US President Joe Biden attends a press conference at the Akasaka Palace in Tokyo, May 23, 2022. Photo: AFP

SEOUL – US President Joe Biden made clear that the US would fight for Taiwan if it were attacked by China during a joint press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo today.

Asked by a reporter whether the US would defend Taiwan militarily, he said, “Yes.” After a pause, he added, “That is our commitment.” That statement would appear to strip decades of strategic ambiguity from America’s China-Taiwan policy.

“We are committed to supporting peace and stability and ensuring there is no unilateral change to the status quo,” Biden said. “The US is committed and we support the One China policy, but that does not mean China has the jurisdiction to use force to take over Taiwan.”

Biden’s handlers have a habit of walking back the president’s unscripted statements and the White House swiftly sought to add clarity, according to TV reports from Tokyo. However, the White House waffle did not contradict Biden’s statement, simply stating that it did not reflect a change in policy.

The United States’ 1979 Taiwan Relations Act is far from crystal clear. It “specifies that the president and the Congress shall determine the appropriate action” in response to “threats to the security or the social or economic system of the people of Taiwan.”

Beijing’s response to Biden’s remark was not long in coming.

The issue is “purely a Chinese internal affair which brooks no further interference…nobody should stand against the 1.4 billion Chinese people,” a Chinese spokesperson said in televised comments. He added that the US should “refrain from sending wrong signals to separatist forces.”

But was it a wrong signal?

“Biden has been corrected twice in the past on defending Taiwan and it was dismissed as ignorance or a mistake, but people are looking at this differently now – this could be a historic moment as this is no longer ambiguous, this is strategic clarity,” said Alex Neill, a Singapore-based defense correspondent who specializes in China.

“In many ways, [former US Secretary of State] Mike Pompeo was path-finding the way toward this moment, so looks like policy continuity, it is a bipartisan thing,” he added.

Biden, who has enthusiastically supported Ukraine in its ongoing battle against Russia, linked the West’s response to that struggle with a potential Chinese assault upon Taiwan. In that, he referenced the long-term economic damage he intends to impose upon Russia.

Military helicopters carrying large Taiwan flags do a flyby rehearsal on October 5, 2021, ahead of National Day celebrations amid escalating tensions between Taipei and Beijing. Photo: AFP / Ceng Shou Yi / NurPhoto

“One reason why Putin must pay a dear price for his barbarism in Ukraine…if, after all he has done, there is a rapprochement between Ukraine and Russia and sanctions are not sustained, what signal does that send to China about the cost of attempting to take Taiwan by force?” Biden asked. 

“This says, ‘We mean business,’” said Neill, who suggested there would need to be a Congressional debate on the matter if Biden was, indeed, laying down policy.

“The timing is an opportune moment for the US in that the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] will, I think be feeling pressured about its ability to invade Taiwan in light of the failures of Russian tactics and systems in Ukraine,” Neill said.

After arriving in Japan on Sunday, Biden met Emperor Naruhito, then spent Monday morning summiting with Kishida. The main event of the day was the official start of negotiations among 13 states to launch the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) – Washington’s new pushback against China’s trade and investment outreach in the region.

Joining Biden in Tokyo for the launch were Kishida and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while leaders of other first-tranche IPEF member states joined by video conference. Those countries include Australia, Brunei, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam and the United States.

According to US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, the grouping represents some 40% of global gross domestic product (GDP).

Biden is on the first Asia trip of his presidency, which is taking him to the two key US allies in the region – South Korea and Japan, both democracies and manufacturing powerhouses that lie on China’s strategic northeastern flank.

On Tuesday in Tokyo, Biden will summit with the leaders of the China-facing Quad alliance, namely Japan, Australia, India and the US. On Monday, although Biden’s Taiwan comments electrified global media, the centerpiece was the IPEF.

While the US has aggressively promoted multilateral security relationships in the Indo-Pacific, a US-led multilateral economic initiative has arguably been long overdue.

The Donald Trump administration, which held power from 2017 until 2021, unleashed a trade and tariff offensive against China but was unenthusiastic about multilateral trade deals in East Asia, focusing instead on bilaterals. The Biden administration has not overturned these broad policy trajectories.

As such, the US has been left behind by trans-Pacific trade developments with two new major free trade deals now in force: The Comprehensive Agreement for a Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

Trump pulled the US out of the CPTPP predecessor TPP deal, and Biden has not jumped back in, reportedly due to the difficulty of gaining Congressional approval and the risk of a voter backlash.

Representatives of members of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal in March. Photo: Agencies

The US’ absence drove Tokyo to take over the leadership of the CPTPP grouping, which entered force in 2018. It has 11 member states whose combined GDPs are worth over 13% of global economic output.

 Meanwhile, the China-led RCEP, which entered force in January 2022, has 15 member states, representing some 31% of global GDP. Seven nations are members of both CPTPP and RCEP, and China, Taiwan, South Korea and even the UK seek to join CTPP.  

“The agreements confront US policymakers with some awkward choices: stay out of the Asia-Pacific megadeals and face increasing trade discrimination in important and growing markets while China deepens its trade and investment ties in the region, or reengage with CPTPP countries and/or develop new trade accords with key allies in the region in areas such as digital trade and trade-related climate issues,” wrote Jeffery Scholt of the Peterson Institute for International Economics in a January report.

“American trade and security interests in the Asia-Pacific region depend importantly on the Biden administration making the right choice.”

Whether right or wrong, IPEF is that choice.

While the US talks about a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” China has put its money where its mouth is with whopping investments of $892.36 billion from 2013 to 2021. Its hugely ambitious Belt and Road Initiative has made certain inroads across the world, including in Central, South and Southeast Asia, winning Beijing influence and presence in the process.

Most recently, the Solomon Islands have been the subject of China’s influence push – apparently catching Australia, Japan and the United States on the back foot.

Beijing’s critics have accused China of engaging in debt-trap diplomacy and building projects that do not meet best-of-breed global management and sustainability standards. The language hovering over IPEF today suggested that it was designed to counter China.

“China is now demonstrating a significant economic presence in the Indo-Pacific region,” Kishida told the press conference. “But look at the substance: Are they abiding by international rules? Are they caring about sustainable initiatives? Japan will cooperate with the US vis a vis China to persuade them to live up to their responsibility to live up to international rules.”

Still, there is vagueness about what IPEF actually constitutes.

A lengthy White House joint statement released after the Biden-Kishida summit contained two lines on IPEF: “Prime Minister Kishida expressed his support for President Biden’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, and the two leaders welcomed the launch of discussions among IPEF partners toward future negotiations.”

It was defined by Sullivan thusly: “IPEF is a 21st century economic arrangement designed to tackle 21st century economic challenges, ranging from setting the rules of the road for the digital economy, to ensuring secure and resilient supply chains, to helping make the kinds of major investments necessary in clean energy infrastructure and the clean energy transition, to raising standards for transparency, fair taxation, and anti-corruption.”

It is not a free trade area, nor does it grant member nations increased access to the US market. It is “designed not to be a ‘same old, same old’ traditional trade agreement,” said US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo. “It’s designed as a more innovative and flexible approach.”

It looks like an attempt to give member states access to US negotiators in an effort to create agreement on commercial and technological standards, including the under-addressed area of digital trade, while also seeking to secure component supplies outside of China and promote green initiatives.

In comprises four pillars: digital trade; supply chain resilience; clean energy and decarbonization; and tax and anti-corruption.

US Trade Reprsentative Katherine Tai speaks after Biden announced her nomination in Wilmington, Delaware, US, December 11, 2020. Photo: Agencies

The trade pillar, according to US Trade Secretary Katherine Tai, will prioritize “the digital economy and emerging technology, labor commitments, the environment, trade facilitation, transparency and good regulatory practices, and corporate accountability.”

Still, Tai admitted: “There has been a lot of swirl about the fact that there is not tariff liberalization incorporated into the scope of what we are engaging on here.”

In what may have been a telling comment on the IPEF’s holes, Kishida during his press conference with Biden pointedly urged the US to rejoin CPTPP. Biden made no comment.

Moreover, ASEAN nations that were introduced to IPEF last week were reportedly underwhelmed, though many have shown their willingness to sign onto the deal.

Neither China nor Taiwan are included in the first-tranche negotiating partners. Asked about Taiwan’s first-round exclusion, Sullivan said, “we are looking to deepen our economic partnership with Taiwan, including on high-technology issues, including on semiconductors and supply chains.”

China’s Communist Party-affiliated Global Times was predictably unimpressed by the IPEF’s announcement.

“To form an economic cooperation framework without China is like building a house without a pillar,” it scoffed. “China’s important position in the global manufacturing supply chain is irreplaceable, at least in the foreseeable future,” the media outlet editorialized.

“Even if the Biden administration wants to push other states to decouple from China, it needs to think whether it can really provide other countries with the products that China produces and distributes. And even in the remote possibility it could, would the price be acceptably low for other countries?”