The somewhat routine press conference in Tokyo was winding down when the question came. “Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?”
Many past American presidents would have deflected, demurred, declined to give a straight answer. Not Joe Biden. “Yes,” he replied bluntly, adding: “That’s the commitment we made.”
Reporters at the scene were taken aback. Sebastian Smith, the White House correspondent for Agence France-Presse, tweeted that Biden’s answer “really raised adrenaline levels in that palace briefing room right now. Next we all get to try and explain what it all actually means.”
One possible meaning is that America has abandoned its long-held position of “strategic ambiguity” on Taiwan. But Biden may have delivered not so much strategic clarity as strategic confusion. That would be on brand for a president who has made a habit of speaking without a diplomatic filter.
China considers the democratic island of Taiwan its territory under its “one-China” principle, and says it is the most sensitive and important issue in its relationship with Washington.
This is where strategic ambiguity comes in. While the US is required by law to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself, it has never directly promised to intervene militarily in a conflict with China – but also never promised to stay out.
This deliberate vagueness has – so far – helped deter China from invading Taiwan while also helping deter the self-ruled island from declaring full independence. Either scenario would trigger a major geopolitical crisis.
Last year, Kurt Campbell, the US policy coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, defended the principle of strategic ambiguity, saying there were “significant downsides” to “strategic clarity”.
But Biden has already shown himself less comfortable with shades of grey than his predecessors, insisting on a full withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan last year despite the ensuing chaos and collapse than enabled the Taliban to regain power. He has also been pushing the envelope on Taiwan for some time.
In an ABC News interview last August, he appeared to put Taiwan in the same category as other countries with which Washington has explicit defence commitments, such as South Korea.
Then, in October, the president told a CNN town hall, “Yes, we have a commitment to do that,” when asked if the US would come to the defence of Taiwan. Bonnie Glaser, a Taiwan expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States thinktank in Washington, called Biden’s remark a “gaffe” and said it was “patently not true” that the US has a commitment to defend Taiwan.
Since then Biden has reiterated America’s “rock-solid” commitment to Taiwan, the influential congressman Adam Schiff has urged the Biden administration to be less ambiguous about the issue, and Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, has warned that the US and its allies would take unspecified “action” if China were to use force to alter the status quo over Taiwan.
After Biden made the remark at a joint press conference on Monday with the Japanese prime minister, Fumio Kishida, an aide said the president’s statement represented no change in the longstanding American stance to the island. A source told CNN that Biden meant providing weapons, not deploying boots on the ground.
But with the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, expressing “strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition” to Biden’s comments, such clean-ups look increasingly untenable.
Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations thinktank in Washington, tweeted: “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 US stance, one that is fully consistent with one-China policy but that alters how US will go about implementing it.”
Glaser, of the the German Marshall Fund, added in a Twitter post: “A senior official from the Biden administration should give a comprehensive speech on US policy toward Taiwan. The confusion and misstatements are more likely to undermine deterrence than strengthen it.”
What may have partly changed the calculus is Russia’s unprovoked and disastrous invasion of Ukraine. Some in Washington believe that the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, is coming to realise that he underestimated America’s willingness to lead and underestimated the resolve and unity of the west. The struggles of the Russian military suggest that the Chinese military would not have cakewalk.
On Monday, Biden said he hoped the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, would pay a price for his invasion of Ukraine in part to show China what it would face if it were to invade Taiwan.
He may feel emboldened because, so far, there has been little downside to speaking his mind unscripted on Ukraine (or for the US government’s approach of radical transparency). In March, in response to a reporter’s question at the White House, he said of Putin: “I think he is a war criminal.”
The then White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, noting that a legal review was still under way at the state department, explained: “He was speaking from his heart.”
There was bigger gaffe later that month when Biden upended a carefully crafted speech in Warsaw with an ad lib at the end, again regarding Putin: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” But after a kerfuffle for 48 hours, the controversy more or less dissipated, with some defending Biden as a truth-teller who cuts through speechwriters’ waffle.
Jon Meacham, a presidential historian and occasional adviser to Biden, has described the president as “like an upside down iceberg” – mostly visible without much mystery. Valerie Biden Owens, his sister and longtime campaign manger, told the Guardian in a recent interview: “He doesn’t have gaffes. He speaks the truth. Like, hello, surprise, I just said what was true! … You see what you get with Joe.”
This, perhaps, is one of the few things that he and his predecessor Donald Trump share in common: a tendency to plain-speaking that many find authentic and refreshing after a generation of slick, focus group-manufactured politicians. It proved an asset for both on the campaign trail.
But as Trump demonstrated often, it is a high wire act full of perils when global security hangs in the balance.