China’s aggressive and confrontational actions toward Taiwan in the last several months are anything but subtle. On the contrary, Beijing intends to take the democratic island into its clutches forcefully. Where does the U.S. stand in the light of the Chinese threats? Well, the Biden administration’s stand on supporting Taiwan has become muddled with recent statements by the president and his secretary of defense. Liberty Nation has reported on the Peoples’ Republic of China’s (PRC) threatening “saber-rattling” toward the Taiwanese. LN’s Graham Noble provided a concise analysis of a possible motive for the warlike posture taken by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), explaining:
“More recently, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) may have decided flexing its muscles in the Taiwan Strait serves as a useful distraction from looming manufacturing and economic crises that threaten to derail its drive toward the long-desired goal of global hegemony.”
Be that as it may, what caught national security pundits and defense wonks by surprise was President Biden’s charting an ad hoc turn in what has been U.S.-China policy for decades. At a recent town hall, as reported by Newsweek, a student from Loyola University asked the president, “What will you do to keep up with them [the Chinese] militarily, and can you vow to protect Taiwan?” Biden answered with a firm, “Yes and yes.”
Meaning that the U.S. would keep up with the Chinese, keeping pace with hypersonic missile technology, and that the U.S. would defend Taiwan. To make absolutely sure he had heard correctly, the moderator “pressed him on Taiwan, asking: ‘So, you’re saying that the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense if China attacked?'” Biden answered without hesitation, “Yes, we have a commitment to do that.” But that is not exactly right.
A White House spokesperson later explained that the president meant to say the U.S. is bound by agreements to give Taiwan the military equipment to defend itself. The governing legislation is known as the Taiwan Relations Act (HR 2479), signed into law during the 96th Congress in 1979. Since the passage of this legislation, subsequent administrations have used it as a license to provide Taiwan weapons and assistance necessary to repel a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) invasion. It also gives cover for the U.S. to employ a veil over whether America would help defend Taiwan if the PLA tried to take the island. In geopolitical-speak, this has come to be known as a policy of “strategic ambiguity.” As the South China Morning Post explains:
“Strategic ambiguity originally had the goal of discouraging both unification by a mainland invasion and a unilateral declaration of independence by the island, hence the so-called status quo. Now, who knows where we are?”
The idea is to keep China guessing as to what the U.S. would really do. In truth, that policy, though long-standing, is nonsense. Strategic ambiguity is a luxury afforded to a country that is demonstrably far more powerful than its adversary. Keep ’em guessing because whatever the U.S. decides to do, it can. The reality is that the U.S., although still formidable, is rapidly losing whatever significant military superiority it once had. The strategic ambiguity policy is, in any case, confusing even for the Biden administration. The most recent town hall statement regarding the defense of Taiwan wasn’t a one-off comment. The president said the same thing in August, and the White House had to clarify that the old policy stayed.
But the confusion must be endemic in the Biden administration, because as the South China Morning Post reports, “The next day while attending a summit meeting of NATO defense chiefs, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin appeared to double down in supporting his boss’ statement.” Austin’s staff quickly corrected the secretary’s muddied comments.
In his fitting analysis of the Taiwan conundrum, should the U.S. defend Taiwan, Jed Babbin offers the most practical way forward, although it is a default position. Babbin counsels in The Washington Times:
“The best course for us is to try to deter China from attacking Taiwan. Strengthening our military relationship with Taiwan, even holding joint exercises with Taiwanese forces, would infuriate Mr. Xi. Still, it might deter him long enough for his aggressive regime to come to its end.”
What the U.S. is left with, unfortunately, is a China that never loses the opportunity to announce to the world that it is dedicated to making Taiwan part of the mainland communist regime and “has vowed to retake the island through diplomacy, or by force if necessary.” Consequently, there is not much wiggle room for the Biden national security team.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.
~ Read more from Dave Patterson.