As President Joe Biden’s aides raced to clean up his vow to defend Taiwan from China using military force, they again found themselves caught between sensitive international issues and the president’s imprecise words that some argue should be left to stand.
It was Biden’s third time making the pledge, sparking anew concerns that the president had veered away from a long-standing U.S. policy of ambiguity over Taiwan’s defense against an unprovoked Chinese attack.
Biden’s aides intervened to say that nothing had changed, while the president insisted he had been consistent. “My policy has not changed at all,” he told reporters a day later. “I stated that when I made my statement yesterday.”
The back and forth recalled Biden’s ad-lib during a speech in March, when the president said Russian President Vladimir Putin cannot remain in power, with aides clamoring to state that he “was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia or regime change.”
That was a mistake, some said at the time.
DEFENSE HAWKS APPLAUD BIDEN'S TAIWAN COMMENTS BUT WANT TO MAKE SURE HE MEANS IT
It was “a moral statement on the monster that Putin is,” Daniel Fried, a former senior State Department official and U.S. ambassador to Poland, told the Washington Examiner. “I hope the White House doesn’t try to explain away the president’s remarks in a way that will distract from the best part of the speech.”
Fried added that “it’s not just posturing to him. He means it, and good for him.”
And while some cheered Biden’s comments Monday, others said the president’s words and the White House’s walk backs are muddying the waters on a delicate issue.
“Biden keeps making remarks that are not clear, and his staff keep reiterating that U.S. policy has not changed, leaving confusion and inconsistency,” said Shirley Kan, an Asian security specialist, formerly of the Congressional Research Service.
During the press conference in Tokyo with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, the president was asked about defending Taiwan against an attack from China. “Yes. That’s the commitment we made,” Biden said.
“They’re already flirting with danger right now,” he said, referring to China, and explained that Washington’s commitment to the status quo policy “does not mean that China has the ability, has the — excuse me — the jurisdiction to go in and use force to take over Taiwan.”
After downplaying the prospect, Biden drew alarm when he said the United States would be ready to intervene militarily if China attacked the island.
Inside the room, the president’s words “caused an audible stir,” with reporters turning to the look at the U.S. delegation, among them national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, who “did their best to keep facial expressions unfazed,” according to Politico. Some did this more successfully than others: Rahm Emanuel, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, “bulged his eyes a bit in apparent surprise,” the report said.
Anticipating such a question, Biden, during his first response, had “read carefully from his notes,” the outlet said. While promising military intervention, the president did not.
Biden’s aides insisted that the president was restating America’s long-standing policy toward Taiwan, which implies that the U.S. would respond to an attack but has no firm commitment.
Asked a day later if this “strategic ambiguity” was “dead,” Biden said “no.” Called to explain, the president responded "no” again.
“The president really believes what he’s saying is exactly what the policy is. I don’t think that he sees himself as introducing a change,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund.
When the president’s aides intervene, that complicates the message.
But Glaser and Kan said Biden had sown confusion of his own, with comments about a “One China” policy that Kan said implied a false agreement between Washington and Beijing. In Tokyo, Biden called it a “commitment.”
“That’s wrong in about four different ways,” said Glaser. “We acknowledged China’s position that Taiwan was part of China. We didn’t recognize it. We didn’t endorse it.”
“Instead of contradictory signals,” Kan said, “Biden should give clear messages.”
“If Biden is changing strategic ambiguity, a shift which [White House coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs] Kurt Campbell publicly rejected last year, these remarks are not the way to do it,” she added.
Other Biden administration officials have warned against moving toward so-called strategic clarity, with Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines telling lawmakers that it could spark newly aggressive action from Beijing.
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Advising against this, Haines told the Senate Armed Services Committee that a clear commitment from the U.S. could also prompt Taiwan to take steps to move away from China.
“I think it would solidify Chinese perceptions that the U.S. is bent on constraining China’s rise, including through military force,” Haines said, “and would probably cause Beijing to aggressively undermine U.S. interests worldwide.”
Kan said she was calling for consistent, clear policy, a need echoed by Glaser.
“What the president wants is to avoid war. That’s the objective here,” she said. “Strategic confusion does not help deterrence.”