In the context of China-U.S. strategic competition, U.S. President Joe Biden’s first visit to Japan attracted particular attention. Before his visit, the plan to release the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), the long overdue economic pillar of Biden’s regional policy, got the most attention. However, Biden’s astonishing remarks on Taiwan stole headlines, reminding people that the Taiwan issue is the most dangerous issue in China-U.S. strategic competition.
On May 23, Biden held a press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio in Tokyo. Biden said that if Taiwan was attacked by the Chinese military, he would defend Taiwan by force in return. This remark triggered a public discussion on whether the United States has changed its “strategic ambiguity” on Taiwan, the traditional strategy widely accepted by US political elites.
Subsequently, the White House and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin came forward to clarify that the U.S. position on Taiwan has not changed and still adheres to the “one China policy.” Even Biden himself, after the Quad summit with leaders from Japan, India and Australia less than 24 hours after his press conference with Kishida, said that the U.S. strategy toward Taiwan has not changed.
In fact, this is not Biden’s first “slip of the tongue.” In August last year, Biden promised that the United States would “respond” if NATO member countries were attacked — Taiwan was also included among the list of allies the United States “made a sacred commitment” to defend, despite the lack of a formal defense treaty between the two. Later, in October, Biden was asked in a live TV interview whether the United States would protect Taiwan from attacks; he once again affirmed that.
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Besides his words on Taiwan, Biden also drew headlines for his comments against Russian President Vladimir Putin. Denouncing the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Biden called Putin a “butcher” and “war criminal,” saying that Putin should not continue to be in power. After these astonishing remarks, the White House again had to put out the fire, saying that the United States does not expect regime change in Russia.
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Like Ukraine, Taiwan is not a formal ally of the United States. Despite Biden’s repeated remarks on the subject, the United States has no “commitment” to protect Taiwan by force. The United States has adopted “strategic ambiguity” on the Taiwan issue since normalizing relations with China. On the one hand, Washington has promised to abide by the “one China policy,” and does not recognize or have a formal relationship with the government on Taiwan. On the other hand, Washington has continuously provided military assistance to Taiwan to help boost defense capabilities and has continuously established informal communication at the official and unofficial level. The Sino-U.S. Joint Communiques and the Taiwan Relations Act are two fundamental pacts for the United States to engage in the Taiwan issue.
However, since 2016, the U.S. government has continuously shown a posture of challenging China’s bottom line on the Taiwan issue.
In March 2018, the U.S. Congress passed the Taiwan Travel Act, opening the door for the exchange of official visits between the United States and Taiwan. In August 2020, U.S. Health Secretary Alex Azar arrived in Taiwan, the highest level American official to visit Taiwan over 41 years, which triggered great turmoil across the Taiwan Strait. The Trump administration followed that up by sending Under Secretary of State Keith Krach to Taiwan in September 2020, the highest-level representative from the U.S. State Department to visit since the normalization of China-U.S. relations.
During Trump’s term, the United States sold $18.3 billion worth of arms to Taiwan in 11 separate packages. In the last month of his administration, the United States signed the Taiwan Assurance Act in an attempt to normalize arms sales to Taiwan. Less than two weeks before the presidential transition, Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, announced that he was restricting all “self-imposed restrictions” on official U.S. exchanges with Taiwan.
After Biden came to power, he generally maintained the high-profile involvement of the United States in Taiwan Strait affairs, supported Taiwan militarily, and intended to further enhance the official level exchanges between the two sides. On this basis, the United States has pushed to include the Taiwan issue in the Japan-U.S. security agreement, which was clearly shown in the joint statements issued after the 2021 and 2022 “2+2” meetings with Japan, attended by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Austin along with their Japanese counterparts.
Thus Biden’s statement on Taiwan actually reflects the trend that the United States has been constantly testing China’s bottom line on the Taiwan Strait issue. This is the most dangerous factor for both China-U.S. relations and the regional security situation.
After all, Biden is a prudent politician with rich diplomatic experience. His repeated comments on Taiwan cannot be simply explained away as a “slip of the tongue.” Behind his words, there is profound U.S. strategic thinking.
In the long run, with the growth of China’s economic and military strength, it is highly important for Beijing to protect its core interests, including solving the Taiwan issue and achieving reunification. The United States, for the sake of maintaining its own hegemony, will seek to obstruct China’s plan. It is the long-term strategy of the United States to contain China’s forces within the first island chain (including Taiwan). This is likely to make Taiwan the focus of the great power competition between China and the United States.
In recent years, China has been expanding its naval strength and is gradually breaking the advantage of the United States in the sea. In the past 20 years, the size of China’s navy has tripled, with a total tonnage of more than 2.3 million tons, second only to the 3.53 million tons of the U.S. Navy. The PLA Navy’s total number of ships has reached 360, surpassing the 300 of the U.S. Navy and ranking first in the world. A recent Pentagon report indicated that the Chinese navy has outperformed the U.S. Navy in shipbuilding, conventional ballistic and cruise missiles, and integrated air defense systems. These indicators are considered to be the key to determining the situation in the Taiwan Strait.
Given China’s growing military strength, the U.S. strategic community and Congress have already felt a strong anxiety. The PLA Navy could not break through the first island chain 20 years ago, but now the entire American society has felt this anxiety. Therefore, the United States has been playing games with China on the Taiwan Strait issue, seeing it as the key to China-U.S. strategic competition.
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In addition to these overarching concerns, in the short term, the Biden administration will face diplomatic and domestic pressures, which can explain why he may take radical moves on the Taiwan issue ahead of the next election.
On the foreign policy front, Biden faced great pressure both from the Russia-Ukraine War and the political change in Afghanistan. When the Taliban occupied Kabul in August 2021, the U.S. Army immediately withdrew. A second “Saigon moment” was staged at the Kabul airport. And this year, before and after the Russian invasion, the United States repeatedly said that it would not send troops to Ukraine to confront the Russian army. These two incidents directly led to Biden’s foreign policy being criticized as weak by political opponents.
The U.S. performance on Afghanistan and Ukraine also risks harming its strategic credibility for a long time, causing other allies to lose trust in the United States. Therefore, Biden’s repeated statements that he wants to defend Taiwan by force are meant to re-establish the assurance of the United States.
Facing mid-term elections toward the end of this year and a presidential election two years later, Biden’s support rate – which has dropped to just 39 percent – puts the Democratic Party’s prospects in jeopardy. Given that the strategic competition with China is the top priority of the U.S. foreign strategy, Biden has to show strength on Taiwan Strait issue. Just as Biden said when he took office, he cannot accept the possibility of the U.S. being surpassed by China during his term.
Despite this, Biden and senior U.S. officials repeatedly claimed that the U.S. strategy toward Taiwan had not changed. This is because they are worried about setting off a chain reaction that will destroy China-U.S. relations. This “fuzzy strategy” is more beneficial to the United States. On the one hand, Washington can maintain the strategic relationship with Beijing without causing a complete rupture by denouncing the “one China policy.” On the other hand, Washington can counter China by assisting Taiwan or even helping to defend Taiwan.
As far as China is concerned, however, the Taiwan issue is the bottom line that cannot be conceded. After Biden made his latest remarks, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin had a blunt response: “For our friends, we have fine wine. For jackals or wolves, we welcome with shotguns.” At the same time, the PLA’s J-10 aircraft and J-16 aircraft entered Taiwan’s southwest Air Defense Identification Zone twice to conduct strategic deterrence. China’s timely and powerful response shows how sensitive the Taiwan issue is – and how dangerous any provocations can be.