Editor’s note: This story was adapted from the Sept. 20 edition of CNN’s Meanwhile in America, an email on US politics for a global readership. Click on here to read and subscribe to previous editions.
The first time a president denies a critical foreign policy principle, it looks like an accident. If it happens four times, it seems to mean it.
Now may be the time to take Joe Biden at his word that the US would defend Taiwan if China attacks, but his aides often go back.
The president’s latest apparent blow to the longstanding U.S. policy of “strategic ambiguity” came on CBS’ “60 Minutes” in an interview that aired Sunday. Scott Pelley made it quite clear in his question that he was asking whether US men and women would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion. Biden looked back and said seriously, “Yes.” While the CBS show says Biden aides say the president hasn’t changed his long-term policy, the comeback attempt doesn’t match what Biden has said.
This didn’t seem like a gaffe. Biden didn’t seem to mishear the question. So what now?
By repeatedly denying that anything has changed, Biden’s officials appear to be creating a state of strategic confusion, as Meanwhile has previously written. Aides’ constant corrections aren’t just disrespectful to Biden; they raise the possibility of taking foreign policy and defense officials to a place they don’t want to go.
Of course, Biden’s remarks don’t necessarily equate to how he would act in a real crisis. And while U.S. intelligence analysts believe Beijing is building a military capable of taking over Taiwan, that doesn’t mean it will actually go ahead.
The US president’s comments coincide with a strong push by parts of Capitol Hill to toughen US Taiwan policy. But it is a dangerous game given Beijing’s growing military might and Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s emphasis on the autonomous island becoming part of the mainland. Critics of the new black warn that a more direct US stance is more likely to antagonize Beijing than to think twice about invading.
China’s leadership are far more sophisticated readers of US politics than they once were. But here are the latest signs from Washington: Last month, Nancy Pelosi became the first House speaker to visit Taiwan in 25 years. (China’s military mobilization in response demonstrated its growing capacity to suffocate the island in a blockade). Last week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee advanced a $6.5 billion Taiwan military aid bill. Now that Biden has reaffirmed his commitment to defend Taiwan, he has insisted that the basis of US relations with the rival Asian superpower (that there is one China and that Washington does not defend Taipei’s independence) remains intact.
Biden said the US is ready to respond “military” in the event of a Chinese attack on Taiwan
Certainly, the US seems to have moved from ambiguity to deterrence. And while war is a distant prospect, no one has prepared the American people for the possibility of defending a democracy across multiple time zones. Or because of the extraordinary consequences a military precedent would have in terms of economic collapses, supply chain disruptions and semiconductor imports. Not to mention the potential cost in American blood from even a limited naval engagement.
The US conflict with China would make the echoes of the war in Ukraine look like a sideshow.