Biden Says US Would Defend Taiwan, Contradicting Decades of ‘Strategic Ambiguity’

By Leo Timm | October 22, 2021
Leo Timm is a writer and Chinese-to-English translator with extensive experience covering Chinese politics, society, and culture. Follow him on Twitter at @soil_and_grain.
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U.S. President Joe Biden briefly speaks to reporters about his Build Back Better legislation and Taiwan after returning to the White House on October 05, 2021 in Washington, DC. Biden had taken a day trip to Michigan. (Image: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

During a town hall event on Thursday, Oct. 21, U.S. President Joe Biden told reporters that Washington would come to Taiwan’s aid if the island were attacked by Communist China. 

When Anderson Cooper of CNN asked the president whether the United States would defend Taiwan in the event of invasion from the mainland, Biden said, “Yes, we have a commitment to do that.” 

“Don’t worry about whether they’re going to be more powerful,” Biden said, adding: “I don’t want a cold war with China, I just want China to understand that we are not going to step back and we are not going to change any of our views.”

The remarks are at odds with stated U.S. policy regarding Taiwan, called “strategic ambiguity.” The U.S., which does not officially recognize the Republic of China — as Taiwan is formally known — also does not have a position on whether it would intervene militarily should the island come under attack. 

However, the U.S. does have a legal obligation under the Taiwan Relations Act to support ROC efforts to defend its territory, such as through arms sales. 

It’s not the first time Biden has contradicted the strategic ambiguity principle. In August, the president said in an interview with ABC News that America would “respond” to a communist invasion of Taiwan. 

However, the White House quickly clarified that Biden “was not announcing any change in our policy and there is no change in our policy.”

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“The US defense relationship with Taiwan is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act,” a White House spokesperson said.

White House officials soon walked back those comments, stressing the administration’s Taiwan policy had “not changed”.

“We will uphold our commitment under the act, we will continue to support Taiwan’s self-defence, and we will continue to oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo,” the White House stated at the time. 

The U.S. has maintained its policy of “strategic ambiguity” regarding Taiwan ever since 1979, when it dropped recognition of the ROC in favor of the communist People’s Republic of China (PRC). Washington adheres to a “One China Policy” that — like the United Nations — does not recognize the ROC as a sovereign state, but also does not take a position on whether the island belongs to the PRC. 

Beijing sees Taiwan and its surrounding islands as a part of its own territory, and vows to “retake” the island with military force if necessary. In recent months, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has stepped up aerial drills in the ROC air defense identification zone, flying more than 150 aircraft close to Taiwan’s waters in early October.