Biden on Taiwan: don’t read too much into defence pledge, analysts say

  • The US president was not signalling a shift from America’s strategic ambiguity policy on the island, observers say
  • ‘Military involvement does not mean troops’ on the ground

Beijing and Taipei should not read too much into US President Joe Biden’s latest suggestion that the United States would be willing to use force to defend Taiwan against attack from Beijing, according to analysts.

The assessment comes after Biden prompted a diplomatic flurry when he was asked in Tokyo on Monday whether the US was willing to get involved militarily to defend the self-ruled island.

“Yes, that’s the commitment we made,” he said. “We agree with the one-China policy. We signed on to it. All the attendant agreements [were] made from there.

“But the idea that that can be taken by force, just taken by force. It’s just not, it’s just not appropriate.”

However, Biden added that he did not expect such an event would happen.

The White House and the Pentagon later walked back Biden’s remarks, saying the comments – the latest in a string of mixed signals over the island from the US president since he took office in January last year – did not reflect a policy shift.

Nevertheless, Taipei thanked Biden for reaffirming US support for the island and Beijing warned the US against interfering in China’s internal affairs.

Analysts said Biden definitely did not want to see a cross-strait conflict and it would be an overinterpretation to see the comments as a warning to Beijing not to attack Taiwan.

“It would be reading too much into his comments as they basically reflect the US’ long-standing security commitment for Taiwan,” said Huang Kwei-bo, director of National Chengchi University’s Centre for Foreign Policy Studies in Taipei.

“Military involvement to defend does not necessarily mean sending troops to help Taiwan.

“There are many kinds of involvement, including supplying weapons, sharing intelligence and sharing military information – much like what the US is doing for Ukraine in resisting invasion from Russia.”

He said the White House, State Department and Pentagon officials had walked back similar comments by Biden before, including a commitment in October to go to Taiwan’s defence.

“He is 79 years old and he has long developed a set pattern in certain responses, which sometimes are not precise,” Huang said.

He added that he did not think Biden was indicating that the US had shifted its policy of strategic ambiguity to strategic clarity, as some observers had suggested.
Yen Chen-shen, a research fellow at the university’s Institute of International Relations, agreed.

“From what Biden said, he did not indicate that he would send troops to the island’s rescue and so the argument that the US is shifting to strategic clarity doesn’t stand.”

Biden reaffirmed that policy on Tuesday. When asked if the strategic ambiguity policy was now dead, the US president said: “No. The policy has not changed at all.”

The policy includes arming the democratic island for its own defence, acknowledging mainland China’s legal sovereignty, and expressing “strategic ambiguity” on whether American troops would ever intervene.

Liu Weidong, a US affairs researcher from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Biden’s remarks were an incremental advance but should not be seen as a shift.

“In the past, US administrations encouraged Beijing and Taipei to solve the Taiwan issue via peaceful ways, while not specifically saying how the US would respond if the reunification was achieved via military means,” Liu said.

“But now, Biden implied that the US would not accept any military measures.

“This is a small break from the previous US policy position … [but] I don’t think his improvised answer at a press conference can be seen as a solemn policy change that contradicts America’s China policy.”

Lu Xiang, also from the academy, agreed, adding that Biden had two goals for his Asia trip.

“First, he has to make sure that the US economy can continue to develop … and second, he has to assure regional allies that there won’t be a second US president like Donald Trump, who has worried them in the past.”

Authors: Lawrence Chung, Kristin Huang, SCMP

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