President Biden made some news early Monday morning, seemingly putting an end to the U.S. position of strategic ambiguity in response to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan:
So there is “uncertainty” about whether the United States was shifting away from its policy of strategic ambiguity. Call me crazy, but to my way of thinking, uncertainty about ambiguity translates into … more ambiguity.
Those preferring a more hawkish U.S. policy of strategic certainty about defending Taiwan can point out that others covered Biden’s words as though they were more definitive. According to CNBC, China responded as if Biden’s words have meaning; China’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement expressing “strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition” to the president’s remarks.
Furthermore, the New York Times story opened with: “President Biden indicated on Monday that he would use military force to defend Taiwan if it were ever attacked by China, dispensing with the “strategic ambiguity” traditionally favored by American presidents and repeating even more unequivocally statements that his staff tried to walk back in the past.”
The story went on to note that Biden’s declaration was “offered without caveat or clarification.”
That seems more clear cut — except that both the Times and the Journal stories report that White House staff tried to walk back what Biden said, saying there had been no change in U.S. policy. Another well-placed source told CNN’s Jim Sciutto: “When the president said the US would intervene ‘militarily,’ he meant providing weapons, not deploying US forces — consistent with the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act.”
If it seems as though the Biden White House was quick to walk back the president’s comments, it is because White House officials have had a lot of practice doing this over the past 16 months. This is not the first time Biden has stated unequivocally that the United States would defend Taiwan, just as it is not the first time his staffers have responded by saying Biden’s comments do not reflect a change in U.S. policy. Little wonder that the New York Post opened its story on Biden’s comments by asking, “Who’s in charge here anyway?” It does bear more than a passing resemblance to Donald Trump’s staff trying to walk back one of his tweets.
This suggests that what has changed is not the U.S. policy of strategic ambiguity, but rather the means through which the ambiguity is communicated. In the old days, U.S. politicians and diplomats would issue boilerplate statements echoing the three joint communiques, the Taiwan Relations Act, and the six assurances. As the Economist noted: “There is no shortage of documentation behind the policy. The problem is that it is riddled with inconsistencies.”
Now, however, the ambiguity comes from the cacophony of voices articulating U.S. foreign policy. If Biden keeps saying one thing while his subordinates keep walking back what he says, that is also a form of ambiguity — albeit one that devalues Biden’s foreign policy statements.
The even deeper ambiguity rests with whether Biden’s successor would follow through on the pledges this administration has made. We know, for example, that Trump was perfectly willing to let the residents of Hong Kong and Xinjiang suffer in the interest of negotiating a bad trade deal that was never honored. It is not hard to envision Trump making similar concessions on Taiwan in return for a milquetoast Phase 2 trade deal with China.
The possibility of Trump winning in 2024 must give hope to Chinese officials. It would demonstrate anew the insubstantial nature of 21st-century U.S. credible commitments.