The US is not obliged to defend Taiwan, and because of that China hawks have been agitating for at least the last year to make an explicit security guarantee to protect Taiwan against attack. Last week, President Biden made another unforced error when he affirmed that the US has a "commitment" to defend Taiwan when it does not, and his White House immediately clarified that he didn’t really mean what he had said. Sloppy and careless presidential rhetoric can create misunderstanding in foreign capitals, and it can also create opportunities for hard-liners to box a president in with his own ill-chosen words. Biden’s Taiwan error may do both. The decision of whether the US should go to war to defend Taiwan is not the president’s alone, and the president is not free to invent a new security commitment out of thin air. That is effectively what the advocates of "strategic clarity" want from Biden, and his latest flub gives them an opening to pull the administration in their direction.
Over forty years ago, the US was obliged to defend Taiwan under the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty. The US then terminated that commitment during the Carter administration as part of Washington’s switching of its official recognition to Beijing. Ever since, the US has had no formal obligation to go to war in defense of Taiwan, but it has also not explicitly ruled out doing so. The resulting policy has worked for the last four decades to discourage a Chinese attack and to keep Taiwan from declaring independence. There is no good reason to "fix" this policy by making a major and sudden change to it, and tensions are high enough that even hinting at making an explicit guarantee could make conflict more likely.
Twice in the last year, Biden has misstated the official position to create the impression that the US is bound to fight for Taiwan. He did so once by lumping Taiwan in with regional treaty allies that the US is committed to defend in order to deflect criticism of the withdrawal from Afghanistan. He then said even more emphatically that the US had a commitment to Taiwan during a town hall meeting last week. The Chinese government predictably seized on the comment and denounced it. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement, "When it comes to issues related to China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and other core interests, there is no room for China to compromise or make concessions, and no one should underestimate the strong determination, firm will and strong ability of the Chinese people to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity." If nothing else, the Chinese government’s response is a reminder of how much more important this issue is to them than it is to the US, and that should force advocates of "strategic clarity" to explain why the US ought to be willing to fight a major power to defend a country where it has so few interests.
Biden rightly criticized George W. Bush for making similar comments twenty years ago, and the criticisms he leveled then are still appropriate today. Then-Sen. Biden chided Bush, "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 defense of Taiwan. The president should not cede to Taiwan, much less to China, the ability automatically to draw us into a war across the Taiwan Strait." Nothing has happened in the last twenty years that makes it any wiser for the president to make an unqualified and public commitment that the United States will go to war with China, and in the meantime the risks and costs of a war with China have only increased. If Bush was "not so deft" regarding Taiwan in 2001, how much less so is Biden in 2021?
American policymakers and politicians typically fail to understand how other governments perceive US words and actions. Biden’s Taiwan error will likely be forgotten in the US by this time next week, but the Chinese government will remember it as a gratuitous provocation and might possibly view it as a prelude to a formal security guarantee to protect what they consider to be part of their country. So far, Biden administration officials have steered clear of "strategic clarity" with respect to Taiwan, but Biden’s error could cause the Chinese government to dismiss the statements of other officials as a smokescreen and assume that Biden’s statement is the only one that matters. At best, Biden’s faux pas will deepen suspicion and mistrust between the US and China, and at worst it could provoke China to action in order to test the "commitment" that the president made up.
The US has no vital interests in Taiwan that warrant a security commitment there. Biden was wrong to suggest that the US is obliged to go to war for Taiwan, and by making this error in public he further poisoned US-Chinese relations for nothing. After 20 years of desultory and unnecessary war, the US should not go looking for a new conflict, and it certainly shouldn’t be courting conflict with a nuclear-armed major power on its own doorstep.
Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.