'Strategic Ambiguity' on Taiwan Apparent as White House Walks Back Biden
October 23, 2021
White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Friday appeared to walk back
President Joe Biden's statement on Thursday that the United States was
committed to defending Taiwan should it come under Chinese attack.
"The president was not announcing any change in our policy, nor has he
made a decision to change our policy," Psaki said during a White House
news briefing. "Our defense relationship with Taiwan is guided by the
Taiwan Relations Act."
The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act states that the U.S. will provide arms for
Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability. It does not say
the U.S. would intervene militarily to protect Taiwan in the event of a
Psaki's statement stands in contradiction to Biden's comment at a CNN
town hall Thursday night. When asked if the U.S. would come to the
defense of Taiwan, Biden said, "Yes, we have a commitment to do that."
When asked by VOA whether the president simply misspoke or is sending a
signal to Beijing, Psaki reiterated that "his policy has not changed."
In what appeared to be an attempt to calm increased tensions following
the president's comment, she echoed Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's
statement earlier Friday: "Nobody wants to see cross-strait issues come
to blows, certainly not President Biden, and there's no reason that it
The conflicting statements may well be in line with Washington's
long-standing policy of "strategic ambiguity" on defending Taiwan.
Still, Beijing, which considers Taiwan a breakaway province, warned
Washington to refrain from encouraging its independence.
"We urge the U.S. to earnestly abide by the one-China principle and
stipulations in the three China-U.S. joint communiques, be prudent with
its words and actions on the Taiwan question, and avoid sending wrong
signals to the 'Taiwan independence' separatist forces, lest it should
seriously damage China-U.S. relations and peace and stability across the
Taiwan Strait," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin
Wang reiterated that "there is no room for China to compromise or make
concessions" when it comes to sovereignty and territorial integrity.
U.S.-China relations have been strained amid Beijing's increased
military activity in the Taiwan Strait and its recent hypersonic missile
This is not the first time Biden said the U.S. would defend Taiwan if
necessary. During an August interview with ABC News' George
Stephanopoulos, Biden said the U.S. made a "sacred commitment" to
respond to action against NATO allies, "same with Japan, same with South
Korea, same with Taiwan."
The defense of Taiwan, unlike that of formal treaty allies Japan and
South Korea, is not explicitly stated by the U.S. After each of Biden's
remarks on defending the island, his administration has walked it back.
While Biden may not intend to signal a change in the U.S. policy of
strategic ambiguity toward Taiwan, his statements suggest that U.S.
policy may have shifted informally toward a firmer commitment to
The comments may be off the cuff, but they are telling, said Matthew
Kroenig, deputy director of the Atlantic Council's Scowcroft Center for
Strategy and Security. "If China invaded Taiwan, it would be up to the
president to make the final decision about what we should do, and it
seems that Biden's instinct is to defend Taiwan."
Biden's remarks may also be intended to signal that the U.S. military
option is not off the table, said Max Bergmann, a senior fellow at
Center for American Progress.
"I think it was a clear and smart warning sign from the president to
Chinese hypersonic missile
The Financial Times recently reported that in late July, China conducted
a test of a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile, stunning American
officials. Beijing has denied the report, saying it carried out a
routine test of a space vehicle, not a missile.
Hypersonic glide vehicles are launched from a rocket into the upper
atmosphere before gliding to a target at speeds of more than Mach 5, or
five times the speed of sound, about 6,200 kilometers per hour. This is
slower than a ballistic missile but no less dangerous because its speed
allows for a lower, adjustable trajectory that makes tracking these
On Wednesday, when asked by VOA whether he was concerned about Chinese
hypersonic missiles, Biden answered "yes."
U.S. officials have also stated concerns. Austin said earlier this week
that Washington was closely watching China's development of this
advanced weapons system. And on Monday, Robert Wood, U.S. permanent
representative to the Conference on Disarmament, said this type of
technology is "worrisome" because the U.S. has not had to face it
On Wednesday, the U.S. Navy and Army tested hypersonic weapon component
prototypes that the Pentagon called "successful." But on Thursday, its
booster rocket carrying a hypersonic weapon failed, people briefed on
the test result told Reuters.
Analysts say that while China's space activities are certainly a cause
for concern, they reflect an already ongoing arms race.
appears unwilling to accept a situation in which China lags in nuclear
capabilities, which might impact both nuclear and conventional balances
of power," said Zack Cooper, senior fellow at the American Enterprise
Institute. "This new capability could embolden China to take more
aggressive actions in non-nuclear areas."
Cooper noted the U.S. does not need to respond in kind since Washington
already has robust capability to strike the Chinese homeland. But the
administration must now seriously consider the possibility of Chinese
strikes on the American homeland in a military conflict, particularly at
a time when China is also ramping up other capabilities such as
conventional as well as nuclear-armed submarines and nuclear-capable
"That is a new reality, and one with which we are still coming to
grips," Cooper said.
In light of this increased Chinese threat, some analysts say that
Biden's remarks on Taiwan are an effective deterrent.
"The most likely path to war is that (Chinese) Chairman Xi
miscalculates; he assumes he can get away with attacking Taiwan without
U.S. interference when in fact he cannot," said Kroenig. "He (Biden) is
making it clear to Xi that an attack on Taiwan would mean a big war with
the United States and, therefore, not worth the effort."