Does Biden's Taiwan remark signal a shift in US' policy of ambiguity?

  • 22 Oct 2021

President Biden made a bold remark, saying the US will defend Taiwan, a largely unrecognised country established by anti-communist Chinese dissidents, if ever China invaded it.

"Yes, we have a commitment to do that," US President Joe Biden said when asked about whether Washington will defend Taiwan or not in the case of a Chinese attack on the country during a press conference on October 21, 2021. ( Wally Santana / AP Archive )

Washington has long pursued a strategically ambiguous policy regarding Taiwan, a country, which it does not recognise. 

In what appears to be a departure from that policy, US President Joe Biden recently said that the country has "a commitment" to defend Taiwan if China attacked the large island in the South China Sea. 

China recently increased its pressure over Taiwan, conducting military drills and flying sorties of fighter jets close to its airspace. Beijing claims sovereignty over Taiwan, which was established by anti-communist Chinese nationalist leaders in 1949 after the country’s civil war ended with a communist victory. 

Biden’s remark angered the Chinese leadership, which warned Washington not to send any wrong signals to Taiwan to move on a path of independence. 

Later on, a White House statement appeared to clarify Biden’s Taiwan remark saying that the president did not mean “any change in our policy and there is no change in our policy." 

The US’ ambiguous Taiwan policy never offered a clear commitment to defend the island nation in the event of a Chinese attack, until recently. 

Despite the White House’s clarification, Washington has recently moved toward a more aggressive path regarding the defence of Taiwan as Beijing has increased its military activities around the island nation of anti-communist Chinese dissidents. While China’s official ideology is still communism, the country’s economic structure is largely capitalist.

Prior to Biden, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also needed to warn China saying that Washington’s support to Taiwan is “rock solid,” language, which also suggests a change in America's strategic ambiguity policy. 

Throughout this year, Beijing has violated Taiwanese airspace a number of times, according to the island nation, pushing US Admiral John Aquilino, head of the Pentagon's Indo-Pacific command, to state that a Chinese invasion "is much closer to us than most think." 

In this Feb. 10, 2020, file photo, a Taiwanese Air Force F-16 in foreground flies on the flank of a Chinese Air Force H-6 bomber as it passes near Taiwan.(AP Archive)

Taiwan has also disclosed its fears of a “full-scale” Chinese invasion of the dissident island, which has been led by a democratic system since 2000. It could happen by 2025, the country’s Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng suggested, adding that military tensions are escalating to a level which has not been seen in the last four decades.  

But Beijing doesn't see itself as the aggressor. "We are not the troublemaker. On the contrary, some countries - the U.S. in particular - is taking dangerous actions, leading the situation in Taiwan Strait into a dangerous direction," said China's UN Ambassador Zhang Jun yesterday. 

One China policy

In 2005, Beijing passed an anti-secession law, which allows the government to use military force against Taiwan if it secedes from China. Taiwan’s founding father, Chiang Chung-cheng, who was also China’s former top leader before the communist revolution forced him and his supporters to flee the island, claimed that his Republic of China represents the whole China. 

But that stance has changed over time as more countries including the US moved to recognise People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the sole representative of the world’s biggest population under Beijing’s strongly emphasised One China policy. 

Despite continuing its "robust unofficial" ties with Taiwan through the Taiwan Relations Act, which regulates military and political matters between the two states, Washington accepts the PRC’s claim of sovereignty over Taipei. But prior to Biden’s pledge of support for Taipei, the previous President Donald Trump talked to his Taiwanese counterpart in 2016 in a diplomatic break from his predecessors.  

Former US senator Chris Dodd speaks near former US Deputies Secretary of State Richard Armitage and James Steinberg as Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, right, listens on in Taipei, Taiwan on April 15, 2021.(AP Archive)

According to the One China policy, if a country established formal ties with Taipei, then, it would lose any diplomatic access to Beijing. As a result, many countries only recognise mainland China, not Taiwan. 

As of today, only 15 states recognise Taiwan as the Republic of China. 

Currently, Taiwanese policy toward its own existence is also not so clear, echoing the US’ ‘strategic ambiguity’. Taiwan does not claim to represent the whole of China anymore, but it is also not seeking secession from China. 

In the latest spat after Biden’s remark, Taiwan’s ambiguous existence exhibited itself through its presidential statement, which stated that neither will Taipei give up from its political aspirations nor “rashly advance” them. 

However, the current Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, the leader of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), appears to defend a political path toward the island’s independence from China, angering Beijing. 

For China, “reunification” between Beijing and Taipei is inevitable in the words of the country’s President Xi Jinping, who could stay in power indefinitely after the country’s constitutional two-term limits were removed by an amendment in 2018.