The Death of Strategic Ambiguity

Much is being made of President Biden’s remarks regarding Taiwan yesterday. From Reuters:

BALTIMORE, Oct 21 (Reuters) – The United States would come to Taiwan’s defense and has a commitment to defend the island China claims as its own, U.S. President Joe Biden said on Thursday, though the White House said later there was no change in policy towards the island.

“Yes, we have a commitment to do that,” Biden said at a CNN town hall when asked if the United States would come to the defense of Taiwan, which has complained of mounting military and political pressure from Beijing to accept Chinese sovereignty.

While Washington is required by law to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself, it has long followed a policy of “strategic ambiguity” on whether it would intervene militarily to protect Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack.

On the one hand that would appear to be a change in U. S. policy, away from “strategic ambiguity”. On the other hand it’s almost verbatim what President Bush said back in 2001. I thought it was imprudent then and I think that strategic ambiguity was a better policy. But I think we can now pronounce the policy officially dead.

Things are different than they were in 2001. China is assuming a “near peer” status, some would even say their forces are superior to ours. Why poke the bear? I can only speculate that President Biden sees some need to reassure Taiwan. I’m unconvinced that’s the right policy.

6 comments… add one
  • CuriousOnlooker Link

    I believe Biden misspoke. Psaki was trying to pull it back last night.

  • CuriousOnlooker Link

    What’s going on has some echoes of what happened with the “Senkaku” / “Diaoyutai” / “Tiaoyutai” Islands.

    The islands were administered by Japan since WWII but their sovereignty is in dispute between the PRC / Taiwan / Japan.

    The American position for the longest time (until 2012?) was ambiguous, acknowledging Japanese administration but leaving out whether the US / Japan mutual defense treaty covered it.

    But after an incident in 2011 that riled the PRC, the PRC stepped grey ops to make it a contested fact whether Japan administered the island. That caused a hardening of both American and Japanese positions and led to the US explicitly saying the islands are covered by the mutual defense treaty by 2014 (and reaffirmed in 2017).

    The Chinese have been stepping up their grey ops since 2019 (and arguably as far back as 2016). Continual escalation will eventually cause the US government to drop strategic ambiguity (one way or the other).

    For strategic ambiguity to make sense, it would take all sides (China, Taiwan, US) to desire the return of the status quo of 2016. Its questionable if China desires it — they pretty clearly want to change the status quo.

    Its hard, I think strategic ambiguity is a sensible policy; its the best way to avoid a terrible war. But the ground is changing….

  • My opinion is don’t foment a great power war that you aren’t very, very sure you will win.

    As to walking the president’s words back, that ship has sailed. He’s either a dope or that’s the policy. No ambiguity.

  • CuriousOnlooker Link

    Can’t Biden pull a Trump, where much of what President Trump said was either discounted from what Trump believed and even more so as to actual policy?

    Just remember, this country still runs on laws. The Taiwan relations act is the governing law and it means Congress would have to approve any change to “strategic ambiguity”. I believe the White House emphasized that fact in its row back last night.

  • The situations are not symmetrical. That’s what happens when you run on competence and experience. You’ve got to be, you know, competent. Your ability to say “just kidding” is greatly constrained.

  • CuriousOnlooker Link

    I remember Biden campaigned on competence — but not on eloquence. A running theme of his campaign was a continual list of gaffe’s. Remember, “shoot in the leg”, “ban fracking”, mixing up Iran and Iraq.

    So the White House is clearly trying to state it is a gaffe.

    “White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said: “Our policy has not changed. He was not intending to convey a change in policy, nor has he made a decision to change our policy.”

    … as stated in Brussels earlier on Friday by U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, “nobody wants to see cross-strait issues come to blows, certainly not President Biden, and there’s no reason that it should.””

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