Taiwan ‘Strategic Ambiguity’ Is Less Ambiguous All The Time

I don’t know when “strategic ambiguity” turned into an unambiguous defense commitment, but the latter isn’t a good idea.

In a major interview on 60 Minutes that aired Sunday, Joe Biden told Scott Pelley the US military would defend Taiwan from what Biden called “an unprecedented attack.”

“What should Chinese President Xi know about your commitment to Taiwan?” Pelley wondered. Biden reiterated America’s commitment to the “One China” policy, and said Taiwanese independence isn’t up to the US to decide, but when pressed by Pelley on whether US forces would “defend the island,” he said “Yes.”

Pelley, perhaps realizing Biden is prone to answering that question in the affirmative irrespective of whether US policy has actually changed, sought clarification. “So, unlike Ukraine, to be clear, sir, US Forces — US men and women — would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion?” he asked. Biden was unequivocal: “Yes.”

It wasn’t the first time Biden has seemingly telegraphed a change in America’s official position on the issue which, as a reminder, entails taking no position in public. That’s “strategic ambiguity.” The idea, generally speaking, is to leave China guessing.

As such, the correct answer to Pelley’s question is no answer. A soft version might be: “There would be consequences.” Then simply repeat that, verbatim, until the interviewer or reporter stops asking. A not-so-soft version might be: “If there was an attack on Taiwan, and I hope there isn’t, China would find out whether we’d defend it.”

A flat, unequivocal “Yes” is the wrong answer, unless part of “strategic ambiguity” now entails the President himself saying one thing and then the White House swearing there’s been no change. I’m not joking. And I’m not deriding Biden. Maybe that really is part of the plan now.

The White House, in an official response to CBS, reiterated that “officially, the US will not say whether American forces would defend Taiwan.” That seems largely irrelevant considering Biden is commander in chief. I’d also note that many (I’d dare say most) high ranking Republicans are unabashed China hawks. If the PLA were to attack Taiwan, it’s difficult to imagine the GOP arguing for US restraint.

To reiterate, this isn’t the first time Biden has conveyed an unequivocal defense commitment to the island. In May, during a press event with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo, a reporter asked Biden, directly, “Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?”

Biden, without hesitation, said “Yes.” “You are?” the reporter, sounding incredulous, half said, half asked. Biden took an awkward pause, nodded in the affirmative and turned away. “That’s the commitment we made,” he ventured. Then, again, only nervous, and with less conviction: “That’s the commitment we made.”

But that’s not “the commitment” the US “made.” The US deliberately makes no commitments regarding the defense of Taiwan, or at least not publicly. America is deliberately noncommittal. Whatever “strategic ambiguity” means, it doesn’t mean unambiguous public commitments of military support. Or at least it hasn’t meant that in the past. The US is obliged to equip Taiwan such that it can defend itself, and to say China isn’t enamored with that would be to materially understate the case. But pre-committing the US military to a war with the PLA (in the PLA’s backyard), is folly. Perilous folly.

A few months ago, I noted that Biden has committed this particular “gaffe” so many times since taking office that you’ll be forgiven for suggesting it’s not a gaffe. One has to wonder if America’s stance on Taiwan actually has changed, or is at least evolving. I don’t care how old Biden is, or how “gaffe prone,” he’s not Donald Trump. Biden isn’t likely to pre-commit the US to a war with China over and over and over again for almost two years if there’s not something behind that commitment. This was a look-you-in-face, one-word response during a pre-recorded 60 Minutes interview, not some ad hoc, off-the-cuff rejoinder to a pesky reporter. He meant what he said.

The timing is notable. Biden’s latest commitment came amid an intense debate around the Taiwan Policy Act and in the wake of Nancy Pelosi’s stopover on the island, which triggered PLA military drills in the Strait.

The quotes and color below are recycled from a May article. I’m not sure I can say it any better or find any better excerpts.

Biden understands the importance of nuance as it relates to this particular geopolitical flashpoint. In fact, he arguably understands it better than almost anyone in Washington, including military officials.

“He is one of the very few political figures who have been around Washington so long that he voted for [the Taiwan Relations Act] in 1979,” The New York Times wrote, on one of the other five occasions when Biden suggested the US would use force to defend the island. “As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he traveled to Taiwan and understood the nuances of the wording.”

On May 2, 2001, Biden wrote an Op-Ed for The Washington Post, in which he criticized then-President George W. Bush for failing to observe the same decorum he (Biden) has broken on multiple occasions since taking office.

In the Op-Ed, Biden described an exchange between Bush and an interviewer that was nearly identical to the exchange Biden had in Tokyo and to his own interview with Pelley. In response to a query about whether the US had an obligation to defend Taiwan against Chinese aggression, Bush said, “Yes, we do, and the Chinese must understand that. Yes, I would.” The interviewer pressed Bush: “With the full force of the American military?” Bush responded: “Whatever it took.”

Biden, writing in 2001, said Bush’s remarks were tantamount to a “startling new commitment,” and noted that Bush “appeared to back off a few hours later,” when he paid lip service to the “One China” policy. So, exactly what Biden has done repeatedly as president.

In the same Op-Ed, Biden wrote that,

As a matter of diplomacy, there is a huge difference between reserving the right to use force and obligating ourselves, a priori, to come to the defense of Taiwan. The president should not cede to Taiwan, much less to China, the ability automatically to draw us into a war across the Taiwan Strait.

Given the number of times Biden has seemingly committed the same faux pas he castigated Bush for committing two decades ago, and considering Beijing’s aggressive posturing, it’s fair to ask if the US might be in the process of reconsidering “strategic ambiguity.”

From the onset of the war in Ukraine, “geopolitical strategists” (with the scare quotes there to denote that “geopolitical strategist” isn’t really a thing, like “China watchers” isn’t really a thing) warned that China would view the conflict as a kind of proof of concept: Is it, or is it not, feasible to stage a war of conquest in the 21st century?

Of course, China would surely claim Ukraine and Taiwan is a false equivalence. But note that Putin denies Ukraine’s statehood. So, is it really a false equivalence?

In the 2001 Op-Ed, Biden warned that Bush’s “inattention to detail has damaged US credibility with our allies and sown confusion throughout the Pacific Rim.” “Words matter,” he said.


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12 thoughts on “Taiwan ‘Strategic Ambiguity’ Is Less Ambiguous All The Time

  1. But pre-committing the US military to a war with the PLA (in the PLA’s backyard), is folly. Perilous folly.

    Is it though? At least, China won’t be able to complain they weren’t warned. And, if it forces them to go back to trying to charm Taiwan into a wedding rather than attempting to rape it, I think it’s mission accomplished.

    I’d go further. I think a change between 2001 and 2022 is warranted. In 2001, China had just joined the WTO. We could reasonably hope that commerce and trade would entangle us all in such a way as to make war impossible. We’ve seen that hope bashed severely and repeatedly since then. China, far from mellowing out as it got richer, declared, on its own and without being forced, to be our enemy and to be (still) seeking to destroy liberal capitalism/the western imperialists (whatever ; check sinocism blog for the exact words of Xi). We didn’t do a damn thing to provoke them. So, yeah, screw ambiguity.

    Taiwan is still free to decide which way they want to go but enough with coddling dictators with delusions of grandeur.

    1. The Spanish secretly funded the American revolution in hopes that the British would remove enough resources from Gibraltar for Spain to make a move.
      A very similar dynamic is playing out now

  2. Any American President who refused to commit American military resources (i.e. troops, ships, planes) to defend Taiwan against a large Chinese invasion would be considered a traitor. I cannot imagine Australia, the UK and possibly NATO getting involved in light of the importance of TSMC and other firms to EU and UK economies.

  3. It’s not all black & white. Thanks to Apple, AMD and Nvidia leading the rush to a “fab lite” model (wildly applauded by Wall Street), we are now horribly dependent upon chips from an island only 100 miles from the mainland. Thanks to that chokehold, the PRC can use more “subtle” means short of an invasion to cripple TSMC and the other fabs.

    Now Americans are being asked to defend corporate America’s decisions to outsource all of their logic chip needs to a politically and geographically unstable country. With lives and money.

  4. What’s interesting to me is the timing of Biden’s statement, repeating his earlier comment on the subject.

    We do not know what form that assistance in the defense of Taiwan by the US would take. I do not imagine it as the US saving the day with a mass invasion (to get back at the Chinese for what they did in Korea). The Taiwanese will have to defend themselves if it comes to that. No one is going to do it for them.

    As for our entanglement with China in the realm of trade and commerce, yes, the two countries are intermingled through trade relations. We don’t want war with China, of course. We would prefer that they peacefully abide, whatever their politics or philosophy. But it’s China’s choice.

    Do they wish to be like Russia, taking on the posture of a pariah state, expressing onerous, primitive, and cruel demands on the proletariat – in this case, the Taiwanese? Or, after evaluating the finer points of the choices before them, would the Chinese prefer to take on a posture of patience and engagement with the Taiwanese, what at the same time encouraging healthier growth in their expression of capitalist values – and politically more rewarding outcomes?

    Might they (possibly) see the usefulness of expanding their idea of personal freedom in their broader implementation of capitalism, out of necessity for the ongoing success of their system? Or will they continue down the path of constricting freedom and applying more controls, while siphoning off greater chunks of the profits for party members.

    I doubt the Chinese leadership today is capable of fairly evaluating these choices. They’re control freaks. I expect they will opt for growing control of their economy and people, consistent with communist political ideas.

    In light of the US and NATO’s assistance to Ukraine in response to the Russian invasion, Biden’s vague suggestion of direct US help to Taiwan is useful. If the US has to back-up Taiwan, it’s realistic that China would feel less comfortable in actually attacking the island with ordinance from missiles, planes, or ships if Taiwan had US backing, training, and support in responding to attacks of that kind. The quality of US defense tools and any training they might give to the Taiwanese should be more than enough to make the Chinese think twice.

    The proof is in the pudding of western support for Ukraine. What the Chinese would actually do in the ongoing “conversation” with Taiwan is their choice. But with Biden’s “threat,” China will have to think more carefully about attacking or invading Taiwan. Like Korea, the CCP may feel the loss of soldiers, airmen, and military equipment is no big deal because they can be replaced. But over time, the more western countries are incented to identify alternative sources of manufacturing for western goods, and the extent to which those sources can be realized, may inspire a measure of additional thought for the Chinese leaders.

  5. To the question of Why now? Ukraine is delivering a beating to Russia, a country almost four times its size, using Triple AAA weapons systems (not the very best stuff) from the U.S. and NATO. Maybe Biden wants Xi to understand that the support Ukraine is receiving from the West would pale compared to the kind of support it would deliver to Taiwan should China decide to mount an invasion of the island.

    1. Look up the population breakdown of the Taiwan. As I recall, under 15% are native Taiwanese. The rest are the progeny of Chiang Kai Shek’s followers who crossed over and took over the island.

      Rather violently at times. My eyes were opened to this when I learned that many old timers in Taiwan looked back nostalgically on the years when they were under Japanese occupation. Contrast that to the bitter hatred still held by most Koreans against the Japanese.

      It’s not such a cut & dry story, is it?

  6. If China takes over or destroys Taiwan, specifically TSMC and its ecosystem, the US economy will flat-out collapse. Not unlike what will happen to the Russian economy with US tech sanctions, except Russia is low-tech so the impact is slow and partial, while the US is high-tech so the impact will be fast and complete, made faster by the financial market reaction.

    Imagine if all US companies were permanently cut off from all Taiwan-fabbed chips. No more cellphones, PCs, servers, networking, industrial automation, cars, TVs, maybe not even dishwashers . . . the S&P500 would go < 500.

    The US can no longer afford “strategic ambiguity” on Taiwan. Until enough semiconductor capability can be replicated outside of Taiwan, the defense of Taiwan is the top US priority. The US will absolutely have to go to war with China to defend its access to semiconductors, and China needs to have no doubt about it.

    Biden, I think, gets this. His handling of Russia-Ukraine shows how effective he is in foreign policy and his work on the CHIPS Act will have shown him how vital Taiwan is, and I think his statements are very intentional.

    1. The “Silicon Shield” at work.

      Trump’s team decided to force US and foreign (such as ASML) to stop selling advanced products to China. They demanded that TSMC stop selling chips to Huawei, which represented close to 20% of their revenues at the time. TSMC agreed, probably under pressure from the central government anxious to please their protector. The old subtle entente was thereby destroyed, leaving China with fewer reasons to lay off of Taiwan.

      The Trump administration did so BEFORE having a back-up source of chips in place or even planned.

      Don’t think the Taiwanese are unaware of the leverage this gives them. In fact, the government has discouraged TSMC from building fabs overseas, except for the one in Arizona to please Trump. (TSM is already winning hearts and minds by whining that there are no qualified engineers in the USA to people that fab.)

      Again, you may thank Apple and AMD for getting us into this mess. They should fund the construction of fabs here rather than asking US soldiers and taxpayers to pay the bill coming due for for their past decisions. Yeah, “That was a joke sir!”

    2. Just for the record, the US has always had a soft spot for the government in Taiwan. And today the US celebrates with them the democratic political system they currently have in place. At the same time, TSMC, according to Google, gets 70% of their revenue from US sales. No wonder they already have a fab plant in the state of Washington, and a new fab plant is under construction in Arizona (which will open in 18 – 24 months).

      I imagine that from TSMC’s perspective, China’s desire to bring Taiwan back into the Chinese fold might not feel very comfortable.
      China’s disposition to Taiwan is interesting to me, as is the fear they wish to impose on the Taiwanese. I cannot help but feel compassion for the Taiwanese and fear for the well-being of their land and people.

      I hope that China’s leaders will think carefully about their approach to Taiwan and consider the possibility of just putting their anger and frustration on ice for a while. Then, perhaps at some later time, they might propose sharing a conversation over a cup of tea rather than fire missiles over the island of Taiwan. I also hope the US actively continues support Taiwan’s security.

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