President Biden and Incremental Clarity on US Commitment to Taiwan’s Defense

President Biden and Incremental Clarity on US Commitment to Taiwan’s Defense

President Biden and Incremental Clarity on US Commitment to Taiwan’s Defense

President Joseph Biden stirred the Taiwan-watching community—once again—with recent comments indicating that the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense if China used military force to invade the island. In the latest of a string of similar statements made by the 46th president—and amid growing concerns about China’s “acute” military threats to Taiwan and the broader implications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—Biden responded unequivocally in the affirmative when asked whether he would intervene militarily to defend Taiwan. The clarity of his response—”yes […] that’s the commitment we made”—was uncritically examined by both its supporters and critics. Most interpretations either simply applauded or derided the president for essentially abandoning the longstanding US stance of “strategic ambiguity” for “strategic clarity” on whether the United States would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion. Yet, this is an inaccurate reading of President Biden’s statement, as well as the longstanding elasticity of US commitment to Taiwan’s defense in the absence of a defense treaty. Despite being clear that the United States would intervene militarily in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, the president did not offer an unconditional, explicit guarantee or provide precise details of what this would entail. Nevertheless, his statements do suggest that as China’s military threats against Taiwan become more acute, greater clarity in the US commitment to come to Taiwan’s defense will be necessary to respond to the growing threat. 

Incremental Clarity on Taiwan

This is not the first time that President Biden has made statements that expressed his views on US commitments to Taiwan’s defense. After the controversial US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Biden was asked in August 2021 whether the decision would have an impact on other countries’ perceptions of US commitment to their security. The president responded: “We have made, kept every commitment. We made a sacred commitment to article 5 that if in fact anyone were to invade or take action against our NATO allies, we would respond. Same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with Taiwan. It’s not even comparable to talk about that.” While the United States has not had a mutual defense treaty with Taiwan since 1979, provisions within the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), especially Section 2(b)(4-6), can be read to indicate a broad commitment to Taiwan’s defense. 

Only a couple months later at a televised town hall meeting in October 2021, an attendee asked the president—in the context of reports of advances in China’s hypersonic weapons—“can you vow to protect Taiwan?” The president responded without hesitation: “Yes.” The moderator subsequently followed up to have the president clarify his statement by asking “…the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense if China attacked?” “Yes, we have a commitment,” the president confirmed.

The third and most recent statement made by President Biden on the subject of the US commitment to Taiwan’s defense was made while on his recent Asia tour. During his stop in Tokyo, a reporter asked “You didn’t want to get involved in the Ukraine conflict militarily for obvious reasons. Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?” Without hesitation, the president responded: “Yes.” The reporter followed up: “You are?” The president nodded his head, “That’s the commitment we made.” Biden added: “We agree with a One China policy. We’ve signed on to it and all the intended agreements made from there. But the idea that, that it [Taiwan] can be taken by force, just taken by force, is just not, is just not appropriate. It will dislocate the entire region and be another action similar to what happened in Ukraine and so it’s a burden that is even stronger” (emphasis added).

Biden is not the first president to express or demonstrate his views on the US commitment to Taiwan’s defense. In 1996, then-President Bill Clinton deployed two aircraft carriers to Taiwan-adjacent waters to deter China from engaging in further military provocations. Five years later, President George W. Bush was asked the question: “[I]f Taiwan were attacked by China, do we have an obligation to defend the Taiwanese?” President Bush responded, “Yes, we do, and the Chinese must understand that. Yes, I would.” “With the full force of American military?” the interviewer asked. “Whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself,” the president clearly answered.

Parsing the Language and Intent

Despite the political signal sent by President Biden’s statement of intent, the framing of his statements has been erroneously labeled in binary terms of whether it indicated an unconditional explicit guarantee that the United States would defend Taiwan in the event of an invasion or not. This misses the larger point. Absent a defense treaty—and even such treaties are not unconditional (which is why diplomacy is necessary to exact such commitments)—the decision of whether, when, and how to commit military force is more accurately described as a spectrum rather than an either-or proposition. The president’s statements on the subject matter should thus not be taken out of context and seen as an unconditional and unqualified commitment. 

Furthermore, while the statement does somewhat clarify Biden’s belief that military means could be in the cards when it comes to Taiwan’s defense, “militarily” could still be interpreted in a variety of ways, ranging from providing Taiwan with the means to defend herself to deploying boots on the ground. While the president is strategically clear about the US intent to defend Taiwan militarily in some form, the president’s language still preserves a degree of tactical ambiguity as to how the United States would respond. 

Critics were quick to label the statement as a gaffe, but these criticisms are misplaced. They perhaps would hold water if it was the first such comment made by the president. Yet, this is the third such statement and should reasonably be seen only in one way: that President Biden would intervene militarily in some form should China decide to invade Taiwan, especially against the backdrop of China’s tactical support for Russia’s unjustified invasion of Ukraine. Moreover, such criticisms ignore how China’s own increasingly aggressive actions have contributed to the need for the United States to shift towards clarity, and to clearly signal to Beijing that it must not resort to the use of military force to settle its dispute with Taipei. 

The misdirected attention on whether the United States has abandoned “strategic ambiguity” misses an important but underappreciated significance of President Biden’s statement. Far from an unintentional gaffe, the location and timing of the statement seemed carefully orchestrated by the Biden Administration. In recent years—and particularly in recent months—Tokyo has grown increasingly vocal about its concerns regarding China’s military aggressions. Against the backdrop of the Ukraine war, former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo penned an April 2022 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times calling on the United States to explicitly commit to Taiwan’s defense. While the former prime minister’s argument was framed in terms of why the United States must come to Taiwan’s defense, the underlying motivation likely stems from a recognition of the role that Japan would likely have to play in the event of a military contingency over Taiwan. Given rising concerns about China’s aggression, Tokyo must make haste in its own internal debate to ensure that the political conditions and the legal means are in place to effectively respond. Accordingly, multiple statements by visiting Japanese lawmakers in recent months have called on Washington to move towards strategic clarity, reflecting this perceived urgency (and contributing to the broader debate regarding the need for a Japanese version of the TRA). 

Secretary Blinken’s China Policy Speech

Whether or not President Biden’s statement of clarity regarding a military response to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan indicated a fundamental change in US policy should also be analyzed in conjunction with the long-awaited China-policy speech delivered by Secretary of State Antony Blinken on May 26—the first such speech of the Biden Administration. In the section containing his remarks on Taiwan (which was notably separated from the discussion on Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang), Secretary Blinken stated:

On Taiwan, our approach has been consistent across decades and administrations. As the President has said, our policy has not changed. The United States remains committed to our “one China” policy, which is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, the three Joint Communiques, the Six Assurances. We oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo from either side; we do not support Taiwan independence; and we expect cross-strait differences to be resolved by peaceful means.

It is instructive that Blinken emphasized: “We’ll continue to uphold our commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act to assist Taiwan in maintaining a sufficient self-defense capability—and, as indicated in the TRA, to ‘maintain our capacity to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security or the social or economic system, of Taiwan.’” Indeed, American presidents have long stated that the United States has an “unequivocal moral commitment” to the peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue. 

As Beijing deliberately obfuscates the Taiwan issue by conflating the “One-China Principle” (一個中國原則) with the US “One-China Policy” (一個中國政策), it also does so with the debate over “strategic ambiguity.” When combined with the President’s statements on the defense of Taiwan, greater clarity about US defense commitments to Taiwan does not mean the United States either supports or is encouraging Taiwan independence, despite Beijing’s efforts to frame the issue that way. Rather, it means support for the status quo, and is directly in furtherance of the longstanding US goal of deterring Beijing from using military force against Taiwan and ensure a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue. 

In November 2021, President Biden stated: “We have made very clear we support the Taiwan Act, and that’s it. It’s independent. It makes its own decisions.” In a clarifying response, the American president added: “we are not encouraging [Taiwan] independence, we’re encouraging that they [the people on Taiwan] do exactly what the Taiwan Act requires, and that’s what we’re doing. Let them make up their mind. Period.” 


President Biden’s statements do not have the legal force of a defense treaty, and even a treaty is not itself unconditional. While Taipei should feel reassured by Biden’s statement, it cannot be taken as a given, and certainly not in unqualified terms. The statement is, however, a reflection of growing trust between Washington and Taipei—trust that has not always been there under previous administrations in Taipei and Washington. Furthermore, although Taiwan may be defensible now, it is possible that this dynamic could change in the future, rendering the costs too high for the United States to militarily intervene. [1] This is why the debate over ambiguity or clarity is not a simple either-or proposition, and is intertwined with other issues. Indeed, the key is whether there is a sufficient level of clarity necessary to satisfy a minimum threshold of reciprocal commitments to clearly establish a division of labor between the US, Taiwan, and other potential allies. 

Perhaps the description that best captures the Biden Administration’s current approach to this debate about the US commitment to Taiwan’s defense was provided by former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Randall Schriver of the Trump Administration during GTI’s 2020 annual symposium:

We need to think about moving toward strategic clarity and tactical ambiguity. […] What I mean by that and what we can continue to build out, the strategic clarity part, it is in our strategic interest for Taiwan’s continued existence, survival, and success. […] It is against our interest for Taiwan to be absorbed into the “One-China” system as long as the CCP is in power and well beyond that. The tactical ambiguity would have to be preserved because we don’t want to forecast what we would do in a particular contingency.

Twenty-one years ago, then-President George W. Bush stated that the United States would do “whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself” in the event of attack by China. While criticizing President Bush for ostensibly playing fast and loose with US obligations, then-Senator Biden, who had signed the TRA, commented that: “I remain committed to the principle that Taiwan’s future must be determined only by peaceful means, consistent with the wishes of the people of Taiwan.” Senator Biden then asked a critical question: “What is the appropriate role for the United States?“ He then concluded: “The president has broad policymaking authority in the realm of foreign policy, but his powers as commander in chief are not absolute. Under the Constitution, as well as the provisions of the Taiwan Relations Act, the commitment of US forces to the defense of Taiwan is a matter the president should bring to the American people and Congress.”

The TRA’s legislative intent as well as this tension were summed up concisely by one of its authors, the late Congressman Lester Wolff, who wrote: “Countless times over the years the TRA has been called upon to render judgement over changing circumstances or events. It has met those demands and survived without serious amendment because of the ambiguity, which was built in, that provided for adaptation to current conditions […] I]t was conceived as a device to enhance peace in the region and protect the political integrity of a people’s right to choose. Those people are the people of Taiwan.” [2] 

The main point: President Biden’s recent statement that the US would commit itself to the defense of Taiwan was not an isolated verbal gaffe, but rather an intentional declaration consistent with the Taiwan Relations Act and the position of multiple prior presidential administrations.

[1] Elbridge Colby, The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021).

[2] Lester L. Wolff, The Legislative Intent of the Taiwan Relations Act: A Dilemma Wrapped in an Enigma (Xlibris US, 2020): p. 537.