President Biden is back at it with his characteristic gaffes. But as leader of the free world, his gaffes can now have international consequences. Biden's latest misspeaks regarding U.S. policy towards Taiwan sent mixed signals to our allies and adversaries alike, inserting confusion into an already tense situation.
During last week's presidential Townhall on CNN, Biden was asked whether the United States would come to Taiwan's defense if China attacked. He responded, "Yes, we have a commitment to do that." That was news to his policy team at the White House, who scrambled to clarify that U.S. policy hasn't changed.
With that off-handed remark, Biden seemed to negate a long-standing U.S. policy of "strategic ambiguity," in which the U.S. does not announce what it will do if China invades Taiwan. The White House quickly tried to clean up the mess, with press secretary Jen Psaki telling reporters, "[Biden] wasn't announcing a change in policy nor have we changed our policy."
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin responded that "there is no room for China to compromise or make concessions" on the issue. Beijing considers Taiwan a break-away province, but the island has never been under the control of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). With Taiwan's thriving economy, political participation opportunities, and robust human rights protections, it's understandable why the Taiwanese people don't want to come under the thumb of the CCP. For the United States, Taiwan's strategic location and democratic society make it an important ally.
The White House's quick backtracking causes far more confusion than "strategic ambiguity" ever did. As a Wall Street Journal editorial asked, "Does the fast White House retreat from Mr. Biden's words mean the U.S. doesn't intend to defend Taiwan? What is U.S. policy?" Biden's strong statement, coupled with the quick reversal, may leave Taiwanese leaders feeling more vulnerable than before.
Earlier this month, Biden said that he and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to abide by the "Taiwan agreement." This left China policy wonks wondering what exactly this new "Taiwan agreement" was. It is thought that Biden meant to refer to the Taiwan Relations Act of 1997, which Congress passed to promote U.S. relations with Taiwan. Tensions between China and Taiwan are at an all-time high. China sent almost 150 warplanes into Taiwan's air defense zone earlier this month. Now is not the time for the American president to misspeak on the issue.
With the embarrassing display of a chaotic U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan still looming, Taiwanese leaders have reason to be suspicious of any commitments from the Biden administration. And when it comes to China, American officials haven't been showing a great deal of spine lately.
Reports suggest the Biden administration is wavering on holding the Chinese government accountable for egregious human rights violations, using softer language to get Beijing on board with climate change policies. Meanwhile, human rights conditions in China are the worst they have been since the Mao era. Pastors are in prison, ethnic minorities are repressed, and political rights are crushed. In Xinjiang, Chinese authorities are carrying out a genocide against Uyghur Muslims, as officially determined by the U.S. government.
When the Biden administration cannot even stand firm on speaking out about China's human rights violations, how can Taiwanese leaders trust that the U.S. military will come to their defense if Chinese troops invade?
Taiwan doesn't need false promises or empty rhetoric. It needs support in bolstering its deterrence capabilities. The United States easily can and should help with this. The United States should help upgrade Taiwan's defense weaponry system, especially its missile defense and air to surface capabilities.
In addition to military aid, the United States can empower Taiwan by fostering closer diplomatic relations. The Biden administration should invite the Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen to visit Washington D.C., and even to address a joint session of Congress. These simple diplomatic acts would show Beijing that the United States is serious in its support for Taiwan. Beijing should no longer be allowed to marginalize Taiwan from the international community through bullying and threats.
President Biden should take concrete actions to support Taiwan, a democratic ally defending its sovereignty against a thuggish authoritarian regime that would love nothing more than to crush Taiwan's freedoms. When it comes to Taiwan, actions speak louder than words.