Taiwanese military react during an urban warfare drill in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, on January 6. Photo: EPA-EFE
Gary Sands
Gary Sands

Just how ‘rock solid’ is Biden’s support for Taiwan?

  • While the US president’s remarks on defending Taiwan militarily have sparked a flurry of commentary, they are consistent with the Taiwan Relations Act
  • However, given the wide range of potential scenarios in the event of military action by Beijing or a blockade, no one truly knows how the US would respond
During his recent trip to Asia, US President Joe Biden caused quite an international stir when he answered, “yes” and “that’s the commitment we made” to the question, “Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?”

As expected, China expressed its “strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition”. Others considered Biden’s comment another off-the-cuff gaffe, while many believe it shows “rock solid” support for Taiwan, with one commentator calling it “one of the most explicit US defence guarantees for Taiwan in decades”.

Biden’s comments in Tokyo mark the third time in recent months he has been publicly questioned over US support for Taiwan in the event of military action by Beijing.

In August 2021, Biden linked Taiwan with Nato’s Article 5: “We made a sacred commitment to Article 5 that if in fact anyone were to invade or take action against our Nato allies, we would respond. Same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with – Taiwan.”
In October 2021, at a CNN town hall moderated by Anderson Cooper, Biden answered “yes, we have a commitment to do that” when asked if the US would come to Taiwan’s defence if attacked by mainland forces.
While Biden’s mention of Article 5 and his use of “would” contradict Washington’s long-standing policy of “ strategic ambiguity” over US military involvement in the event of military action against Taiwan, the flurry of commentary around Biden’s most recent comments is much ado about nothing.


US President Joe Biden says US military will defend Taiwan if attacked

US President Joe Biden says US military will defend Taiwan if attacked
The White House once again walked back the president’s comments by saying the US policy towards Taiwan has not changed, and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed as much in his China-policy speech three days later: “On Taiwan, our approach has been consistent across decades and administrations. As the president has said, our policy has not changed.”

He continued: “The United States remains committed to our ‘one China’ policy, which is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, the three Joint Communiques, the Six Assurances. We oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo from either side; we do not support Taiwan independence; and we expect cross-strait differences to be resolved by peaceful means.”

Biden’s affirmative answer to the question of whether he is “willing to get involved militarily” is consistent with the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which states it is US policy “to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character” and “to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardise the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan”.

Maintaining a capacity to resist force implies a willingness to get involved militarily. The wording is also sufficiently vague to include a variety of scenarios, including not only a lend-lease programme similar to that in Ukraine but the potential deployment of US troops on Taiwan soil.
When asked whether, unlike in Ukraine, the US would deploy troops on Taiwan, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin did not rule out the possibility, saying: “They are indeed two highly different scenarios”.
A Chicago Council survey last year found that 52 per cent of Americans support sending troops, though confidence among Taiwanese that US troops would be sent had dropped from 57 per cent in a poll last September to 40 per cent this March.


More Taiwanese seek gun training as Ukraine war drives home cross-strait tension

More Taiwanese seek gun training as Ukraine war drives home cross-strait tension

Given the wide range of potential scenarios surrounding military action or a blockade of Taiwan, no one truly knows how the US would respond. Biden has been impressed with the “sacrifice, grit and battlefield success” of the Ukrainian people, but how would he respond if the mainland took back Taiwan by force within days?

Would he be willing to get the US involved militarily in the event of a blockade of Taiwan-held Quemoy (Kinmen), Matsu and Taiping islands or the Dongsha/Pratas Islands? What would be Biden’s response if a new government in Taipei declared de jure independence?

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Having voted in favour of the Taiwan Relations Act as a senator in 1979, Biden is well aware of the dangers of committing to any action, as he penned in an op-ed 21 years ago: “As a matter of diplomacy, there is a huge difference between reserving the right to use force and obligating ourselves, a priori, to come to the defence of Taiwan.”

Given the enormity of the challenge, and the risk to American lives, the level of support from Washington for Taiwan in the event of military action or a blockade would not depend solely on unscripted statements by Biden at press conferences but would factor in the opinion of the American public and Congress, as Biden stated in the same op-ed.

For now, the Taiwanese can take some comfort that public opinion, Congress and the president have coalesced around a willingness to help defend Taiwan militarily.

Yet, while well-intentioned rhetoric from Biden helps signal US resolve in protecting a fellow democracy, as long as strategic ambiguity remains in place and the tactical means of support remain in question, Taipei can neither depend on tough talk from Biden nor fluctuating American public opinion and will need to ramp up preparations for any contingency in the near future.

Gary Sands is a senior analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He is a former diplomat with the US Overseas Private Investment Corporation