Taiwanese soldiers on a armored vehicle in Taiplei during the National Day Celebration, following Chinese President Xi Jinpings vow to unify Taiwan by peaceful means. Photo: AFP / Ceng Shou Yi / NurPhoto

WASHINGTON – In a break with American policy towards China over the past half-century, Joe Biden said during his first trip to Japan as president that the US would be willing to use force in the event of a Chinese attack on Taiwan.  

And while his comment was quickly “walked back” by White House staff who attempted to paper over the president’s comments by reaffirming America’s commitment to the One China policy, it drew pointed criticism from several longtime China experts who expressed alarm at the perceived as cavalier nature of the president’s comments, particularly in light of the heightened geopolitical tensions with the war in Ukraine.

“The Chinese cannot ignore this statement, which is worse than a gaffe because it provides China with a casus belli,” said former ambassador and assistant secretary of state for defense Chas Freeman, who is currently a senior fellow at the Watson Institute at Brown University.

“This is the fourth time this year that the White House has sought to walk back statements by the president committing the United States to go to war with China over Taiwan,” said Freeman. “Such walk-backs have zero credibility in Beijing, not least because they echo an apparent consensus in the Washington establishment that is reflected in defense budgets and force structure decisions.”

Lyle Goldstein, a professor at Brown University and the head of the Asia program at the think tank Defense Priorities, also believes Biden’s comment is “a major mistake.”

“We do not have a treaty relationship with Taiwan and this is by design,” said Goldstein. “The US should adhere to strategic ambiguity and avoid the pitfalls of “strategic clarity” at all costs. 

“Indeed, movement toward strategic clarity would likely cause the war it is intended to prevent.  China holds the cards in this scenario, particularly due to geography and also national will. 

“Thus, I would like to see Washington adopt a very cautious stance that favors diplomacy over military instruments.  In particular, I would like to see Washington add substantive content to the essential One China policy that has been the primary foundation of US-China relations for the last 50 years,” Goldstein said.

Military helicopters carrying large Taiwan flags do fly-by rehearsals ahead of National Day celebrations amid escalating tensions between Taipei and Beijing. Photo: AFP / Ceng Shou Yi / NurPhoto

Michael Swaine, director of the East Asia program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft think tank, says that “By stating that the United States will intervene militarily if China attacks Taiwan, President Biden is undercutting the One China Policy and, with it, security in Asia.”

“Giving Taipei a blank check to provoke Beijing as much as it likes on the assumption that the US will come to the rescue is a vector for volatility in the region,” Swaine said. “It conveys to Beijing that Taiwan is now a de facto security ally, thereby destroying the very basis of the One China policy.”

Swaine noted that “China has responded, again warning Washington against this kind of talk. Unfortunately, this is taken by many in Washington as just the usual rhetoric, or at worst a bluff.  

“This then encourages greater salami-slicing by Washington, until Beijing finally acts. It seems like what the US wants to do is to find out where Beijing’s red line on Taiwan actually is, which makes no sense whatsoever.”

“If the US thinks it can in effect gut the One China policy while relying almost entirely on military deterrence indefinitely,” says Swaine, “it will eventually come up against the reality that no level of military deterrence will prevent China from acting to end what it perceives as a steady US-supported movement toward Taiwan independence.”  

Swaine’s comments echoed Freeman, whose dealing with China goes back to the days when he served as the principal US translator for US president Richard Nixon on the then-president’s historic 1972 diplomatic mission to Beijing. 

Freeman says in his view, “Biden’s pledge to defend Taiwan militarily contradicts the Taiwan Relations Act.  Absent a vote in Congress to authorize war with China, he has no constitutional authority to make the commitment he just seemed to.  But the Chinese are unlikely to be persuaded by constitutional niceties, especially given the rubber stamp Congress now puts on presidential war-making.”

“Biden’s statement strips the last element of diplomacy from the Taiwan issue and makes its management by non-military means infeasible,” said Freeman.  “The Taiwan issue has been managed for 50 years by diplomatic understandings with Beijing backed by implied but not explicit military deterrence. 

Chinese People’s Liberation Army soldiers march during a military parade. Photo: AFP / Stephen Shaver

“The diplomatic understandings that enabled Beijing to hope for a peaceful resolution of its differences with Taipei have been progressively abandoned by the United States, leaving Beijing with no option short of the use of force to restore the national unity destroyed by the Chinese civil war and the Cold War US intervention in it.”

He adds: “In all but name, the United States now once again has official relations with Taiwan. There are once again US forces operating there.  And now the United States has apparently restored a defense commitment to Taiwan it abandoned to normalize relations with Beijing 43 years ago.” 

China and the rest of the world must now be wondering: Is Biden trying to bluff China while at the same time deepening American involvement in a dangerous war with an increasingly unpredictable Russia in Eastern Europe?  If so, says Swaine, “He’s playing a dangerous game with American security interests in Asia at stake.”

James W Carden is a former adviser to the US-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission at the US Department of State. His articles and essays have appeared in a wide variety of publications including The Nation, The American Conservative, Responsible Statecraft, The Spectator, UnHerd, The National Interest, Quartz, the Los Angeles Times and American Affairs.