Biden spells out U.S. policy on Taiwan and the Indo-Pacific, but where are the teeth?

Foreign Affairs

Joe Biden has said the U.S. would intervene militarily if China invaded Taiwan. He also unveiled a new economic initiative in the Indo-Pacific.

U.S. President Joe Biden, India Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japan Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF) launch in Tokyo, Japan, on May 23, 2022. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst.

President Joe Biden said today at a press conference in Tokyo that he would be willing to use force to defend Taiwan against Chinese aggression. The event in Japan was one of several during his tour of Asia intended to shore up support for an “Indo-Pacific” alliance:

  • “Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?” a reporter asked.
  • “Yes,” Joe Biden said. “That’s the commitment we made.”
  • “My expectation is it will not happen, it will not be attempted,” Biden added.
  • Beijing expressed (English, Chinese) “strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition” to Biden’s comment, and said: “China will take firm actions to safeguard its sovereignty and security interests. We mean what we say.”

The comment seemed to stretch the long-touted “strategic ambiguity” that the United States has held toward the self-ruled island, a deliberate vagueness that has so far helped navigate China’s sovereignty claims while also aligning the U.S. with the democratic values and self-declared independence held by Taiwan.

  • Under the “one-China” principle, Beijing considers the democratic island of Taiwan as part of its territory and says it is “the most important and sensitive issue” in its relationship with the United States.
  • The U.S. recognizes Beijiing’s position that there is only one Chinese government, but does not accept the view that Taiwan is under its rightful control. By law, the U.S. is required to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself, but Washington has never directly promised nor rejected a military intervention in a conflict with China.

Biden’s statement seems to be adding confusion, not clarity, over the U.S. policy on Taiwan: Government officials attempted to keep Biden’s comment in line with the White House’s formal stance on the issue. As Bonnie Glaser, the director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund, pointed out on Twitter:

A senior official from the Biden administration should give a comprehensive speech on U.S. policy toward Taiwan. The confusion and misstatements are more likely to undermine deterrence than strengthen it.

Similarly, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, noted:

This is the third time Potus has spoken out in favor of strategic clarity on Taiwan and third time WH staff has tried to walk it back. Better to embrace it as new U.S. stance, one that is fully consistent with one-China policy but that alters how U.S. will go about implementing it.

Whatever the stance, the statement is sure to escalate tensions between the two world powers. Veteran diplomat and reliable messenger of Beijing’s wishes Henry Kissinger said at the World Economic Forum on Monday: “A direct confrontation should be avoided and Taiwan cannot be the core of the negotiations because it is between China and the United States.”

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The White House unveils its new economic strategy in the Indo-Pacific

Also today: The White House announced that 13 nations have agreed to sign on to U.S. President Joe Biden’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), which aims to create new rules on environmental and labor practices, and more across Asia. IPEF is Washington’s attempt to rebuild an economic pillar in its engagement within the region after former president Donald Trump pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in 2017.

  • IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva said IPEF is a “positive sign” for the global economy.
  • Participants include the United States, Australia, Brunei, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam, but not China.

The deal, however, contains no sweeteners for other countries, such as lower tariffs or enhanced access to U.S. markets — a disappointing lack of benefits for participating nations and a driving factor in the lukewarm reception of IPEF as a whole.

  • China was not invited, but neither was Taiwan, apparently an attempt to avoid further infuriating China.
  • The strategy is “doomed to fail,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wáng Yì 王毅 said in response.
  • Southeast Asian countries in particular are wary of the regional fallout, which some argue subjects them to another set of standards while also being forced to choose sides between China and the United States.
  • “I haven’t yet been able to answer the question: What are some of the developing countries getting out of it?” said Charles Freeman, the senior vice president for Asia at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “And so, it remains to be seen how far they can take this without a whole lot of carrots.”

Meanwhile, members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or the “Quad”), a security pact in the region, comprising the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India, plan to unveil on Tuesday a maritime initiative designed to curb illegal fishing in the Indo-Pacific in order to counter Chinese activity in the region.

Nadya Yeh