East Asia Compass

Does the Biden Administration have ‘Strategic Clarity’ on Taiwan?

23 Feb, 2022    ·   5809

Dr Sandip Kumar Mishra reads the motivations driving recent US behaviour

In the first week of February, the US and Japan held a joint naval exercise—Noble Fusion 2022—in which around 15,000 US and 1,000 Japan Self-Defence Forces (SDF) personnel participated. The exercise extended through the Luzon Strait to the Miyako Strait, including Okinawa and the East China Sea. China saw the exercise as a provocation because it covered the waters east of Taiwan and was carried out at the same time as the Beijing Winter Olympics. Further, on 7 February, the US approved the sales of defence equipment and services worth US$ 100 million to Taiwan, in order to “sustain, maintain and improve” the Patriot missile defence system in the country.

In September 2020, Richard Hass and David Sacks wrote in the journal, Foreign Affairs, that the American support for Taiwan must be unambiguous as the existing policy of “strategic ambiguity” had “run its course.” So far, the US has had a “convoluted” “One China” policy, which recognises the  People’s Republic of China (PRC) but also supports Taiwan without recognising it as an independent country. The US provides political and military assistance to Taiwan but does not formally promise to defend it in case of a Chinese attack.

The imperative for change in the US policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’ has been driven by increasing Chinese capabilities and determination to pursue its regional claims. It could certainly use force to reclaim Taiwan in the future. In March 2021, Commander Philip Davidson of the US Indo-Pacific Command speculated that in the next six years, China would try to do exactly that. In such a scenario, Beijing’s uncertainty about the US’ willingness to defend Taiwan could lead to a miscalculation. This in turn may lead to a direct conflict between the two superpowers. Support for a policy of ‘strategic clarity’ has thus increased.

It seems that the Biden administration has taken steps in this direction, and it appears to have bipartisan support in the US. On 18 February 2021, Republican Senator Rick Scott introduced a bill in the House of Representatives to authorise the US to take military action to defend Taiwan against any military attack from China. In the same month, Robert Gates, a former secretary of defence, identified Taiwan as the most concerning issue in US-China relations. According to Gates, it is  “time to abandon our longtime strategy of strategic ambiguity toward Taiwan.”

Working along these lines, the Biden administration’s statement in January 2021 said that the US commitment to Taiwan is “rock-solid.” The statement responded to China’s violation of Taiwan’s air space. The Taiwan issue was raised by President Biden during a phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan in their exchanges with Chinese counterparts. In August 2021, the Biden administration announced arms sales worth US$ 750 million to Taiwan.

 In November 2021, the US invited Taiwan to participate in a Democracy Summit even though China warned that the US providing a platform to Taiwan’s “independence forces” was playing with fire—a fire in which the US might “get burned.” The US has also proposed an ‘Indo-Pacific Economic Framework’ as an overarching economic strategy for the region, apart from the existing Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). In February 2022, Taiwan openly declared its interest in participating.  

The US has also been encouraging its allies, such as Japan and Australia, to overtly clarify their stands on Taiwan. Both countries have become more explicit in their exchanges with Taiwan in the last one year. Blinken has reportedly urged Paraguay to maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan. In March 2021, the US ambassador to Palau John Hennesey-Niland visited Taiwan as part of an international delegation of democracies. In August and October 2021, Biden said that the US would defend Taiwan in case of a military attack. On both occasions, however, the White House later played this down by saying that the US policy towards Taiwan had not changed. Biden also reportedly said to Xi during their phone conversation that the US “strongly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

The US appears to be showing movements in the direction of ‘strategic clarity’ on Taiwan. There are however apprehensions that this could be counterproductive by making China more assertive than restrained. Taiwan may also misinterpret it as a sign to press for independence. In both cases, the situation would entail moving away from the status quo, which would have its own consequences. So, many experts feel that the policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’ should formally continue, and the ‘rock-solid’ US resolve to defend Taiwan, in the case of any military exigencies, must be conveyed to China through other means.



Dr Sandip Kumar Mishra is Associate Professor, Centre for East Asian Studies, School of International Studies, JNU, & Distinguished Fellow, IPCS.