Gaffe Diplomacy and the Future of ‘Strategic Ambiguity’
On Monday, at a press conference in Tokyo, a reporter asked President Joe Biden whether he is “willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan, if it comes to that.” The president responded, “Yes! . . . That’s the commitment we made. . . . The idea that—that [Taiwan] can be taken by force—just taken by force—is just not a—is just not appropriate.” Within hours, the White House clarified that the president was simply reiterating the U.S. commitment to Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, that the United States would supply the necessary means so Taiwan could defend itself. The next day, the president himself said that he had not intended to depart from the longstanding unwritten U.S. policy of “strategic ambiguity”: “No. . . . The policy has not changed at all.”
Yet this is the third instance within nine months that this question has come up, every time following the same pattern: Biden commits the United States to the defense of Taiwan, then the White House walks it back.
Commenting on this pattern, Kori Schake of the American Enterprise Institute, a former national security official in George W. Bush administration, tweeted:
Presidential blurt and official walkback is the unhelpful norm of the Biden administration. https://t.co/jrmcbQyUmH
— Kori Schake 🌻🇺🇦 (@KoriSchake) May 23, 2022
But the fact that this particular remark has been repeated again and again by the president and walked back in this way suggests something else might be afoot. When Biden made the comment about Taiwan for a second time last year, Dov Zakheim, another former defense official in Republican administrations, commented that it might not have been a gaffe. Rather, he suggested, it was like when the prosecution in a trial brings evidence knowing that the judge would throw it out. The point is for the jury to see the evidence—in this case, for China and U.S. allies to know where the U.S. commander in chief stands on the issue.
Gaffe or stratagem, Biden’s repeated commitment to Taiwan’s security has been heard. The chairman of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic party was jubilant about the “best gaffe,” as he called it. The Chinese too are taking the comments quite seriously. China quickly announced plans for new military drills near Taiwan, with a People’s Liberation Army spokesman saying that the drills are intended to deter U.S. support.
So how are we to understand President Biden’s interpretation of U.S. obligations to Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act? Under the 1979 law, the United States has no commitment to do anything beyond supplying the island country with arms in the event of an attack. Yet the president has repeatedly spoken of such a commitment. Last August, he went so far as to compare it to the guarantees of collective defense that the United States has given to NATO, Japan, and South Korea:
We have made—kept every commitment. We made a sacred commitment to Article 5 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.
(Biden routinely refers to NATO’s Article 5 commitment as “sacred.”)
Also, during a speech yesterday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken cited a line from the Taiwan Relations Act that requires the U.S. government to “maintain our capacity to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security or the social or economic system, of Taiwan.” American policymakers tend not to cite this passage, since it would require them to, well, fund it. That Blinken quoted it sends a good signal about the Biden administration’s intentions, or at least about how the administration wants to be perceived.
Taking into account Blinken’s remarks and Biden’s repeated reference to standing up for Taiwan, it seems that if “strategic ambiguity” is not quite dead, it is at least “on life support.”
There are good reasons to kill “strategic ambiguity”—moral and practical.
First, the moral reasons: Ending ambiguity would presumably lead to recognizing Taiwan as an independent country and formalizing ties. Half a century ago, in the Shanghai Communiqué, the United States declared that it “acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China.” (Note the careful phrasing: the United States does not accept that there is only one China, it only “acknowledges” that this is the view on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.) Facts have changed since: All Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait do not maintain that anymore—only one side of the strait does. Taiwan is a distinct country, and the Taiwanese have a national identity easily distinguishable from Chinese.
Next, the practical reasons: Ending ambiguity and formally recognizing Taiwan would allow for direct communications on senior level, indispensable in assuring an ally’s security. There is no substitute for an American flag officer or general officer and a seasoned ambassador in Taiwan who can talk frankly and professionally with the hosts about their needs and our expectations. Even more important is that the two countries’ senior members, including the presidents, could talk directly with each other to build working relationships and trust. It is conceivable that other countries would open formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Other Asian powers—especially those, such as Japan and Australia, that now talk about how Taiwan’s sovereignty is an indispensable part of their own security—could also begin senior-level engagement with Taiwan. Such diplomatic recognition and engagement increases deterrence. And however unlikely, Taiwan’s readmission to the United Nations could be a possibility.
While some congressional Democrats and Republicans have expressed a desire to get past strategic ambiguity, there are sound reasons for the administration’s reluctance to abandon it. It would cause, at minimum, incredible diplomatic headaches. China may impose some sort of economic punishment. Congress may move to raise military spending, which the Biden administration reflexively opposes.
It remains unclear whether China is capable of mounting an invasion of Taiwan. Analysts generally seem to suggest that that capacity is still a few years away—in which case, the best time to change U.S. policy toward Taiwan would be now, before China reaches that threshold.
Strategic ambiguity was a response to the facts of the 1970s. U.S. policy today should be in accordance with today’s realities. Instead of being ambiguous about strategic ambiguity, President Biden should declare the end of it and should be clear about committing to Taiwan’s defense.