Is Joe Biden taking a tougher stance on Taiwan?

Eyebrows raised after president said US would intervene militarily if China attacked

President Joe Biden in meeting
President Joe Biden speaks during the Quad meeting in Tokyo, Japan, on 24 May
(Image credit: The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)

Is President Biden confused, or is he ditching decades of US foreign policy? That’s what everybody is asking in the wake of his latest remarks about Taiwan, said Stephen Collinson on CNN. In Tokyo this week, during his first presidential tour of East Asia, Biden told a reporter that the US would intervene militarily if China attacked Taiwan. “That’s the commitment we made,” he said.

The US has actually made no such commitment. For 43 years, it has maintained a policy of “strategic ambiguity”. This has involved both acknowledging (but not endorsing) Beijing’s position that Taiwan is part of China, and pledging to help the island defend itself with US-made weapons, while remaining deliberately vague about whether American/US forces would be deployed. Biden is “a master of the verbal muddle”, said The Wall Street Journal, and White House aides hastily “walked back” his comments. But this was the third time in a year that Biden had indicated that the US would come to Taiwan’s aid. Perhaps he meant it.

Biden should be commended for his “plain speaking”, said The Times. China has been stepping up its incursions into Taiwan’s airspace and relentlessly targeting the island with cyberattacks. Now is the time for the US to drop the “subtle signalling” in favour of a more muscular line. Biden didn’t so much “end strategic ambiguity as modify it”, said The Washington Post. He has given Beijing “new reasons to think long and hard before sending its armed forces across the Taiwan Strait”.

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Biden is playing with fire, said David Smith in The Guardian. America’s delicate balancing act on Taiwan has been designed not just to deter China from invading, but also to deter Taiwan from declaring full independence. “Either scenario would trigger a major geopolitical crisis.”

Alas, some US strategists seem to have drawn “the wrong lessons” from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, said Lyle Goldstein on UnHerd. They think it underlines the need for a tougher stance on Taiwan, but the reality is that the US is in no position to threaten Beijing over the island. “A series of war games has demonstrated that the US would likely lose a conflict with China over Taiwan”, owing to basic geography and the fact that Beijing would be far more committed to the fight. America would be well-advised to stick with its ambiguous approach on Taiwan, and try to help Taipei find a “creative diplomatic compromise” with the mainland. Raising unrealistic expectations of a US military intervention only risks poisoning US-China relations

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