During the “town hall” that CNN produced for Joe Biden on Thursday, the president seemed to change U.S. foreign policy regarding Taiwan and China on the spot. Biden took a question from a member of the audience assembled by the cable channel about the report of China’s test of a hypersonic missile system.
During his rambling answer, Biden said he doesn’t want a “Cold War with China.” He added that he wants China to “understand that we are not going to back down, and we are not going to change our minds.”
Anderson Cooper specifically asked Biden if the U.S. would aid Taiwan in its defense if China attacked it. Biden answered, “Yes, we commit to doing that.”
Back in reality, there is no foreign policy “commitment” to defend Taiwan against China. Despite decades of vague diplomatic statements, the closest the U.S. has come to a formal commitment is the Taiwan Relations Act of 1978. That law was passed shortly after the U.S. had reestablished normal diplomatic relations with the communist government of China.
The act established a procedure for providing military equipment and arms to Taiwan but stopped short of recognizing the island as an independent nation. The U.S. still formally considers Taiwan a province of China and has maintained a “strategic ambiguity” policy about any promises to commit military resources to its defense.
A White House spokesperson attempted to bail Biden out by saying that our country’s “defense relationship with Taiwan” is controlled by the Taiwan Relations Act. The statement went on to say that the U.S. will “continue to support Taiwan’s self-defense,” as well as a vague promise to “oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo.”
Taiwan does not present a threat to China. As long as Beijing can comfortably operate in such a way as to disparage Taiwan’s claims of independence without taking any precarious steps, things are not likely to change soon. Of course, that also means that China’s military buildup and aggressive behavior in the Pacific is virtually sure to continue.