Joe Biden’s loose talk complicates tensions in the Taiwan Strait

  • His pledge – for the fourth time in just two years – to militarily intervene should China invade the island can no longer be dismissed as the ramblings of a 79-year-old man; words matter, none more so than those of the US president

Four times now President Joe Biden has said the United States would come to the defence of Taiwan if China invaded. Four times Washington has walked back his remarks, insisting long-standing American policy on the self-ruled island, based on the one-China principle, has not changed.

But the interpretation that the 79-year-old president has misspoken in one of his trademark gaffes, or that he has been misinterpreted, is wearing thin. It is time to come to terms with the reality the repeated statement is deliberate, and marks a significant shift on the key issue underpinning the China-US relationship.

In a television interview on the weekend, Biden said American troops would defend Taiwan in the event of an attack by the People’s Liberation Army. This followed similar remarks in May and twice last year.

It leaves no room for doubt US policy has moved beyond the tactic of using the island as a high-stakes bargaining chip. It is now shaping as an obstacle to China’s rise.

Tourists walk past Taiwanese flags in Taiwan’s Kinmen islands. China’s leaders realise Taiwan is now more than a bargaining chip; it is the main game. Photo: AFP
© Provided by South China Morning Post

It is not clear why Biden repeated the commitment so explicitly at this time. It goes well beyond a pledge to support the island’s self-defence under the Taiwan Relations Act.

No mention is made in the act of military intervention should the PLA invade, as Beijing has threatened if Taiwan declares independence. Such ambiguity has been a hallmark of US policy.

Now it seems that unambiguous hawkish rhetoric is the preferred strategy – a bluffing game aimed at securing a position. Regardless of whether China overtakes the US economically, a foothold in Taiwan would remain a potent symbol of American hegemony.

It is unclear whether this is no more than conspiracy theory or a scenario seriously entertained by Biden and his security advisers, rather than just in think tanks and foreign affairs debate. Such an abiding provocation to China would have the potential for disastrous conflict.

China’s leaders realise Taiwan is now more than a bargaining chip; it is the main game. Beijing has responded to Biden’s remarks with “stern representations” but has also stressed that peaceful reunification is still its top priority.

A foreign ministry spokeswoman urged Washington not to send the wrong signals to separatist forces. Analysts agreed that Biden’s statement would not change Beijing’s plans for reunification.

Beijing cannot afford to be provoked into hasty action. So as long as it can resist provocation it remains to be seen how the Taiwan issue will work itself out.

Meanwhile, the latest turn of events does nothing to ease fraught ties and serious tension. It is not a personal issue but a policy issue.

A future change of president cannot be counted on to change things. The latest big arms sales to Taiwan and the rising frequency and profile of visits to Taiwan by US officials and lawmakers are not positive signs.

Source: SCMP

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