Biden Gaffe or Policy Shift? Nobody Is Quite Sure

Biden's comments on Taiwan have analysts guessing
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted May 24, 2022 8:27 AM CDT
Gaffe or Policy Shift? Nobody Is Quite Sure
President Biden meets with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the Quad leaders summit at Kantei Palace Tuesday, May 24, 2022, in Tokyo.   (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

So has US policy toward Taiwan changed or not? "No," President Biden declared Tuesday when asked that specific question, reports the AP. But Biden's comments the previous day still seem to have muddied the water on what the US would do if China were to invade the self-governing island.

  • The comments: In his prepared remarks on Monday, Biden was sufficiently vague on how the US would react to a Chinese takeover of Taiwan, in sync with the decades-long policy that has come to be known as "strategic ambiguity." But when asked by a reporter if the US was “willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that," Biden replied, "Yes."
  • A pattern: His comments had White House officials scrambling to clarify that US policy has not changed, and Peter Baker at the New York Times notes this appears to be a regular feature of the current White House—as when Biden ad-libbed that Vladimir Putin should not remain in power. "Each time he says what he really thinks, there is the ritual cleanup brigade dispatched by the White House to pretend that he did not really say what he clearly articulated—or that even if he did, it did not really amount to a change in policy," writes Baker. "But then Mr. Biden, unperturbed and unapologetic, goes out and does it all over again." This is, in fact, the third time Biden has made such remarks on Taiwan.

  • Dead or no? Views are split on what Biden's comments mean. "Strategic ambiguity is over," writes Georgetown professor Matthew Kroenig. "Strategic clarity is here. This is the third time Biden has said this. Good. China should welcome this. Washington is helping Beijing to not miscalculate." On the other hand, Harvard's Lev Nachman doesn't see a reversal. “Strategic ambiguity is about under what conditions the US would intervene in a war over Taiwan, not a flat out refusal to answer if it would intervene," he writes. Biden's language, however, was "sloppy," he adds.
  • In the middle? An analysis at the Washington Post by Adam Taylor looks at whether this might simply be a gaffe by a president long known for making them or a deliberate shift in policy, but also floats the idea of a something in between those two things: "Perhaps the most persuasive idea about Biden’s comments is that this is still 'strategic ambiguity,' just with a new, harder spin."
  • One fear: An assessment by Phelim Kine at Politico notes that some fear Biden's seemingly more aggressive stance might provoke China into making a preemptive move on Taiwan. On Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin warned that Beijing “will take firm actions to safeguard its sovereignty and security interests.” The analysis also notes that nothing currently on the books, including the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act and the 1982 Six Assurances, "specifically obligate" the US to intervene militarily.
  • A gripe: "Does anyone at the #WhiteHouse actually respect the words of @POTUS?" tweeted GOP Rep. Adam Kinzinger after staffers clarified Biden's Monday comments. "Biden said we would defend #Taiwan, and the staff AGAIN walks back the Presidents own words! He needs to fire everyone who does this."
(Read more President Biden stories.)

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