President Biden’s statement last week, later walked back by the White House, that the U.S would protect Taiwan in the case of an attack by Beijing, could be a window into an ongoing policy debate about the Biden administration’s strategy in the region, experts told Fox News.
“China, Russia, and the rest of the world knows we have the most powerful military in the history of the world. Don’t worry about whether we’re going to – they’re going to be more powerful,” Biden said in the CNN town hall. “What you do have to worry about is whether or not they’re going to engage in activities that will put them in a position where they may make a serious mistake.”
Further pushed about whether the United States would defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack, Biden added: “Yes. Yes, we have a commitment to do that.”
The remark quickly made headlines, as the U.S. policy for decades has been one of “strategic ambiguity” toward how it would respond to such an attack. The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act commits the U.S. to support Taiwan, including providing it defensive capabilities, but not necessarily to engage in a military conflict.
Beijing, meanwhile, views Taiwan as a breakaway province and claims that it is part of its own territory. The two countries split in 1949 and China has been increasing pressure on the self-ruled nation, while opposing its involvement in international organizations. The U.S. does not formally recognize Taiwan, but maintains an unofficial alliance.
There have been calls for the U.S. to move away from strategic ambiguity and instead move toward a policy of strategic clarity in the face of increasing aggression from Beijing — which has seen the communist regime send dozens of military aircraft toward Taiwan.
After Biden’s remarks, the White House soon clarified the comment, and said the President was not abandoning strategic ambiguity.
A White House spokesperson told Fox News after the town hall that Biden “was not announcing any change in our policy and there is no change in our policy.”
“The U.S. defense relationship with Taiwan is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act,” the spokesperson said. “We will uphold our commitment under the Act, we will continue to support Taiwan’s self-defense, and we will continue to oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo.”
While this led many to assume that this was yet another gaffe from a president known for them, experts told Fox News that it could also provide a window into ongoing policy discussions about the U.S. stance.
“I was surprised when Biden made those comments, I wasn’t surprised that the White House walked them back and I don’t think the White House walking them back mean that Biden doesn’t mean what he said,” Isaac Stone Fish, CEO of Strategy Risks, a firm which measures China risk, told Fox News.
“It’s really hard to know, did they walk it back because Biden misspoke, did they walk it back because this was the plan all along, and Biden was maybe saying something that they would counter to make them less harsh?” he said. “Did they walk them back as a reflection of a policy dispute within the White House whereas parts of the State Department want it to be slightly less aggressive than the way Biden frames it? It’s difficult to know what this signals.”
Heino Klinck, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia under the Trump administration, said that if one took Biden at his word “that would have meant a significant policy shift from strategic ambiguity to strategic clarity and that would have been significant.”
“There are more and more voices calling for the United States to shift from a policy of strategic ambiguity to strategic clarity with respect to Taiwan,” he said. “I would imagine that in policy circles there is a debate about whether it would be in the U.S. national security interest to make such a shift and again if that were to occur that would be significant.”
China, meanwhile, was typically prickly in its response to the statements by Biden.
“No one should underestimate the strong resolve, determination and capability of the Chinese people to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said, according to the Chinese Global Times. “China has no room for compromise.”
Klinck said that this was to be expected, given that “there’s no issue more sensitive than Taiwan with respect to Beijing.”
“Overarchingly China is concerned that the potential evolution of U.S defense policy regarding Taiwan is going to embolden Taiwan and advance the pro-independence movement,” he said.
“Any time a U.S. official makes any comment about Taiwan with respect to strengthening the relationship or even implies that the relationship is going to be strengthened, China will push back vociferously.”
Stone Fish warned that there is also a difference between how the comment is received in Beijing, and how it portrays how that information has been received as it looks to scout out the U.S. position.
“I think that one of the things Beijing is doing with its aggression with Taiwan is trying to test the United States on where its red lines are and what would Beijing have to do to trigger a U.S. military response,” he said. “So in some ways what the U.S. is trying to do is clarify its position toward Taiwan and there’s a lot of strategic ambiguity built into these policies but Beijing wants to know how much they can do without the U.S. responding so that when they feel confident to mount an actual attack, they are much more in place than they would be otherwise.”
As a sign of that continued tension, in a CNN interview this week, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen acknowledged that U.S. troops were on Taiwan for training purposes — a move the Chinese Global Times claimed “has stepped on the red line.”
On Saturday, the Chinese foreign minister released a stern statement warning G20 nations that countries would “pay a price” for backing Taiwan.
“Recently, the U.S. and other countries attempted to achieve breakthroughs on the issue of Taiwan, which is in contravention of the political guarantees they made when they established diplomatic relations with [the People’s Republic of] China,” Wang Yi said, according to Politico.
“If they couldn’t stop the One China principle 50 years ago, it’s even more impossible in today’s world in the 21st century,” Wang added. “If they forge ahead regardless, they will definitely pay a price accordingly.”
Fox News’ Tyler Olson and Andrew Mark Miller contributed to this report.