Editor’s Note: This story was adapted from the September 20 edition of CNN’s Meanwhile in America, the email about US politics for global readers. Click here to read past editions and subscribe.
The first time a president repudiates a critical foreign policy principle, it might seem like an accident. If it happens four times, it seems like he means it.
It may now be time to take Joe Biden at his word that the US would defend Taiwan in the event it is attacked by China, however many times his aides walk it back.
The President’s latest apparent blow to the longtime US policy of “strategic ambiguity” came on CBS’ “60 Minutes” in an interview that aired Sunday. Scott Pelley made quite clear in his question that he was asking whether US men and women would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion. Biden looked back and gravely said: “Yes.” While the CBS show said that Biden aides insist the President has not changed long-term policy, the attempted walk back just doesn’t really square with what Biden said.
This didn’t look like a gaffe. Biden didn’t seem to mishear the question. So what now?
With their repeated denials that anything has changed, Biden’s officials appear to be creating a situation of strategic confusion, as Meanwhile has written before. Aides’ constant corrections are not just disrespectful to Biden; they raise the possibility that he’s leading foreign policy and defense officials to a place they don’t want to go.
Of course, Biden’s remarks don’t necessarily equate to how he would behave in a real crisis. And although US intelligence analysts believe Beijing is building a military capable of taking Taiwan, it doesn’t mean it would actually go ahead and do it.
The US President’s comments are in line with a strong push on parts of Capitol Hill to harden US policy on Taiwan. But it’s a dangerous game given Beijing’s increasing military capability and the importance that Chinese leader Xi Jinping attaches to the self-governing island becoming part of the mainland. Critics of the new hawkishness warn a more direct US stance is more likely to antagonize Beijing than make it think twice about invading.
The Chinese leadership are far more sophisticated readers of US politics than they once were. But these are the recent signals from Washington: Just last month, Nancy Pelosi became the first House speaker to visit Taiwan in 25 years. (China’s military mobilization in response showed its increasing capacity to strangle the island in a blockade). Last week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee advanced a $6.5 billion Taiwan military aid bill. Now Biden has reiterated his vow to defend Taiwan, while insisting that the foundation of US relations with its Asian superpower rival – that there is one China and Washington does not advocate independence for Taipei – remains intact.
It certainly looks like the US has moved from ambiguity to deterrence. And while war is hopefully a distant prospect, no one has prepared the American people for the possibility of defending a democracy many time zones away. Or for the extraordinary consequences a military showdown would have in terms of economic meltdowns, interrupted supply chains and semi-conductor imports. Not to mention the possible cost in American blood even from a limited maritime skirmish.
A US clash with China would make the reverberations of the war in Ukraine look like a sideshow.