For the third time, President Joe Biden has alluded to or stated that the United States would defend Taiwan militarily from an attack on China. In the latest example, Biden said so directly when a reporter asked: “You didn’t want to get involved in the Ukraine conflict militarily for obvious reasons. Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?”
"Yes," Biden replied.
Although the president technically did not define what “get involved militarily” meant, in the context of the question, in which the reporter alluded that Biden hadn’t sent U.S. military forces to Ukraine, Biden’s meaning was clear. As usual, the White House later tried to say that there was nothing to see here by reiterating that U.S. policy toward the island hadn’t changed. Thus, a policy of “strategic ambiguity,” in which U.S. actions if China invaded Taiwan are made purposefully cloudy, still reigns. In other words, with that policy, the United States tries to deter China from attacking the island without publicly committing to sending U.S. forces into a direct war with a nuclear-armed great power.
Yet, it’s the third time Biden has pushed the rhetorical envelope past just providing arms for Taiwan to defend itself, which is what the Taiwan Relations Act requires and where Biden has stopped in his policy toward Ukraine.
Although the media has made much of Biden’s remarks, the rhetorical change may not mean as much in practice as they believe. The United States does not have a formal alliance with Taiwan and is governed only by the law. The policy of strategic ambiguity does technically give the United States a way of staying out of any war between China and Taiwan, but the reality, even before Biden’s several comments, is that the world was already expecting the United States to send military forces into any China-Taiwan fray, thus risking nuclear escalation. In a similar situation, prior to World War I the British government had made, unbeknownst to the British parliament and public, an Entente, or informal alliance, to help France if it was attacked by Germany. After France provocatively mobilized its military and Germany attacked, Britain was dragged into a costly and catastrophic war, which depleted its resources to such an extent—when combined with the costs of the even larger Second World War the first conflict ultimately caused—that it lost its vast empire. Similarly, events and emotions surrounding armed aggression can easily carry a U.S. policy of strategic ambiguity toward a hot war with China, especially if a now overconfident Taiwan with greater U.S. backing provokes China, as post-Entente France did Germany. Biden at first seemed to be cognizant of the perils of escalation in Ukraine, but he is now making more reckless comments and flooding the country with even more arms, thus making escalation still possible.
But why does Biden seem to want to risk opening a second front by amping up the rhetoric surrounding Taiwan? Biden is likely trying to dissuade China from snatching Taiwan while the West’s attention is diverted to Ukraine.
Like presidents before him, Biden is trying to pivot to Asia (without using that phrase), as those economies have been for some time growing faster than Europe and elsewhere in the world. However, although strategic ambiguity is not a good policy—the reality is likely not to be so ambiguous—Biden should take U.S. policy the other way and let Taiwan defend itself as Ukraine is doing.
Taiwan, because of the size and nature of its economy, may be more important to the United States than Ukraine. However, is it worth rhetorically making the country equivalent to formal U.S. allies, such as Japan, South Korea, and NATO alliance members? After all, why doesn’t Biden pledge to militarily defend Indonesia, a country with a larger economy than both Taiwan and Ukraine? Military analysts might say that Taiwan would be useful as the equivalent of a giant aircraft carrier in case of war with China. Yet, war with this nuclear-armed state is what U.S. policy should be trying to avoid, and pledging to militarily defend Taiwan is not helping because China cares a lot more about Taiwan than the United States does or should.
Like the disastrous policy of NATO expansion and the extravagant aid to Ukraine ($50 billion and counting), which lobbies of Eastern European nations called for, Taiwan has always had a powerful lobby in Washington. Thus, behind the scenes, U.S. foreign policies are often driven by such domestic vote-buying. Taiwan is not any more strategic to the United States than Ukraine is, and U.S. commitments toward both countries should be reassessed and scaled back.
Ivan Eland is a senior fellow with the Independent Institute and author of War and the Rogue Presidency.