President Biden is pushing the boundary of the United States stance on Taiwan in the face of China’s threats to retake the territory by force, despite efforts by senior advisers to soften the president’s message.
Experts and analysts say the president’s repeated message that US troops would defend the democratic island if Beijing invades reflects an intentional use of language that walks right up to the line of America’s capabilities.
“My general sense is that when a leader says the same thing four times it isn’t a gaffe. It’s a reflection of his convictions,” said Ryan Hass, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute. “And I think that the world should take President Biden at his word. He seems to be signaling clearly that he believes the United States needs to be prepared to intervene in the event of a conflict at the Taiwan Strait.”
China has reacted with outrage over Biden’s latest remarks, delivered during an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes” on Sunday. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi upbraided the US in speeches at the United Nations General Assembly and in meetings with Secretary of State Antony Blinken last week.
“Any scheme to interfere in China’s internal affairs is bound to meet the strong opposition of all Chinese and any move to obstruct China’s reunification is bound to be crushed by the wheels of history,” Wang said in his UN address.
Following Wang’s meeting with Blinken, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement: “To truly maintain peace across the Taiwan Strait, the United States must unequivocally oppose and curb any ‘Taiwan independence’ activities.”
Hass interpreted China’s reaction as a reflection of Beijing’s belief that Biden is “simply saying the quiet part out loud” with his repeated messages.
“I think that Beijing has long expected that the United States would intervene in a cross-strait conflict that Beijing initiates, and the president’s statements appear to be treated as confirmation of their preexisting assumptions,” he said.
Chinese officials have long repeated that the “Taiwan issue” is at the heart of China’s core interests. Any efforts by the US, or other foreign governments, that even appear to suggest independence for the democratically governed island are a redline for Beijing.
US-China tensions have been inflamed following House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) visit to the island in August. Beijing has criticized the push by the US to increase weapons sales to Taiwan and spoke out against proposed bipartisan legislation regarding the island, called the Taiwan Policy Act of 2022.
Wang, in a speech at the Asia Society in New York last week, said the Taiwan Policy Act “threatens the very foundation of China-US relations.”
The administration is sensitive to China’s opposition to the proposed legislation, introduced by Sens. Bob Menendez (DN.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Lindsey Graham (RS.C.). The White House succeeded in making surgical changes to the bill text when it advanced out of the committee earlier this month.
“It looks like some of the most inflammatory pieces for China, which can be short handed as, the pieces of the bill that suggest or put Taiwan on par with other states, that was kind of the main issue,” said Jacob Stokes, fellow for the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.
Such changes include removing the requirement for Senate confirmation for the director of the American Institute in Taiwan, which would imply a status equal to that of an ambassador and treating Taiwan as a major non-NATO ally, rather than giving the island a “designation” — which would imply it being an independent state.
Another important change includes requesting, rather than demanding, that the Secretary of State rename the Taipei representative office in the US to the “Taiwan Representative Office” — an action that China has vehemently opposed when undertaken in other countries, like Lithuania.
What remains in the bill is authorization for $6.5 billion in foreign military financing for Taiwan and $2 billion in loans over five years; expanding training for Taiwan’s armed forces; and establishing a regional, contingency arms stockpile to preposition important military equipment in the event of an outbreak of conflict.
Stokes said that Biden’s remarks about the US defending Taiwan are extremely close to the line of the long-held policy declarations between Washington and Beijing — referred to as the “Six Assurances” to Taiwan and the “three joint communiques” agreed to between the US and China.
“What is in one of the joint communiques, is that we [the U.S.] acknowledge China’s position about Taiwan, we don’t accept it,’” Stokes said. “I think that’s an important distinction to be made.”
Bonny Lin, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) China Power project, said she doesn’t believe Biden was intending to change policy with his comments, and added that he’s still maintaining strategic ambiguity with his relatively vague commitments to help defend Taiwan.
“I think there are a range of potential responses and the president has not clarified what exactly we will do. This ranges from providing political support to sending troops to Taiwan. He has just said we will respond. It still maintains some strategic ambiguity. It’s almost impossible to decide in advance what exactly we would do, it would depend on the circumstance,” Lin said.
In the “60 Minutes” interview, when asked specifically if he would send US forces to defend Taiwan in response to an invasion, Biden said “yes.”
His response was in line with the recent CSIS poll of 64 leading US experts, most of them former government officials, in which 100 percent of those surveyed think China believes that the US would send troops to defend Taiwan.
That response would break from US assistance to Ukraine, which has been limited to providing arms and intelligence, but not boots on the ground. Lin explained that experts think China believes the US reaction to an invasion of Taiwan would be greater because of how important the democratic island is for US security in the Indo-Pacific.
Biden administration officials over the past week have tried to clarify the president’s “60 Minutes” interview, repeatedly saying that the “One China” policy has not changed — a standard since 1979 that states Washington, DC, recognizes Beijing as the sole legal government of China, but maintains unofficial relations with Taiwan.
National security advisor Jake Sullivan last week said that Biden was given a hypothetical question in the interview and highlighted that his response did not change from the previous responses on the issue.
“The president is a direct and straightforward person,” Sullivan said. “He has also been clear that he …stands behind the historic US policy towards Taiwan that has existed through Democratic and Republican administrations.”
Hass noted that the pattern of clarifications from officials could cause confusion in Taiwan.
“I’m not sure what is gained by the repeated pattern of the president saying one thing and then his staff suggesting something else,” he said. “I’m not sure that such clarifications do anything to reassure Beijing. I think that they cause confusion in Taipei and elsewhere about why the president and his staff are not on the same page.”
This story was updated at 10:49 am