What to Make of Biden’s Latest Promise to Defend Taiwan

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What to Make of Biden’s Latest Promise to Defend Taiwan

A range of intertwined international and domestic factors are driving Washington’s current policy toward the Taiwan Strait. 

What to Make of Biden’s Latest Promise to Defend Taiwan

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers the commencement address for the U.S. Military Academy class of 2024, in West Point, New York, May 25, 2024.

Credit: Official White House Photo by Erin Scott

U.S. President Joe Biden has reiterated, on multiple different occasions, that his administration would respond militarily if Taiwan was attacked by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Biden publicly made that pledge on at least six occasions: August 2021, October 2021, May 2022, September 2022, and twice in May of this year, once at the commencement address of West Point and the other during an interview with TIME magazine.  

“The U.S. is standing up for peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” the president said at West Point on May 25. He added pointedly, “I’ve always been willing to use force when required to protect our nation, our allies, our core interests.” 

On May 28, when asked by the TIME interviewers to clarify his military defense statement of the democratic island, he replied: “It would depend on the circumstances. You know… I’ve made clear to [Chinese President] Xi Jinping that we agree with – we signed on to previous presidents going way back – to the policy of, that, it is we are not seeking independence for Taiwan nor will we, in fact, not defend Taiwan if they if, if China unilaterally tries to change the status. And so we’re continuing to supply capacity. And, and we’ve been in consultation with our allies in the region.” 

Prompted by the interviewer, Biden agreed that he was “not ruling out using U.S. military force,” but “there’s a distinction between deploying on the ground, air power, and naval power, etc.” 

Biden administration officials have consistently noted that the United States’ Taiwan Strait policy remains unchanged, notwithstanding Beijing’s stern warning against “sending any wrong signal” to Taiwan “separatist forces.” As I previously explained, Biden’s repeated assertion on this issue does not pose any major contradiction to Washington’s longstanding One China policy or strategic ambiguity framework, which is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, three China-U.S. Joint Communiqués, and the Six Assurances to Taiwan. These documents have neither committed nor precluded the United States from intervening militarily to support Taiwan’s defense against a Chinese aggression. Biden himself has also declined to provide specifics on how exactly the U.S. military would get involved in such a belligerent situation. 

While competing intensely with China is compatible with U.S. national interests, Xi’s more consolidated alignment with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, unabated menacing behaviors toward Taiwan, and U.S. electoral politics also factor into Biden’s recent comments on the defense of the island democracy. Intricate relations between international and domestic determinants drive Washington’s foreign policy toward the Taiwan Strait.

First, Xi Jinping has upped the ante on its increasingly confrontational stance toward the United States by deepening ties with aggressive autocracies like Russia, North Korea, and Iran in the so-called “axis of upheaval.” Xi and Putin have warmly embraced each other as both countries view the U.S. as their predominant adversary. Both champion what they call the “democratization of international relations” – essentially the erosion of U.S. dominance and the empowering of nonaligned countries and rogue states to coalesce around their common grievances toward the West.

The latest Putin-Xi meeting in China in May yielded a 7,000-word joint statement on the “Deepening of the Comprehensive Partnership and Strategic Cooperation Entering a New Era,” in which they criticized the United States for still upholding a “Cold War” mentality guided by “the logic of bloc confrontation.” Though the Chinese leader has refrained from fully endorsing Russia’s war on Ukraine, Beijing supports the “efforts of the Russian side to ensure security and stability.”

For his part, Putin has reaffirmed Russia’s full backing of China’s claims over Taiwan, as Xi is preparing for an eventual military unification campaign to take over Taiwan if all other means fail. Both China and Russia are already joining each other in military and naval exercises near the seas of Taiwan, elevating the prospect of these two nuclear powers’ closer strategic cooperation in a future contingency across the Taiwan Strait. Accordingly, it would be in the United States’ national interest to respond firmly on Taiwan’s security.  

Second, the inaugural address given by Taiwan’s new president, Lai Ching-te, on May 20, 2024 vexed Beijing, which has long held a hostile and skeptical attitude toward Lai and his predecessor, Tsai Ing-wen. Both are members of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The election of Lai this January worried the Chinese tremendously, given his more vocal support of Taiwan’s separation from China.  Yet, to calm the tensions, he has promised to continue sustaining Tsai’s balanced and measured cross-strait policy approach, stressing that he will “neither yield nor provoke, and maintain the cross-strait status-quo,” based on principles of reciprocity and dignity. 

In his inauguration speech, Lai called for both sides of the Taiwan Strait to “pursue peace and mutual prosperity,” beginning from the resumption of bilateral tourism and student study exchanges. He pledged to adhere to the Republic of China’s constitutional system to carry out his duties (the ROC is Taiwan’s formal name).

Lai’s multiple mentions of the ROC (using the term “ROC” nine times and “ROC-Taiwan” three times) may be interpreted as a conciliatory gesture toward China, because the ROC constitutional system itself embodies the “One China” principle. Nevertheless, one area in his speech that likely caused Beijing’s resentment was Lai’s persistent use of the word “China” instead of “the mainland” or “the other side of the strait” (the latter designations bear a tacit acknowledgement that both Taiwan and China are parts of the same nation). The new president has also emphasized that the ROC has its own “sovereignty”; therefore, neither the ROC nor the PRC are “subordinate to each other.”  

As a result, China slammed Lai as “disgraceful” and denounced him for openly embracing a “two-states theory.” Beijing then launched large-scale military combat drills encircling Taiwan immediately after the inauguration as a show of “strong punishment.” While Chinese military maneuvers and coercive incursions are nothing new and have escalated over the past several years, this latest iteration once again illustrates Beijing’s intransigence. The Biden administration rebuffed Beijing for using a “normal, routine, and democratic transition as an excuse for military provocations.”

Finally, domestic politics matters. The increasingly competitive presidential race between Biden and Donald Trump has made pushing back on China a highly significant issue for the campaign. In contrast to Biden, Trump has declined to offer a clear response on what he would do if Beijing launches a military offensive on Taiwan, because giving a precise answer would undercut his negotiating abilities. Congressional Republicans have generally agreed, however, that Trump would continue the United States’ strong bipartisan support for Taiwan. Biden, now struggling in a neck-and-neck race with his GOP rival, may feel the imperative to underscore his backing of Taiwan to further showcase his internationalist foreign policy credentials while differentiating from Trump’s seemingly transactional and unilateral nationalism.

China’s uncompromising foreign policy and cross-strait approaches have heightened tensions with the United States. Though Washington is not, for the time being, abandoning strategic ambiguity on Taiwan, Beijing’s increasing bellicosity will likely push U.S. policymakers toward greater clarity regardless of who wins the White House in November. China should therefore recognize the counterproductive consequences of its actions.