Biden’s Red Line on Taiwan Is a Big China Move, Not a Gaffe

The claim of ‘no policy change’ sidesteps the issue
October 27, 2021 Updated: October 30, 2021

News Analysis

After President Joe Biden’s historic Oct. 21 statement affirming the American commitment to defend Taiwan against a Chinese military attack, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki noted: “The president was not announcing any change in our policy, nor has he made a decision to change our policy. There is no change in our policy.”

As Shakespeare wrote, methinks thou dost protest too much.

Biden’s increasingly public intention to defend Taiwan by force is pushing one of the most momentous American foreign policy changes in decades. It is a change in Biden’s policy, if not the White House’s policy. Psaki and others have grasped at straws and technical language to downplay the importance of this presidential opinion.

A president publicly stating an intention to collectively defend Taiwan is still a major foreign policy change. Policy is not only made after executive orders are distributed and laws voted. Policy is alive in the public commitments that a president makes, including those that are relatively spontaneous. And there is no evidence that this statement was spontaneous. Perhaps Biden was waiting for the opportunity.

Psaki also explained Biden’s statement by noting that “We are guided by the Taiwan Relations Act.” That should be obvious, as the act is U.S. law, which of course the president must follow. But the executive has plenty of discretion, especially given the trend in increasing presidential powers relative to Congress, in how to fulfill the Act, which was passed in 1979.

The sitting U.S. president stating a collective intention to defend Taiwan, if not contradicted by congressional action, is itself an indication and strengthening of America’s resolve.

A White House spokesman said, “We will continue to support Taiwan’s self-defense, and we will continue to oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo.” Importantly, he declined to say whether the president had misspoke, thereby leaving a shred of ambiguity.

Nowhere did anyone from the administration contradict Biden’s statement. But headlines nonetheless blared that White House officials “walked back” the president. That suits Democrats just fine, as they want to focus on domestic initiatives, and Republicans too, who can see this as just another example of Biden’s weakness.

But the media is wrong. The administration did not walk back the president.

The Taiwan Relations Act does not require the United States to militarily defend Taiwan, but neither does it forbid Washington from doing so. Analysts call this a policy of “strategic ambiguity.” But the Act leans more toward a military defense of Taiwan than not, notably if Beijing abandons peaceful persuasion of Taiwan for military invasion. The Act provides a means for Taiwan’s military defense, including by both Taiwan and the United States, and states in advance that “It is the policy of the United States … to consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.”

After Biden’s latest statement, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said that the United States affirms the “one China” policy, but opposes forced seizure of Taiwan. An American Secretary of Defense saying that America opposes a Chinese invasion of Taiwan adds weight to the presidential commitment to defend Taiwan in case of a Chinese attack. Austin was not here contradicting the president’s stated commitment to defend Taiwan, but supporting it.

Neither does the “one China” policy contradict Biden’s statement. That policy is fundamentally an acknowledgement and not an absolute agreement with Beijing’s view that there is only one China. Formal diplomatic relations with Beijing, rather than Taipei, is contingent on the former not using force to annex Taiwan. Beijing’s continued military threats against Taiwan are a violation of the United States’ agreements with China, and give Washington the right to void the “one China” policy if it so chooses, which it should.

Austin also said: “We will continue to help Taiwan with the sorts of capabilities that it needs to defend itself. I won’t engage in any hypotheticals with respect to Taiwan.” Here he reaffirms America’s right, according to the Taiwan Relations Act, to continue selling defense equipment to Taiwan, while maintaining ambiguity.

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An armed US-made F16 fighter jet takes off from a motorway in Pingtung, southern Taiwan, during the annual Han Kuang drill on Sept. 15, 2021. (Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images)

State Department spokesman Ned Price made similar ambiguous statements. But the State Department also sought to underline America’s commitment to Taiwan, saying in a written statement that “What should be clear from all his [Biden’s] comments on Taiwan” is that “our support for Taiwan is rock solid and we are committed to peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”

Despite the lack of any contradiction from Biden or his administration after the Oct. 21 statement, the Washington Post claimed that “Most analysts believe simply that Biden misspoke.”

Taiwan expert Bonnie Glaser, who is highly influential in China foreign policy circles, called Biden’s statement a “gaffe.” She said it was “patently not true” that Washington has a commitment to defend Taiwan.

She later added on Twitter that “Biden’s statement that he would defend Taiwan is quite meaningful,” in the context of defending her original statements.

Glaser is wrong about the “gaffe” and only half-right about the lack of a commitment, if one ignores Biden’s two recent statements on the matter, and any possible unannounced commitments that the United States has made to Taiwan.

Taiwan’s foreign ministry apparently believes that the United States does have a promise to defend Taiwan. After Biden’s Oct. 21 statement, the ministry thanked him for “reiterating the US’s long-time promise to Taiwan.”

Taiwan’s presidential spokesperson said Biden’s administration had been “clear and consistent about its rock solid support for Taiwan.” It’s doubtful that “rock solid support” could ever mean the abandonment of Taiwan to a Chinese invasion.

To what “promise” was the foreign ministry referring? Could there not only have been an unpublicized American warning to Beijing of a U.S. defense of Taiwan, made public by Biden on Oct. 21, but also an unannounced American promise to Taiwan on the same subject? Both make strategic sense as surrendering Taiwan to Beijing weakens the U.S. and allied national security posture in Asia, and therefore weakens America’s national interests.

Former President George W. Bush in 2001 also said he would do “whatever it took” to defend Taiwan, then later stressed that he would continue abiding by the “one China” policy. This is about what the Biden administration is doing now, though Biden himself did not follow up with a personal statement affirming the “one China” policy. So from Bush to Biden, American policy on China has gotten tougher.

Maybe Taiwan’s foreign ministry is right and we do have a long-held commitment to defend Taiwan. Two U.S. presidents have committed to as much publicly, and neither later contradicted themselves.

Some analysts are apparently missing Biden’s most likely strategy. He is providing relatively complete information to Beijing to ensure that it doesn’t make a deadly mistake based on the false assumption that the United States will not respond militarily to a Chinese invasion. Biden just said so on CNN.

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The People’s Liberation Army storms ashore from landing crafts in an exercise on the mainland coast close to Taiwan on Sept. 10, 1999. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Republicans are prone to disbelieve Biden. But former President Donald Trump also moved the dial in Taiwan’s direction, by accepting a congratulatory phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen after he won the 2016 election. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has twice referred to Taiwan as a “country” (which in fact it is).

The evidence indicates that Biden, Blinken, Trump, and Bush did not make gaffes in their increasing support for Taiwan’s sovereignty, and in the case of Biden and Bush, in its military defense with American forces. That support has increased to counterbalance Beijing’s growing power and belligerence. American leaders know that the American people should be willing to sacrifice to defend the line of freedom in Taiwan, and they reflect those views in their public foreign policy toward China.

Foreign policy analysts, however, are more cautious. Glaser differs with Biden, as reported by Reuters. “Some are suggesting a deliberate effort to send unclear signals, but in my view, that makes no sense. A confused U.S. policy weakens deterrence,” Glaser said.

According to Glaser, Biden’s Asia chief, Kurt Campbell, rejects the policy proposal of “strategic clarity” to defend Taiwan.

Much Washington analyses are dangerously close to what I would call a policy of confused and incremental appeasement, not least because of the policy of strategic ambiguity. They consistently deemphasize the China threat, America’s ability to defend itself and Taiwan militarily, and thereby effectively abandon Taiwan and other territories gradually to the risk of China’s missiles and amphibious assault ships. Those who never warned about the rising China threat are suddenly saying it is too late to do anything about it.

There is also an element of passing the buck in order to try and force Taiwan to take care of its own defense. But Taiwan is a small country, it already spends over 2 percent of its GDP on defense, which is the NATO standard, and it cannot defeat a Chinese invasion alone. Yes the United States should insist that Taiwan, and the rest of NATO, increase its defense spending to U.S. levels of 3.7 percent, which is required to deal with rising threats from not only China, but Russia, North Korea, Iran, and terrorism globally.

But we must know that with Taiwan this is a negotiation, not something that we can walk away from. If push comes to shove, the United States loses when Taiwan loses. And it would be unfair to force Taiwan to shoulder the brunt of the costs for a defense against China, just because Taiwan happens to be on the front lines. Those on the front lines of freedom are heroes and will pay the greatest price during a war. They deserve more of our support, not less.

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Soldiers march to position during an anti-invasion drill on the beach during the annual Han Kuang military drill in Tainan, Taiwan, on Sept. 14, 2021. (Ann Wang/Reuters)

Without significantly increased U.S. and allied counterpressure, Beijing will ultimately force Taiwan to surrender through an embargo or naval blockade, for example, without the Chinese military needing to fire a single shot. This is Beijing’s greatest hope, and many establishment Washington analysts are playing to it by throwing up their hands.

Increasing levels of fear about war with China, and analysis that we should not risk such a war over Taiwan given China’s nuclear weapons, indicates that America is not even following its own policy found in the Taiwan Relations Act, which is law. The Act states that “It is the policy of the United States … to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.”

The U.S. government should immediately correct this failure to follow its own policy. Biden’s red line is a step in the right direction and, therefore, should not be seen as a mistake. There have been two major statements by Biden indicating an American defense of Taiwan. And there have been no explicit White House retractions or contradictions of what Biden said.

That Biden’s “policy” remains the same, that strategic ambiguity remains, and that we continue to adhere to the “one China” understanding and Taiwan Relations Act are not contradictions of Biden’s red line—though they are being portrayed as such in the media.

Biden is unlikely to make such an obvious mistake on the issue, as he is well-versed on U.S. Taiwan policy, having voted for the Taiwan Relations Act, traveled to Taiwan as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and written a May 2, 2001 opinion criticizing President George W. Bush’s intention to do “whatever it took” to defend Taiwan, and then backtracking with a statement of adherence to the “one China” policy.

“Where once the United States had a policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’—under which we reserved the right to use force to defend Taiwan but kept mum about the circumstances in which we might, or might not, intervene in a war across the Taiwan Strait—we now appear to have a policy of ambiguous strategic ambiguity,” wrote Biden. “It is not an improvement.”

Here Biden appears to be criticizing Bush for both the public commitment to defend Taiwan, and his apparent waffle back to the “one China” policy, which is not in fact a waffle.

Biden continued: “The United States has a vital interest in helping Taiwan sustain its vibrant democracy. I remain as committed today to preserving Taiwan’s autonomy as I was 22 years ago when I cast my vote in favor of the Taiwan Relations Act, which obligates the United States to provide Taiwan ‘with such defense articles and defense services … as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.’ I remain committed to the principle that Taiwan’s future must be determined only by peaceful means, consistent with the wishes of the people of Taiwan.”

Biden is most explicit in his criticism of Bush for the latter’s initial supposedly non-strategic language.

“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,” Biden wrote.

But this is exactly what Biden now appears to be doing, and rightly so. Circumstances have changed, China is now stronger and more aggressive, it is an increasing threat to democracy globally, and our Taiwan strategy needs to change with the times.

Biden’s public commitment to defend Taiwan is not a mistake, but a needed corrective given China’s increasing power and belligerence, and Taiwan’s status as the world’s only Chinese democracy. By staking an unambiguous claim to Taiwan’s defense, Biden pressures himself to lead America in the fight. He thereby increases the credibility of American deterrence.

We must defend Taiwan as if we are defending our very own democracy. Taiwan cannot do this alone. The United States is the only country in the world still capable of defending Taiwan and other democracies from China militarily. That makes it incumbent upon us to find a way to do so successfully. If not, our democratic allies will crumble around us until our democracy, too, is a thing of the past.

Read part 1, part 3, and part 4

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Anders Corr
Anders Corr has a bachelor's/master's in political science from Yale University (2001) and a doctorate in government from Harvard University (2008). He is a principal at Corr Analytics Inc., publisher of the Journal of Political Risk, and has conducted extensive research in North America, Europe, and Asia. His latest books are “The Concentration of Power: Institutionalization, Hierarchy, and Hegemony” (2021) and “Great Powers, Grand Strategies: the New Game in the South China Sea" (2018).