Biden’s Red Line on Taiwan

The new American position of strategic clarity publicly vows to defend Taiwan against attack by China
October 26, 2021 Updated: October 30, 2021

News Analysis

President Joe Biden has stated, in no uncertain terms, that the United States would defend Taiwan in the event of a military attack by China. His increasingly public commitment strengthens deterrence.

On Oct. 21, Biden said the words we love to hear. An audience member from Connecticut asked, “What will you do to keep up with them [China] militarily and can you vow to protect Taiwan?” Biden responded, “Yes and yes.”

“Militarily, China, Russia, and the rest of the world knows we have the most powerful military in the history of the world,” Biden replied. “Don’t worry about whether they’re going to be more powerful. But [what] you do have to worry about is whether or not they are going to engage in activities that will put them in a position where they may make a serious mistake. And so I have had … I have spoken and spent more time with Xi Jinping than any other world leader has. That’s why you have … you know you hear people saying ‘Biden wants to start a new cold war with China.’ I don’t want a cold war with China. I just want to make China understand that we are not going to step back. We are not going to change any of our views ….”

Read between those lines, and Biden says not only that America will defend Taiwan militarily, but he implies that he has previously delivered that message to Chinese leader Xi Jinping privately. It makes sense that a private threat would precede one that is so public and consequential. The private one gave Xi a more graceful offramp. The public one was only necessary because Xi did not take the hint.

With Biden’s new red line, it should now be abundantly clear to Beijing that the United States is very unlikely to surrender Taiwan during a military invasion, and if we do, Biden will pay a cost at the ballot box.

Biden’s initial statement at the CNN town hall probably made the host, Anderson Cooper, nervous. He broke in for clarification. “So are you saying that the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense if China attacked?”

Biden interrupted before Cooper’s sentence was even complete, repeating “Yes.”

Then for good measure, Biden repeated himself a third time. “Yes, we have a commitment to do that,” he said.

Cooper then cut off the president. “Alright we’re going to take another quick break ….”

This was a momentous presidential statement, affirmed three times in the course of a couple minutes, that the United States would defend Taiwan militarily. It was begging for more explanation and CNN cut off Biden.

But supporters of the island democracy cheered this switch from “strategic ambiguity” on Taiwan, which means America is purposefully vague about whether it would defend Taiwan from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) militarily, to “strategic clarity,” which means the United States publicly commits to defend Taiwan.

TAIWAN-DEFENCE-1
Taiwanese domestically-built Indigenous Defense Fighters (IDF) take part in the live-fire, anti-landing Han Kuang military exercise, which simulates an enemy invasion, in Taichung, Taiwan, on July 16, 2020. (Ann Wang/Reuters)

Representative Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) released a statement the following day that read: “Strategic ambiguity no longer serves the national interest. It is clear that President Biden agrees. It is also clear that the Chinese Communist Party will view these comments as reflective of our true Taiwan policy. It is time to move past academic debates over the nature of our commitment to Taiwan and get down to the hard work of defending it against the Chinese invasion that looks increasingly likely. This means being honest with the American public about what it will take to successfully deny a fait accompli [accomplished fact] against Taiwan in the near-term, the capabilities and posture we will need, and the resources that will be required.”

Ian Easton, the author of  “The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in Asia,” responded to Biden on Twitter, calling his statement “fantastic.”

Easton followed up in an email that “President Biden’s recent public assurances that the US would defend Taiwan represent a watershed moment in American foreign policy history. Preventing a great war with China over Taiwan is the most important security challenge of our times. Part of the solution is bolstering deterrence, convincing Xi Jinping and the CCP elite that aggressive action on their part toward Taiwan would be a disaster for them. President Biden’s courageous remarks will make decision makers in Beijing look at the US in a new light and with newfound respect. American resolve decreases the likelihood of CCP aggression and conflict.”

Biden’s talk of his frequent discussions with Xi and the context of his statement that he would defend Taiwan are probably no coincidence.

On Oct. 5, Biden released a statement that said he had agreed with Xi to follow the “Taiwan agreement.” This has led to confusion in Washington and the media, but it most likely referred to a long-held agreement, found most clearly in President Ronald Reagan’s interpretation of the communique of 1982, and possibly confirmed after a private red line delivered to China’s dictator by President Biden—not to decide Taiwan’s fate with resort to force.

That would help explain Biden’s association of the two topics live on stage, and why China has been so reticent to invade Taiwan up to this point.

However, the conflict is heating up, and there could be disastrous intelligence failures on either side. Dictators are especially prone to intelligence failures because their henchmen are primarily telling them exactly what they want to hear in order to maintain their positions. For that reason, communicating clearly to Xi from outside his hierarchy is particularly important.

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A Taiwanese Air Force F-16 in foreground flies on the flank of a Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) H-6 bomber as it passes near Taiwan on Feb. 10, 2020. (Republic of China Ministry of National Defense via AP)

“One can only speculate at this point, but it seems likely that private communications from President Biden warning Chairman Xi of US commitments to Taiwan’s defense probably happened some time ago,” wrote Easton. “They might have happened repeatedly. If so, private conversations clearly didn’t work. The threat has only worsened. The darkening intelligence picture may have made President Biden reconsider his options and decide to go public with his intentions.”

What used to be American ambiguity over Taiwan’s defense is rightly becoming a stronger and more public red line. By making America’s red line on Taiwan public, Biden is intentionally making it harder on American politicians, including himself, to back away should Beijing attack. This serves as a welcome forcing function that increases the credibility of the American deterrent. Any waffling on a Taiwan “vow” would rightly be used by an electoral opponent to illustrate a president’s weakness, and thus act to push him out of office to make way for a president who has the spine to do the job.

By locking in the American response, America deters China by removing the possibility of a fait accompli. This commitment in the context of U.S. democratic contestation increases the credibility of Biden’s deterrence of China, in a way that Xi cannot match, because Xi never has to worry about an electoral opponent calling him soft for waffling.

Biden’s new red line makes Beijing less likely to attack in the first place, because such an attack could escalate to war. Despite the CCP’s long-held cavalier attitude toward human life, especially toward the long suffering Chinese citizens themselves, China’s leadership is not exempt from fear. And contrary to what Mao Zedong implied when speaking of nuclear war, America’s smaller size gives us an asymmetric advantage.

The frequent U.S. Navy transits of the Taiwan Strait also reinforce Biden’s increasingly plausible red line. The transits are not only about freedom of navigation, which is their official purpose, but about American involvement in the defense of Taiwan, which is now becoming a much-needed public commitment.

And that is the right direction for American strategy given China’s increasing military power and belligerence toward Taiwan, including multiple amphibious military exercises and almost daily flights that test Taiwan’s boundaries. Xi has provocatively and disastrously suggested that “reunification” occur by 2050 in order to realize his “China dream” of “national renewal.”

Very few share in Xi’s dreams of mass violence, and so with change in China must come change in our policy. Biden is executing through the replacement of strategic ambiguity with strategic clarity.

Strategic clarity accords with Taiwan’s request, made clear in a Washington Post interview last year. Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to the United States, Bi-khim Hsiao, said, “We need some degree of clarity.”

Richard Haass, the current president of the Council on Foreign Relations, agrees. The New York Times quoted him as saying, “It is time to change from strategic ambiguity to strategic clarity.”

A US-made F-16V fighter jet
A U.S.-made F-16V fighter jet with its armaments is on display during an exercise at a military base in Chiayi, southern Taiwan, on Jan. 15, 2020. (Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images)

Strategic ambiguity” had its purposes. Supposedly it kept Taiwan from declaring independence and China from attacking. A declaration of independence, some believe, would provoke China into an attack. By staying ambiguous about the commitment to defend Taiwan, America mitigates the moral hazard of a Taiwan ready to claim independence without concern for the likely externalities to be suffered by the United States and allies.

Strategic ambiguity also ensured that Taiwan didn’t get too comfortable—Taipei likely always had a plan for its defense without relying on American military support. Taipei knows that America wants this, imports plenty of American military hardware, and frequently states publicly that it is focused on its own self-defense, along with mentions of America’s “rock solid” support.

But ambiguity cuts both ways. It also gives Beijing some hope that perhaps a military “solution” is possible in its goal of “reunification.” It gives so much hope to Beijing, in fact, that the latter is quickly building a world class military that could someday defeat the United States.

As Beijing’s power and threats increase, however, ambiguity’s veil is starting to fall, beneath which we find a tougher American commitment to Taiwan. Despite all past policies and acts, American presidents can and must publicly clarify the strategy when they seek to increase counter-pressure on Beijing to stop its plans for an invasion. When no invasion is imminent, they can again return to ambiguity and the prioritization of engagement and offramps.

Many policy wonks, the media, and Beijing, apparently don’t understand, or don’t want to understand (in the interests of strategic ambiguity) this subtle dynamic. What it suggests is that Beijing better get smart quickly or the Chinese military will be surprised by the American and allied military response during a Taiwan invasion. Nobody wants this, including Biden. And so he has been forced to make himself, which is not the same as his administration, increasingly clear.

Together, America’s military training of Taiwan’s forces, increasing naval transits of the Taiwan Strait, deepening alliances in Asia, and now public commitment to Taiwan’s defense, tell a single story: America is back.

Read part 2part 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).