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A nation must think before it acts.
During a press conference in Tokyo on May 23, a reporter asked President Joseph Biden, “Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?” The president responded with a clear answer: “Yes . . . that’s the commitment we made.” This answer sent shockwaves across the Indo-Pacific. As expected, Beijing strongly denounced the statement, claiming that Taiwan is “purely China’s internal affair that brooks no foreign interference.” Beijing is also now planning to conduct drills near Taiwan in response.
To many, Biden just upended the decades-long US policy of strategic ambiguity, in which Washington has never explicitly confirmed whether or not the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense, or under what conditions such involvement would occur. (This policy gave the United States the ability to decide on its own terms, without over-committing, how to approach a military contingency regarding Taiwan.) To others, it was just another gaffe from Biden who doesn’t quite fully understand US policy towards Taiwan.
Since Biden answered that question, commentators have speculated whether his statement was a gaffe or a misstatement. Considering that this is the third time since August 2021 that the president has said something like this, it seems safe to assume that his answers are not gaffes. A gaffe would be a sloppy answer to a question one time. Biden has been consistent in his response, using similar or identical language when asked about Taiwan. His answer is what he believes to be the truth. In short, the president believes that the United States has made a commitment to defend Taiwan.
If the United States will, in fact, come to the defense of Taiwan in the event of a Chinese military invasion, then Congress and the administration need to prepare for such a contingency. Given China’s military buildup in recent decades, defending Taiwan has never been more challenging. Such preparations should include a Ukraine-like “lend lease” agreement in order to streamline Taipei’s ability to acquire the necessary arms to defend itself before the US military can enter the conflict. As it stands, the process for Taiwan to acquire weapons from the United States is lengthy, with several years between the initial request and final procurement.
Beyond arms, Washington should increase its training to Taiwan’s military and rally a coalition of like-minded countries like Japan and Australia to make similar pronouncements, as a Taiwan-centered conflict would undoubtedly have ramifications for them. For Japan’s part, Biden’s pronouncement almost fits perfectly with former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s April 2022 call for the United States to end strategic ambiguity. Biden’s statement is just a first step. Saying that the United States would defend Taiwan is one matter; successfully defending Taiwan is a whole other challenge to prepare for—one that the United States cannot, and should not, do alone.
As noted, this is not the first time that the president has given his view on US policy toward Taiwan. In August 2021, in the aftermath of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Biden compared the US commitment to defend Taiwan to NATO’s Article 5, “We made a sacred commitment to Article Five that if in fact anyone were to invade or take action against our NATO allies, we would respond. Same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with—Taiwan.” Comparing the US commitment to Taiwan to NATO’s Article 5 is a much more explicit statement—and more far-reaching—than what he recently said in Japan.
In October 2021 during a CNN townhall, Biden said that the United States has a commitment to defend Taiwan. Before that event, he had also said that after a phone call with Chinese General Secretary Xi Jinping that he and Xi had agreed to “abide by the Taiwan agreement,” without explaining what that meant. Administration officials attempted to walk back Biden’s comments on Taiwan by claiming that the president was referring to the US commitment to “bolster Taipei’s ability to defend itself.” They emphasized that US policy has not changed.
The foundational document that established the framework for US policy is the Taiwan Relations Act. The legislation provides the legal rationale for US arms sales to Taiwan. It states that “the United States will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.” Every president over the last 43 years has sold arms to Taiwan to bolster its defenses.
Beyond arms sales, the law establishes how the United States interacts with Taiwan without formal diplomatic relations. Even though it is domestic law and not a security treaty, as RAND’s Raymond Kuo noted, some of the language is framed in a similar way as a defense treaty, with the president consulting with Congress on “appropriate action . . . in response to any such danger.” All three times that Biden has answered this question about Taiwan’s defense as president, he has not mentioned the US commitment to provide Taiwan with weapons; he has specifically referred to the US commitment to defend Taiwan and to come to Taiwan’s defense. He has seemingly taken the “defense treaty” interpretation of the Act’s language.
Biden’s own view on this matter has evolved over time. It took decades for him to come to the conclusion that the United States has a commitment to defend Taiwan, even taking the opposite position over 20 years ago. While he voted for the passage of the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979, he criticized President George W. Bush in 2001 after Bush made remarks quite similar to what Biden has now said three times.
In 2001, Bush was asked if the United States was obligated to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack, and he responded, “Yes, we do . . . and the Chinese must understand that. Yes, I would.” He followed up by saying that he would do “whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself.” That answer inspired Biden to write an op-ed criticizing Bush’s statements. Biden wrote, “The United States has not been obligated to defend Taiwan since we abrogated the 1954 Mutual Defense Treaty signed by President Eisenhower and ratified by the Senate.” Biden added, “As a matter of diplomacy, there is a huge difference between reserving the right to use force and obligating ourselves, a priori, to come to the defense of Taiwan. The president should not cede to Taiwan, much less to China, the ability automatically to draw us into a war across the Taiwan Strait.” Biden even quoted parts of the Act, saying that they did not constitute the requirement to defend Taiwan.
For Biden, who during the Bush administration served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and at one point served as the committee’s chairperson, to eventually come around to the Bush position should speak volumes about the importance that he now places on the security of Taiwan. Biden knows what he is saying and the ramifications of such a commitment since US involvement in the defense of Taiwan would result in American casualties. Bottom line: Biden means exactly what he says when it comes to Taiwan.
Even after administration officials attempted to “clarify” Biden’s remarks, reporters followed up with Biden himself about strategic ambiguity. He said that strategic ambiguity was not “dead,” but would not elaborate further. However, the president did say, “The policy has not changed at all. I stated that when I made my statement yesterday.” His own clarification implies that US policy has always been to defend Taiwan. It is not entirely clear what the president meant by that. It is likely Biden’s personal interpretation of the Taiwan Relations Act, which he voted for while in the Senate in 1979. There are two key points in the Act that Biden could be referring to—even though neither explicitly commit the United States to defend Taiwan:
It is the policy of the United States . . .
to consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States. . .
to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.
These two elements of the Taiwan Relations Act are not ironclad security guarantees like the United States has with NATO members and certain Asian allies (e.g., Japan, South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, Australia, and New Zealand). However, the language is framed in a way that resembles a security treaty. Biden could very well be interpreting them as such. The second point, in particular, which says US policy is to “resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan,” sounds an awful lot like a traditional military guarantee. In Biden’s own view, the Act commits the United States to get involved in a Taiwan conflict, and that has been the policy since 1979. Presidents from different parties have made varying interpretations about the US commitment to defend Taiwan. Until at least 2024, Biden’s interpretation is the final word on the matter.
While he may be misinterpreting historic US policies, like the content of the Taiwan Relations Act, Biden is clear in his belief about the US commitment to Taiwan. No matter how many times the administration attempts to walk back and clarify Biden’s remarks, it is still the case that the president has said on three occasions that the United States has a commitment to defend Taiwan.
There are still a number of questions that arise from Biden’s statements. He only referred to “Taiwan,” and given Taiwan’s complicated international status, it is unclear what constitutes the defense of “Taiwan.” Does he only mean the island of Taiwan? Does he mean the entirety of the Republic of China, which is colloquially referred to as “Taiwan?” There’s a key difference between “Taiwan” and the “Republic of China” as the defense of “Taiwan” would likely exclude the offshore islands of Kinmen and Matsu, which were not covered in the 1954 Mutual Defense Treaty Between the United States and the Republic of China. Washington, understanding the particular vulnerability of Kinmen and Matsu to a Chinese attack (which did occur in a failed 1949 invasion of Kinmen), excluded them from the security umbrella. That treaty—and security guarantee—was abrogated in 1980 after Washington switched its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing.
The treaty is quite clear about what parts fall under the defense obligation: “The terms ‘territorial’ and ‘territories’ shall mean in respect of the Republic of China, Taiwan and the Pescadores.” The treaty included Penghu (Pescadores) since they are much closer to Taiwan proper than Kinmen or Matsu. Given the disputed status of the features in the South China Sea, it is likely that the United States would not defend Taiwan-held Taiping Island or Dongsha/Pratas Islands. After all, the United States did not militarily defend the Philippines (a formal treaty ally) in 2016 when the Chinese military pushed the Filipino military off Scarborough Shoal.
In this regard, Biden has not entirely killed strategic ambiguity: The conditions of the “commitment” are somewhat clearer—though it’s unclear if Biden only views the US commitment to defend from an invasion or also a military blockade—but not the territory that would trigger a US response.
With strategic ambiguity on life support, it is incumbent upon the Biden administration to plan in earnest to back up Biden’s views on the US commitment to Taiwan. For the United States to successfully intervene against China in a Taiwan invasion scenario, it would require the US military to respond quickly and decisively. Given China’s military advancements, an American victory is not guaranteed. The longer the debate over whether or not Biden’s statements have been gaffes, the less time there is for more meaningful and impactful policy debates on how the US should prepare itself and Taiwan for this potential conflict. Biden’s recent statements have received bipartisan support, with Sens. Bob Menendez, Richard Blumenthal, and Lindsey Graham applauding the president, so greater congressional action in this regard should not be difficult to achieve.
Many things have changed since Biden criticized Bush’s position on Taiwan in 2001. Through massive investments in its armed forces, China has tilted the balance of power in the Western Pacific in its favor. It is seeking to use that newfound power to coerce Taiwan into “reunifying.” While Beijing’s preference is for such an eventuality to occur peacefully, China’s 2005 Anti-Secession Law states that when “possibilities for a peaceful reunification should be completely exhausted, the state shall employ non-peaceful means and other necessary measures to protect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Public opinion in the United States is positive toward Taiwan. In 2021, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs conducted a poll in which 69 percent of Americans favored recognizing Taiwan as an independent country and 57 percent agreed that the United States should sign a free trade agreement with Taiwan. Most importantly, the poll found that 52 percent of Americans supported sending US troops to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion. Public opinion favors Taiwan, and the president’s statement essentially backs this viewpoint.
There was a general worry in the past that Taiwan could spark a conflict by attempting to declare independence. Under the Tsai Ing-wen administration, which favors the maintenance of the status quo, that fear no longer exists. Taiwan is viewed as an important US partner in the Indo-Pacific, and any potential conflict would be caused by Beijing acting aggressively. Biden no longer seems to hold the beliefs that he espoused in his op-ed over 20 years ago, which is a good thing since it demonstrates that his views have changed with the times and US priorities.
Biden finished his 2001 op-ed saying, “Words matter.” He was right then, and he is right now. As president, Biden has made clear that the policy under his administration is to defend Taiwan.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.