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US president's policy on Taiwan has confused some but it's actually clear

Joe Biden's recent comments show there is greater strategic clarity than casual observers realize

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks gives a speech Thursday. (AP photo)

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks gives a speech Thursday. (AP photo)

Some would say it has been difficult at times to discern with any precision exactly what the Biden administration policy on Taiwan is. Since the summer of 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden has continued to make statements strongly supporting Taiwan, particularly committing to U.S. military support of Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack.

While all friends of free and democratic countries — especially Taiwan — have welcomed such comments, which appear to signal the adoption of a policy of strategic clarity, the president’s words are inevitably followed by White House and State Department staff assertions, as well as comments by Biden himself, stating there has been no change in U.S. policy. Back to strategic ambiguity, or is it just a strategic muddle?

On Aug. 19, 2021, in an interview with ABC News, Biden dismissed the premise that the bungled U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan might undermine the credibility of U.S. commitments to Taiwan and other allies. The U.S., he said, would “respond” if anyone were to invade or take action against a NATO ally, adding “same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with Taiwan,” thereby putting Taiwan in the company of long-standing treaty allies who the U.S. is bound to defend.

Then on Oct. 21, 2021, asked twice during a CNN-hosted town hall meeting whether the U.S. would protect Taiwan if China attacked, Biden said it would. "Yes, we have a commitment to do that," he affirmed. Hours after the town hall, China's foreign ministry warned the U.S. not to send "any wrong signals to the separatist forces of Taiwan independence.”

China's Foreign Ministry Spokesman Wang Wenbin (汪文斌) told a regular news briefing in Beijing the next day: "China urges the U.S. to strictly abide by the one-China principle and the provisions of the China-US Three Joint Communiques, be cautious in its words and deeds on the Taiwan issue, and refrain from sending any wrong signals to the separatist forces of Taiwan independence, so as not to seriously damage China-U.S. relations, peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait."

'Inevitably burn themselves'

Speaking with reporters on Nov. 16, 2021, Biden said he had told China's President Xi Jinping (習近平) in their virtual meeting the previous day the U.S. would abide by the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). According to a White House read-out of the meeting, Biden had underscored that the “United States remains committed to the ‘one-China’ policy, guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, the Three Joint Communiques, and the Six Assurances, and that the United States strongly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

The People's Republic of China (PRC) read-outs of the Biden-Xi summit, however, said Biden “was opposed to” Taiwan’s independence and said Xi warned that those playing with fire around Taiwan “would inevitably burn themselves.”

Asked by reporters whether Taiwan was in fact independent, Biden said, “It’s independent. It makes its own decisions.” Hours later, following media confusion his comment generated, Biden explained that “we are not encouraging independence” and that “we’re not going to change our policy at all.”

Although “not encouraging” Taiwan independence, the U.S. believed in letting Taiwan make “its own decisions.” When asked specifically about the “independent” comment, Biden replied: “I said that they have to decide, they, Taiwan, not us ... We’re encouraging that they do exactly what the Taiwan (Relations) Act requires,” he said, adding, “That’s what we’re doing. Let them make up their mind. Period,” Biden emphasized.

Improved Taiwan policy

On May 5, 2022, the State Department published a revision of stated U.S. policy toward Taiwan, the first since Aug. 31, 2018. It was remarkable in several respects:

  • The opening sentence is now far more positive about our bilateral relationship, its importance, and the importance of Taiwan. Instead of starting with the banality of the relatively demeaning assertion that, “The United States and Taiwan enjoy a robust unofficial relationship,” where the emphasis falls on “unofficial,” the new opening stresses the many respects in which Taiwan is important to the U.S., the closeness of the relationship, and a future of expanding engagements: “As a leading democracy and a technological powerhouse, Taiwan is a key U.S. partner in the Indo-Pacific. Though the United States does not have diplomatic relations with Taiwan, we have a robust unofficial relationship. The United States and Taiwan share similar values, deep commercial and economic links, and strong people-to-people ties, which form the bedrock of our friendship and serve as the impetus for expanding U.S. engagement with Taiwan.” Rather than underplaying or diminishing our relationship, the text extols it.
  • The earlier 2018 text went on to give a condensed history of the U.S. switching diplomatic relations: “The United States recognized the government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal government of China, acknowledging the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China.” And it continued to state specifically, “The United States does not support Taiwan independence.” While claiming in the 2022 text that “the United States approach to Taiwan has remained consistent across decades and administrations,” the revised statement significantly altered the earlier text to read: “The United States has a longstanding one-China policy, which is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, the Three U.S.-China Joint Communiques, and 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. We continue to have an abiding interest in peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

Significantly, no longer does the U.S. even “acknowledge” the PRC position, a verb which had always allowed Beijing to misinterpret U.S. acceptance — rather than recognition — of the PRC position. This verbal sleight of hand allowed Henry Kissinger to establish diplomatic relations with the PRC, but has caused problems ever since.

The new statement sandwiched the Three Communiques between the Taiwan Relations Act and the Six Assurances, both of which were unilateral U.S. modifications of policy toward Taiwan. Moreover, the new statement stressed the necessity of a peaceful solution to cross-strait differences.

Chinese perceptions of policy

An angry PRC certainly recognized the apparent shift. On May 10, at a routine press conference, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian (趙立堅) expressed Beijing’s displeasure at Washington’s stance, saying: “There is only one China in the world. Taiwan is an inalienable part of Chinese territory. The PRC government is the sole legal government representing the whole of China. This is a universally-recognized norm governing international relations and common consensus of the international community. History brooks no falsification, facts cannot be denied, and right and wrong should not be distorted.

"The U.S. has made solemn commitments on the Taiwan question and the one-China principle in the Three China-US Joint Communiques. The U.S.’ latest modification of the fact sheet is a trick to obscure and hollow out the one-China principle. Such political manipulation of the Taiwan question and the attempt to change the status quo across the Taiwan Strait will hurt the U.S. itself. The U.S.’ latest modification of the fact sheet is a trick to obscure and hollow out the one-China principle.”

Reaffirmation of US policy

In a subsequent rejoinder on May 21, U.S. Department of State Spokesman Ned Price wrote on Twitter in response to the PRC blocking Taiwan’s bid to rejoin the World Health Assembly (WHA), that the U.S. was not bound by Beijing’s “one China” principle.

"The PRC continues to publicly misrepresent U.S. policy,” Price said, adding, “The United States does not subscribe to the PRC’s ‘one-China principle’ — we remain committed to our longstanding, bipartisan one-China policy, guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, Three Joint Communiques, and Six Assurances.”

On May 23, 2022, in a joint news conference in Tokyo, both Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Biden asserted that their policies on Taiwan remained “unchanged.” Both expressed support for continuing cross-strait peace and stability, opposed any unilateral attempt to change the status quo by force in Asia, and to that end committed to upgrade and strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance to defend peace and stability in the region.

Biden said, "The United States is committed. We’ve made a commitment. We support the one-China policy. We support all — all that we’ve done in the past …” Then he added that additional qualification: “But that does not mean … that China has … the jurisdiction to go in and use force to take over Taiwan. So we stand firmly with Japan and with other nations … not to let that happen. And my expectation is it will not happen; it will not be attempted. And my expectation is — a lot of it depends upon just how strongly the world makes clear that that kind of action is going to result in long-term disapprobation by the rest of the community.”

So, even as Biden continued to say U.S policy was “unchanged,” he clearly indicated the U.S. would counter any PRC use of force against Taiwan.

A reporter, seeking further clarification, asked, “Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan, if it comes to that?” Biden answered, “Yes. That’s the commitment we made. That’s the commitment we made ... Look, here’s the situation: We agree with the one-China policy; we’ve signed on to it and all the attendant agreements made from there. But the idea that — that it can be taken by force — just taken by force — is just not a — is just not appropriate. It will dislocate the entire region and be another action similar to what happened in — in Ukraine. And so, it’s a burden that is even stronger.”

How many times, we might ask, do we have to seek strategic clarity, before we accept the clear answer we have received?

Soft on China?

Most recently, on May 26, U.S. Secretary of State Blinken delivered a lengthy detailed statement on U.S. policy toward China that PRC commentators detested. One of the oddities of Blinken’s speech, as some Twitter participants noted, was the choice of the Asia Society as the host: A “soft-on China organization that organized dozens of Confucius Institutes and has a CCP member on its board of directors,” according to one streamer.

What was most notable about Blinken’s policy statement, however, was its frankly tough language about the challenges the PRC poses. “There is growing convergence about the need to approach relations with Beijing with more realism," Blinken stated:

  • “China is the only country with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it. Beijing’s vision would move us away from the universal values that have sustained so much of the world’s progress over the past 75 years.”
  • “Even as President Putin’s war continues, we will remain focused on the most serious long-term challenge to the international order – and that’s posed by the People’s Republic of China.”
  • “But rather than using its power to reinforce and revitalize the laws, the agreements, the principles, the institutions that enabled its success so that other countries can benefit from them, too, Beijing is undermining them. Under President Xi, the ruling Chinese Communist Party has become more repressive at home and more aggressive abroad."

Blinken cited, among other challenges the PRC presents, including “unlawful maritime claims in the South China Sea,” “circumventing or breaking trade rules,” “defense of president Putin’s war to erase Ukraine’s sovereignty,” “opaque investment that leaves countries in debt, stokes corruption, harms the environment, fails to create local jobs or growth, and compromises countries’ exercise of their sovereignty,” genocide and crimes against humanity in the Xinjiang region, where more than 1 million people have been placed in detention camps because of their ethnic and religious identity,” the “brutal campaign against Tibetans and their culture, language, and religious traditions, and in Hong Kong, where the Chinese Communist Party has imposed harsh anti-democratic measures under the guise of national security,” the absence of reciprocity in business and media regulations, technology theft and forced technology transfers.

Blinken’s points on Taiwan

On Taiwan, Blinken reiterated yet again the familiar language about how U.S. policy had not changed, but he also drew red lines:

  • “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.”
  • At the same time, Blinken said, “We continue to have an abiding interest in peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. 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.’”
  • Finally, Blinken added, “While our policy has not changed, what has changed is Beijing’s growing coercion – like trying to cut off Taiwan’s relations with countries around the world and blocking it from participating in international organizations. And Beijing has engaged in increasingly provocative rhetoric and activity, like flying PLA aircraft near Taiwan on an almost daily basis. These words and actions are deeply destabilizing; they risk miscalculation and threaten the peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait. As we saw from the president’s discussions with allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific, maintaining peace and stability across the strait is not just a U.S. interest; it is a matter of international concern, critical to regional and global security and prosperity.”

Some observers have pointed out and criticized Secretary Blinken’s re-insertion of the statement that “we do not support Taiwan independence,” which had been omitted from the May 5 State Department revision of U.S. policy on Taiwan. Although taking it out and putting it back in is certainly awkward, it actually conforms more closely with President Biden’s assertion that the question of “independence” is a matter for Taiwan to decide. Most thoughtful Taiwanese I know prefer the status quo rather than the risk inherent in crossing the PRC red-line of a formal declaration of independence. As Foreign Minister Wu has often said, Taiwan is already an independent country.

Strategic clarity all along

What Blinken did not quote from was the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), but implicit in what he does say is the subsequent sentence in Section 3c in the TRA, often overlooked, which is nonetheless a legal justification for U.S. military action if the United States decides it is necessary: “The President is directed to inform the Congress promptly of any threat to the security or the social or economic system of the people on Taiwan and any danger to the interests of the United States arising therefrom. The president and the Congress shall determine, in accordance with constitutional processes, appropriate action by the United States in response to any such danger.”

There has in fact always been more strategic clarity than most either realize or are willing to admit. It may be that Biden is less confused than some have assumed.

William A. Stanton is a chair professor at National Chengchi University, where he teaches at the International College of Innovation. He previously served (2019 -2021) as a vice president of National Yang Ming University and then as a senior vice president of National Yang-Ming Chiao-Tung University. From August 2017 to July 2019, Professor Stanton taught at the Center for General Education at National Taiwan University. He previously worked for four years as the George K.C. Yeh Distinguished Chair Professor and founding director of the Center for Asia Policy at National Tsing Hua University (NTHU). From October 2014 through January 2016, he was also NTHU’s senior vice president for global affairs. Prior to his academic career, Dr. Stanton served for 34 years as a U.S. diplomat. His final posting was as director of the American Institute in Taiwan (2009-2012).