Did Biden Misspeak on Taiwan Again?

A Japanese politician called it the “best gaffe ever.” Others aren’t so sure.
biden comments taiwan
Biden meets with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (not pictured) during the Quad Leaders Summit in Tokyo on May 24, 2022. Photo: SAUL LOEB / AFP

U.S. President Joe Biden said the country would come to Taiwan’s defense if China attacks. But no one knows if he really means it.

When asked at a press conference in Tokyo on Monday whether the U.S. would be willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan, Biden said, “Yes, it’s a commitment we made.” It was the third time he has appeared to veer off the U.S.’ long-standing policy of strategic ambiguity on Taiwan. And just like the two other times he seemed to misspeak on the matter, in August and October, White House officials walked back his comments soon after.

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It’s happened so many times people now question what the official U.S. line is.

While the Taiwanese public have welcomed the apparent show of support from the U.S. commander in chief, analysts were split on whether the president’s remarks represent a broader shift in Washington’s policy toward the self-governed democracy. And as the Biden administration has floundered on the issue repeatedly, the lack of consistency only added to the confusion, some experts say.

“Biden keeps making these mistakes,” Brian Hioe, editor of the independent, Taiwan-based magazine New Bloom, told VICE World News. “It’s happened so many times people now question what the official U.S. line is.”

The U.S. foreign policy on Taiwan has always been a careful balancing act. Although it does not formally recognize Taiwan’s sovereignty, it has kept up a robust unofficial relationship with the self-ruled island, which China claims as part of its territory. To avoid provoking Beijing and, at the same time, keep Taiwan’s pro-independence movement in check, Washington has been intentionally vague about the conditions under which it would intervene.

This precarious balance, however, is challenged by rising tensions between Beijing and Taipei, as an increasingly assertive Communist Party leadership eyes the island and seeks to “reunify” with Taiwan, by force if necessary.

“The United States policy of strategic ambiguity has arguably helped foster the strategic environment through which the status quo has been maintained—preserving Taiwan’s de facto independence for the past seven decades,” said Jessica Drun, a nonresident fellow in the Atlantic Council's Global China Hub. “The question that many analysts are raising now is whether this will hold.”

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As Biden delivered the remarks on his first trip to Asia, David Sacks, a research fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said one should not write off Biden’s comment as a gaffe, as the U.S. leader has made himself abundantly clear. “It is important to figure out how best to implement this policy and support the president's decision rather than just trying to re-litigate it every time,” said Sacks, who echoed calls for more clarity in U.S. foreign policy on Taiwan.

“Strategic ambiguity worked for four decades, but the fundamentals that underpin strategic ambiguity and made it viable have changed drastically,” Sacks said. China has been emboldened by its military and economic strength, and the lack of repercussions over its actions in Hong Kong—where it effectively dismantled the framework that guaranteed the special administrative region's considerable autonomy and rights—and the South China Sea, where it has reclaimed and militarized islands to assert its territorial claims.

“There’s a need to bolster deterrence in the Taiwan Strait and make sure that China doesn’t take the wrong lessons,” Sacks said. From an operational standpoint, spelling out the U.S.’ intention could also open up conversations about what roles each party could play in the case of a conflict, and address unease among its allies, he added.

Biden’s remarks, made at a joint conference with Japan's Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, were embraced by the Taiwanese public, which overwhelmingly support maintaining the status quo but are uncertain if the U.S. would come to its defense, given the mixed signals it sent.

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On one hand, the Biden administration has supplied three arms packages to Taiwan and sent unofficial delegations to its eighth largest trading partner. On the other hand, it has excluded Taiwan from regional initiatives, such as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework it recently launched.

“From the side of Taiwan, there’s often hope that the U.S. would take a much firmer stance on Taiwan's sovereignty. There are concerns of [Taiwan] being potentially used as a geopolitical chess piece and discarded or abandoned,” Hioe said. These fears have been heightened by the perception that Ukraine was left to fight Russia on its own, despite the vocal support it received from the West, he said.

Washington is also under pressure from its own allies to clarify what it would do in the event of a Chinese offensive. Writing last month, former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for an end to the U.S.’ strategic ambiguity. “We need to understand how security is maintained around the world and not consider it taboo to have an open discussion,” he wrote.

Masahisa Sato, who directs the foreign affairs division of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, applauded Biden’s comments. “He made a very good gaffe, the best gaffe he has ever made,” Sato said in a meeting on Tuesday. “It’s a statement that contributes to the stability of the region and shows the president’s true intentions.”

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Tokyo sees Taiwan’s security as closely linked to its own. Japan considers Taiwan as a bulwark against an increasingly powerful China, which has contested Japan’s sovereignty of a chain of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.

White House officials have sought to downplay Biden’s remarks. The president also toned down his words when asked to clarify on Tuesday. “The policy has not changed at all. I stated that when I made my statement yesterday,” Biden said.

I think it would solidify Chinese perceptions that the U.S. is bent on constraining China’s rise.

But there remain concerns that Biden’s flip-flop might only aggravate the situation, prompting an escalation from Beijing and putting Taiwan in the line of fire, particularly when Washington does not yet have the muscle to back up its claim.

Testifying on Capitol Hill last year, Avril Haines, the U.S. director of national intelligence, warned that a shift from strategic ambiguity could be deeply destabilizing. “I think it would solidify Chinese perceptions that the U.S. is bent on constraining China’s rise, including through military force, and would probably cause Beijing to aggressively undermine U.S. interests worldwide,” Haines told Congress.

And Beijing, so far, seemed unruffled by the latest remarks, a sign that they have not been taken seriously. Speaking on Monday, Wang Wenbin, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, stuck to scripted lines and expressed firm opposition to Biden’s comments. “There is but one China in the world; Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory,” said Wang.

Additional reporting by Hanako Montgomery.

Follow Rachel Cheung on Twitter.

Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified Masahisa Sato’s title. We regret the error.