The True Meaning behind President Biden’s Defense of Taiwan Remarks

Japan Should Discuss Its Response in Peacetime

Has the United States changed its stance on Taiwan? In order for Japan to respond appropriately in the future, it is essential to know what the United States truly intends.

Have we overstepped the “ambiguity strategy”?

On May 23, at a press conference following the Japan-United States summit, Joe Biden’s remarks caused a stir when he was asked if the United States would get militarily involved in the event of an emergency in Taiwan, after it was pointed out that America had not gotten militarily involved in Ukraine. “That’s the commitment we made,” said Biden, “We agree with a one-China policy. We’ve signed on to it and all the intended agreements made from there.”

Immediately after, the White House explained that there is no change in the Taiwan policy and that Biden reaffirmed his commitment to the One China policy and to stability and peace in the Taiwan Strait. This has caused confusion among officials in both the United States and Japan, with some perceiving Biden as having misspoken.

However, in order for Japan to respond appropriately in the future, it is essential to know the true intentions of the United States. Will America really engage militarily to protect Taiwan? The United States has so far adopted a policy of strategic ambiguity that does not reveal whether it is willing to defend Taiwan, but has America now changed its stance on such policies regarding Taiwan?

Is This Really a Biden Mistake?

In response to Biden’s remarks, Wang Wenbin, deputy director of China’s Foreign Ministry Information Department, expressed his intense dissatisfaction and firm opposition, saying, “There is no room for any compromise or concession on the Chinese side.”

“Taiwan’s will to protect freedom, democracy and security is unchanging,” according to the Taiwanese Defense Ministry, in a statement of welcome and gratitude. “We will continue to strengthen our defense capabilities and work with Japan, the United States and other countries to protect the peace and stability of the Asia-Pacific region.”

In August 2021, Biden said that the United States had a duty to defend Japan and South Korea, adding, “Same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with — Taiwan.” In October of the same year, he was asked if he would defend Taiwan if Taiwan were attacked by China and said, “Yes, we have a commitment to do that.”

In both cases, after the statements were made, United States government officials and spokespersons stated that there was no change in policy, and in response, many in the media reported that this was a retraction or correction by Biden.

This time, Biden himself mentioned that Taiwan policy has not changed at all. Some view this as an explanation after the fact, and since the White House reiterated that policy has not changed, some believe that Biden has misspoken again.

However, other officials and the White House did not say that they would revise or retract Biden’s statement regarding involvement in Taiwan’s defense, but merely reiterated that there would be no change in U.S. policy toward Taiwan. While the general perception is that this is an attempt to correct the tone of Mr. Biden’s statement, it can also be seen as an implicit indication that he does not deny his statement, leaving the interpretation to the listener.

Is There a Change in the Reality of the One China Policy?

The U.S. policy toward Taiwan is known as the One China policy. It consists of three communiques exchanged between the U.S. and China in the past, the Taiwan Relations Act enacted in 1979, and the Six Assurances announced by President Ronald Reagan in 1982.

There are two broad points in this One China policy.

One is the limited position expressed by America in the 1978 United States-China Communique that the United States acknowledges China’s position that there is one China and that Taiwan is part of China. The other is that the Taiwan Relations Act and the Six-Point Guarantee confirm the American commitment to Taiwan’s security.

Therefore, the One China policy is often explained as indicating a stance of involvement in Taiwan’s security while not disagreeing with China’s position that China and Taiwan are inseparable.

Historically, however, America has maintained a strategic ambiguity that does not make clear its intention to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion. In fact, even under the Taiwan Relations Act enacted in 1979, the United States is not obligated to defend Taiwan.

The scope of the United States’ involvement in Taiwan’s security has been limited to the provision of defensive weapons. The ambiguity strategy has served as a check both on Taiwan’s moves toward independence and China’s invasion of Taiwan, and has also signaled consideration for China, which upholds the One China Principle and claims that China and Taiwan are inseparable.

This time, Biden appears to have stepped beyond the ambiguity strategy. He himself has stated that his policy has not changed at all, and it appears that he is searching for where the limits of his involvement in Taiwan’s security lie within the framework of the One China policy he has upheld, interpreting the scope of his involvement in Taiwan’s security to include the defense of Taiwan.

Yoshiyuki Ogasawara, a professor at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies who specializes in Taiwanese politics, points out that the Biden administration has inherited the One China policy, but his analysis is that Biden may be trying to deter China from invading Taiwan by following a slightly ambiguous strategy while reiterating that the One China policy will not change.

There Is No Doubt That the United States Will Strengthen Its Involvement in Taiwan

The withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan and the failure to send troops to Ukraine have raised suspicions that America’s defensive intentions for Taiwan are also passive. In the United States, there are calls from Congress and others for a shift to a policy centered on strategic clarity.

It is not clear whether Biden’s remarks were in response to those demands, but at least Biden’s intention to defend Taiwan seems clear, including his past two remarks about defending Taiwan. The White House, the State Department and others have responded to China by emphasizing that United States policy has not changed — that they are working on plans for cooperation. As a result, it appears to strengthen deterrence of China by clearly revealing the will of the president, the commander-in-chief.

In announcing the new economically cooperative Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity, the U.S. did not include Taiwan among the founding members; this makes clear the consideration that is still given to China.

On the other hand, there is still much room for future participation, and United States National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, who is seen as a key figure in the administration’s policy toward China and Taiwan, has said, “We are looking to deepen our economic partnership with Taiwan, including on high-technology issues,” clearly indicating that the United States government is committed to strengthening its involvement with Taiwan, not only in defense, but in all arenas.

Some articles have highlighted the statement that “the best defense of Taiwan is done by the Taiwanese,” made by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, the top uniformed officer in the U.S. military, who testified at a United States Senate hearing on April 7, and have argued that the United States would respond to Taiwan in a cold manner in the event of a Taiwan contingency. However, in Milley’s remarks, it is the following passage that best expresses the American stance and should be noted by Japan and other allies and friends in the Asia-Pacific.

Milley said at the hearing that the best deterrent to China is “make sure that China knows that if they were to attack Taiwan, it would be a very, very difficult target to capture.”

This is an appeal that it is necessary to think of deterrence to prevent the occurrence of a Taiwan emergency. At a press conference on May 23, Biden also said that Vladimir Putin must “pay a dear price for his barbarism in Ukraine,” and suggested that the response to the Ukraine war would lead to deterrence to China, saying, “If, in fact, after all he’s done there’s a rapprochement between the Ukrainians and Russia, and the sanctions are not continued to be sustained in many ways, then what signal does that send to China about attempting to take Taiwan by force?”

He also warned, “We agree with a one-China policy. We’ve signed on to it and all the intended agreements made from there. But the idea that, that it (Taiwan) can be taken by force, just taken by force, is just not, is just not appropriate.” It can be said that the strengthening of U.S. involvement in Taiwan is proceeding in a clear direction.

Accurate Understanding for Policy Reconsideration

There is also a danger that China’s stance will be hardened by the fact that Biden has clearly expressed his intention to defend Taiwan; the strengthening of America’s involvement is clear. There is a possibility that the United States-China relationship and security in East Asia will enter a new phase in the future, and Japan needs to understand the position of the United States and to consider foreign and security policies based on the history of international relations surrounding Taiwan to date.

A common argument holds that Japan does not recognize Taiwan as a country and therefore recognizes Taiwan as part of China. Thus, Japan should not get involved in the Taiwan situation, an internal Chinese political issue.

However, Japan recognizes that the People’s Republic of China is the sole legitimate government representing China in China’s One China Principle. Yet Japan states only that it fully understands and respects China’s position that Taiwan is an inseparable part of China; thus, the Japanese government does not completely endorse the One China Principle.

If a Taiwanese emergency would occur, Japan would also be greatly affected. China’s attack on Taiwan would cause supply chains in East Asia to cease to function, and economic turmoil would be inevitable.

Japan has a security treaty with the United States and hosts American military bases. If China launches an invasion against Taiwan, there is a high probability that it will develop into a Japanese emergency, such as an attack not only on Taiwan but also on American military bases in Japan. As a prerequisite for discussing how Japan will be involved in a Taiwan emergency, it is also important to understand Japan’s position on Taiwan.

In Japan, there is often a misconception that the United States recognizes China’s One China Principle. In the Japanese media, there are cases where “acknowledgement” is mistranslated as “acceptance” in translated articles of the foreign English-language newspapers with which they are affiliated — as if the United States recognizes China’s One China Principle. In addition, there are some confusing notations and explanations as if the One China Principle advocated by China and the One China policy advocated by the United States are one and the same.

There is also an argument that if Japan continues a policy toward China that leans toward emotional sympathy for Taiwan, the United States will pull back its support. Those who hold this view contend that Japan’s current involvement in Taiwan will provoke China, denying that it will serve to prevent emergencies for Taiwan.

Misinterpretation Makes Foreign Policy Debate Difficult

However, it is the Chinese side that is strengthening its military power to change the status quo, and it is clear that the United States is involved in Taiwan. Discourse that is repeatedly colored by misrepresentation and misinterpretation makes it difficult to discuss Japan’s foreign and security policies.

In Japan, too, growing public opinion that absolutely does not allow China to use force, as well as discussions in peacetime on practical Taiwan emergency measures, will contribute to the deterrence of China. What Japan can do to maintain peace must once again be discussed by society as a whole, looking back at an accurate history of the past.

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