Biden remarks intended to reaffirm commitment to Taiwan: U.S. experts

08/21/2021 12:25 PM
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U.S. President Joe Biden. Image taken from the Facebook page of the President of the United States (facebook.com/POTUS)
U.S. President Joe Biden. Image taken from the Facebook page of the President of the United States (facebook.com/POTUS)

Washington, Aug. 20 (CNA) U.S. President Joe Biden's pledge this week to "respond" in the event of an attack on Taiwan was intended to reaffirm Washington's commitment to the island, but does not signal a substantive shift in U.S. policy, American analysts told CNA.

In a TV interview on Thursday, Biden disputed the idea that the United States' withdrawal from Afghanistan might undermine the credibility of its commitments to its allies, including Taiwan, calling them fundamentally different situations.

The U.S. would "respond" if anyone were to invade or take action against a NATO ally, Biden said, before adding, "same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with Taiwan."

Observers were quick to note that the remarks may have been a slip, given that the U.S. has explicit defense agreements with NATO, Japan and Korea, but has long maintained a policy of "strategic ambiguity" on the defense of Taiwan.

While some in Taiwan saw the comments as a step toward a more clearly stated U.S. defense guarantee -- despite a White House clarification that the policy remained unchanged -- several U.S. experts told CNA that the remarks should be interpreted in a more general light.

"I would not read too much into President Biden's inclusion of Taiwan along with Japan and South Korea. The questioner mentioned Taiwan, so he conflated all the countries," said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

"His main message is that the U.S. will uphold its commitments, and that applies to Taiwan," Glaser said.

Several of the analysts were keener to draw attention to remarks by U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, which they described as more "deliberate" and "precise."

At a press briefing on Monday, Sullivan said the U.S. treats its commitments to its allies and partners as "sacrosanct," adding "we believe our commitment to Taiwan and to Israel remains as strong as it's ever been."

Richard Bush, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank, said that Biden had likely misspoken when he suggested that the U.S. has a treaty commitment to Taiwan, as it does with Japan and Korea.

Bush said Sullivan, by contrast, "was more precise in associating Taiwan with Israel. We don't have a treaty commitment to Taiwan but we care deeply about its security."

Bush served as chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) from 1997-2002.

Ryan Hass, former director of China, Taiwan and Mongolia affairs on the National Security Council, said he believed both Biden and Sullivan were trying to underscore America's determination that cross-Taiwan Strait differences be resolved peacefully.

"They both also seemed to signal that it would be costly and dangerous for any country to challenge America's commitments to its security partners around the world," said Hass, who is also currently at the Brookings Institution.

Stephen Young, former director of AIT's Taipei Office (2006-2009), acknowledged that Biden's wording in the interview had been "clumsy."

"The good news," he said, "is that the Biden administration is signaling robust support for Taiwan in the wake of the Afghanistan fiasco."

"The message is that Beijing ... should be very careful in any assumption that Washington would look the other way if it intensifies its threats regarding Taiwan," he added.

(By Stacy Hsu and Matthew Mazzetta)

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