“Strategic ambiguity” is what U.S. diplomats call America’s policy on Taiwan and China. The strategy is to keep the peace by maintaining ambiguity over the degree the U.S. would go to defend Taiwan from a Chinese invasion.

President Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida attend a joint news conference following their bilateral summit at the Akasaka State Guest House on Monday in Tokyo. Biden used his stop in Japan to announce that the U.S. would intervene militarily if China were to invade Taiwan. Nicolas Datiche/Getty Images/TNS

To date, that intentional vagueness has met its objective of keeping Taiwan from declaring formal independence, which would incense China, and from China invading what it considers a renegade province.

On Monday, however, President Biden was unambiguous about U.S. policy. During a stop in Japan, Biden was asked by a reporter, “Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?”

“Yes,” Biden answered simply, later adding: “That’s the commitment we made.”

He was likely referring to the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which actually does not commit the U.S. to militarily defend Taiwan, but to provide self-defense capabilities. Biden apparently believes otherwise in a view that’s also shared by several respected foreign policy experts.

But Biden’s approach, if that indeed reflects U.S. policy, may not be as effective a strategy, according to Ryan Hass, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Hass, an expert in East Asia, told a Star Tribune editorial writer in an email interview that “there are few issues in the world where words matter more than on the question of war in the Taiwan Strait” and that “in this respect, the inconsistencies in the Biden administration’s responses to questions about whether the United States would intervene in a cross-Strait conflict is troubling.

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“America’s abiding interest is in preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” Hass continued. “Preserving this objective requires standing in the way of the two paths that could lead to conflict, either a Chinese military invasion or efforts by Taiwan to declare de jure independence. The more that President Biden locks the U.S. into a specific response to a future hypothetical conflict, the less room for maneuver he leaves for himself or his successors.”

China, Hass said, already assumes U.S. intervention if it attacks Taiwan. Accordingly, he believes that “there is not deterrent value for any U.S. president to say out loud that the U.S. would intervene in any future conflict. There is risk, however, that such a statement could prompt Beijing to take visible responses to register displeasure.”

Indeed Chinese officials did, rhetorically and by announcing new military drills near Taiwan.

There’s also a risk that Taipei could misinterpret the statement and not as aggressively build its defensive capabilities, or that it may choose to roil the fragile status quo.

More constructively, Biden used his trip to introduce a 13-nation pact called the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity. Along with the U.S. and regional leaders Japan, India, South Korea and Australia, the agreement includes Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam (but, notably, not Taiwan). Together the 13 countries represent about 40 percent of the global economy.

But unlike Biden’s unambiguous statement on Taiwan, there’s more ambiguity to the new arrangement, as it’s designed to address issues like supply chain resilience, digital trade, corruption and clean energy. Unlike a more muscular free trade agreement, it does not address issues of market access, which will make it not only less economically meaningful but less of a geopolitical counterweight to China.

Had Biden really wanted to blunt Beijing’s increasing influence, he would have advocated for the pact his former boss, President Barack Obama, negotiated, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which went forward without the U.S. after it was irresponsibly demonized during the 2016 campaign by both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

“China has sought aggressively to sell the idea that the U.S. is an anxious, declining power retreating into greater isolation, while China is the new core of Asia’s economic growth story,” Hass said. “If the U.S. were to return to its seat at the trade table in Asia through CPTPP (the renamed Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership), it would render obsolete China’s efforts to present America as a fading power and itself as the growth engine of the future.”

Biden is right to not let the long-delayed “pivot” to Asia become derailed due to the Ukraine crisis. But “strategic ambiguity” has maintained peace in the region – peace that can be undone if not carefully maintained.


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