Is Biden Really Misspeaking on Taiwan?

October 27, 2021 Updated: October 27, 2021


In a recent interview, President Joe Biden raised a storm of commentary by telling CNN’s Anderson Cooper that the United States would defend Taiwan if it were attacked by China. In fact, he emphasized that America had made a commitment to provide such defense.

The reason for the storm of commentary is that official U.S. policy regarding the defense of Taiwan has long been one of ambiguity. In other words, Washington has not officially said that it would or would not defend Taiwan. The reason for this deliberate policy of ambiguity is rooted in the agreements reached between the United States and China in 1972 when President Richard Nixon visited Beijing, and in 1979 when the U.S. Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act. Nixon agreed to recognize Beijing and its Communist Party as the sovereign power in China in place of the Nationalist government in Taipei, Taiwan, which the United States had been recognizing as the sovereign. But this recognition came only as the result of an ambiguously worded agreement on the part of both parties that “there is one China and Taiwan is part of that one China.”

At the time, both sides could agree on that so long as the further question of who ruled these entities was not posed. This formulation allowed Beijing to claim it is the sovereign of China, while it allowed Taiwan to be governed by leaders who were not members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). By the same token, it allowed Taiwan to act as a de facto independent country that might—some time in the future, depending on the evolution of circumstances—integrate with the mainland Chinese communist regime.

In the Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. government did not directly declare that it would send its own troops to defend Taiwan, but it did commit to supplying Taiwan with the resources necessary to withstand any possible attack from mainland China. No definition of “resources” was mentioned, thus leaving open the possibility that it might include U.S. troops.

At the time of these meetings and agreements, Taiwan was under the government of the Kuomintang or Chinese Nationalist Party headed by Chiang Kai-shek, who had ruled China and been backed by the United States during World War II. It was then a relatively poor, mostly agricultural land. Since then, of course, Taiwan has evolved into an industrial country that has achieved leadership in advanced industries like semiconductors. It has also evolved into a democracy whose people increasingly do not identify as Chinese, but rather identify as Taiwanese.

When the agreement was first reached in 1972, the CCP might reasonably have expected that in time—as the mainland Chinese economy grew and the country became more powerful, and as Chiang and his followers died off—Taiwan would want to integrate with the mainland for purposes of its own prosperity.

That, of course, is not how things have, in fact, evolved on Taiwan. And as its citizens have come to think and act independently and democratically, Beijing has become increasingly concerned that Taiwan will never reintegrate with China, except by force.

As Xi Jinping has consolidated his power in Beijing and China has become a global power equal to, or surpassing, the United States, he has increasingly focused on achieving the “return” of Taiwan to China as a matter of the highest priority.

Of course, China’s military and nuclear build-up, coupled with aggressive moves toward Taiwan and quasi militarization of the South China Sea, have caused concern among U.S. allies as well as among U.S. officials and strategists. Top officials in Washington consider that if Beijing launched an attack on Taiwan with no response from America, the trust that Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Singapore, India, and Australia have in their alliances with the United States would be lost, and the alliance system would essentially collapse.

As noted earlier, Biden has a reputation for “misspeaking” or not expressing accurately his thoughts and intentions. But he has now supposedly “misspoken” twice about the United States defending Taiwan. It is very possible, perhaps even likely, that he is using his reputation for misspeaking to, in fact, send a very direct and strong message to Xi that China should be very, very careful not to take any steps that might look like an invasion of Taiwan. Others may assume that Biden is “misspeaking,” but Chairman Xi should never ever make that assumption.

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

Clyde Prestowitz is an Asia and globalization expert, a veteran U.S. trade negotiator, and presidential adviser. He was the leader of the first U.S. trade mission to China in 1982 and has served as an adviser to Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and Obama. As counselor to the secretary of commerce in the Reagan administration, Prestowitz headed negotiations with Japan, South Korea, and China. His newest book is "The World Turned Upside Down: America, China, and the Struggle for Global Leadership," which was published in January 2021.