedented attack” from China, Biden came back with a word which may change the course of history – “yes”.
Effectively, Biden said that he would go to war directly with China over Taiwan.
The significance of such a statement is not to be downplayed. If true, such a statement could mark the end of the US’ long-standing doctrine of ‘strategic ambiguity’ towards Taiwan. Such a policy aims to deter China from invading Taiwan by providing enough credibility that the US would support the island militarily in the event of such a conflict, while not explicitly committing to American defence as this could trigger China to react. Up to now, such a posture has been successful at preventing a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
It is not the first time that Biden has made such a comment. In May, Biden was asked if he was willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan and replied: “Yes … That’s the commitment we made”. The question for many remains: why is Biden making such hawkish remarks when taking into account the success of strategic ambiguity?
The Background to US-Taiwan Relations
To answer this, the context must be understood. US-Taiwan relations have been characterised by two main policies since 1979.
On one side, since establishing diplomatic relations with China, the US has adhered to the ‘one-China’ principle whereby Washington acknowledges Beijing, not Taipei as the legitimate government of China.
At the same time, the US committed to the Taiwan Relations Act which requires them to provide Taiwan with American arms and equipment in order to sustain effective self-defence mechanisms. What this did not require is a commitment to US troop deployment in Taiwan. Promising the commitment of troops to protect Taiwan is the furthest any US president has pushed the Taiwan Relations Act.
What Does Biden’s Comment Mean?
It may be the case that Biden is simply on the more assertive side of strategic ambiguity, believing that a more aggressive deterrence will scare China away from invading Taiwan. This would suggest Biden’s statement is nothing more than a continuation of their previous policy but with a different face.
Alternatively, it may be the case that Biden’s remarks were simply a heat of the moment slip-up. Off-the-cuff statements are not unheard of with Biden. The Whitehouse has frequently had to release follow-up statements to off-the-cuff remarks from the President in order to prevent an international misunderstanding of US policy. For example, when Biden said of Russian President Putin: “For God Sake, this man cannot remain in power”, White House officials had to downplay such remarks claiming that Biden was not discussing regime change. Similarly, the Whitehouse also made it clear that the US’ policy of strategic ambiguity had not changed towards Taiwan after Biden’s comments.
However, Biden’s statement may indeed represent a frightening shift of US policy. The fact that he hinted at the idea that America would go to war with China over Taiwan is a dangerous game for Biden to play. China has made it clear that it is willing to take Taiwan by force if it calls for independence, so if Joe Biden sticks to his word, this presents one of the biggest geopolitical threats of the 21st century.
The Possibility of War
A fully-fledged armed conflict directly between two nuclear armed states such as China and America has never happened and the possibility of such an event should not be taken lightly.
The two most militarily advanced countries in the world going to war would be a tragedy for the world. It is likely that such a conflict would become a much wider, potentially global conflict, with potentially dystopian outcomes. Nuclear war means the end of humanity as we know it.
This is why Biden’s answer of – yes – to the question of whether he would commit US troops to Taiwan to fight the Chinese in the case of an invasion is so significant. This one statement, if followed through, has the possibility to unleash a conflict between China and America with dramatic global consequences.
Whether it was simply a more aggressive form of ‘strategic ambiguity’, an accidental off-the-cuff remark from Biden, or a genuine threat from America, this statement represents a significant step in US-China relations.
The future will only tell whether Biden meant what he said, but we should all we aware of what a war between the US and China means.