TIPP Insights: Biden’s strategic clarity

(Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

By TIPPINSIGHTS EDITORIAL BOARD, TIPP Insights

For decades, ‘strategic ambiguity’ was the accepted American policy when it came to Taiwan, vis-a-vis the defense of the island. Despite the People’s Republic of China growing in military might and becoming more politically aggressive, even making it crystal clear that Beijing considers the island its integral territory; the U.S. policy remained much the same.

But since President Biden came to the White House, some of the “ambiguity” surrounding the role the U.S. is likely to play has been lost. But his staff is doing all they can to maintain that America’s strategy hasn’t changed.

The question is, who does one believe – the commander-in-chief? Or his staff?

At a joint press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, President Biden was asked if the U.S. would defend Taiwan militarily against China. He answered in the affirmative. While affirming that the U.S. does agree with the One China policy, the President also said, “We signed onto it and all the attendant agreements made from there. But the idea that it could be taken by force, just taken by force, is just not—it’s just not appropriate. It will dislocate the entire region and be another action similar to what happened in Ukraine.”

It is not the first time the President has been unequivocal about what he believes America should or will do if Beijing attempts to seize control of Taiwan through force and military might. In fact, this is the third time. Such repetition makes one wonder if the seasoned politician was making off-the-cuff remarks, or even one of his notorious gaffes.

President Biden promptly replied to a query last October, saying that America would come to Taiwan’s defense should China attack. He had stated the same earlier in August, saying that U.S. military support would be used to defend Taiwan, Japan, or South Korea.

In both instances, eyebrows and hackles were raised in Washington. The White House worked zealously to affirm not only the President’s words, but that the U.S. policy of “strategic ambiguity” hadn’t changed and there was nothing new to report on US-Taiwan. This time too, the W.H. made enough noise to say those were offhand remarks and not to be considered a change in policy.

But, maybe, in the light of recent global developments, it is time for the policy to change?

The war in Ukraine, drawing out without an end in sight, is raising questions as to whether supplying arms and ammunition after the country has been invaded, is enough “protection” from an aggressive neighbor. NATO and the E.U. have been commended for containing the war between Russia and Ukraine, despite inflammatory rhetoric and reckless threats.

As in the case of Ukraine, Taiwan is a free country with free speech, free elections, and free markets. Much like Ukraine, Taiwan is aligned toward the West and not to its authoritarian, totalitarian neighbor. It is also a hub of semiconductor manufacturing, making it vital to multiple industries and the global economy.

Many fear that China, bolstered by Russian aggression, will try the same tactic with Taiwan. In recent months, Chinese sorties over Taiwanese airspace and intrusions into its waters have repeatedly made the news. Beijing is in no mood to let up and is thoroughly unhappy with Taipei’s growing relations with the West, especially with Washington.

Mere words from the American President, which his staff promptly rolls back, will not deter President Xi Jinping. In fact, it may only muddy the situation further, as some diplomats fear.

However, this could be the time to shed some of the ambiguity and resolve the issue. The world has now witnessed what an aggressive neighbor with scant regard for the world order can do to a neighbor who refuses to toe the line. It would probably be wise to strengthen Taiwan with supplies and training before an attack.

President Biden should take the time to build consensus at home and abroad before he changes course. A recent TIPP Poll found that only 37% of Americans want the U.S. to defend the island from China using military action.

Political will and bipartisan support could send a powerful message to China. With the help of U.S. allies in the region and accords like the AUKUS, the intent could be made clear to Beijing. It would take a delicate dance of diplomacy and determination. The question is, is the President up to the challenge?

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