In the clandestine services they used to say, “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time, it is enemy action.” In the diplomatic services, “the fourth time the President of the United States says something, it’s policy.”
During a painful post-Afghanistan evacuation interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos on August 19, 2021, President Joe Biden insisted that America’s global defense commitments remained rock solid. “We made a sacred commitment to article 5 that if in fact anyone were to invade or take action against our NATO allies, we would respond. Same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with Taiwan. It’s not even comparable to talk about that.”
Now, for those unschooled in American defense treaties, let me explain President Biden’s reference to “Article 5”: In US defense treaty format, “Article 5” invariably declares that “in an armed attack” each party to the treaty “would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes.” That is diplomatic argot for “go to war against the aggressor.”
In Taiwan’s case, however, the United States Congress crafted several sections of the 1979 “Taiwan Relations Act” to replace the Article 5 commitment in the United States’ 1955 Mutual Defense Treaty with Taiwan; Sections 2(b)(4) and (6) replace the first half of the old MDT’s “Article 5” language about “armed attack” and “meet the common danger” while Section 3(c) replaces the second half regarding “constitutional processes.”
Understandably, President Biden directly equated the TRA’s Sections 2 and 3 defense commitments to Taiwan with America’s Article 5 defense commitments to its formal treaty allies. When journalists called the White House national security staff for comments, the most they could get was “Our policy with regard to Taiwan has not changed” and an explanation that “We continue to have an abiding interest in peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, and we consider this central to the security and stability of the broader Indo-Pacific region.” Most of the media accepted this as code for “The President misspoke” and just assumed that the White House was “walking-back” the President’s position.
Nonetheless, President Biden, who voted for the TRA when he was a young US senator from Delaware forty-three years ago, could certainly have made a credible case that he neither misspoke nor sought to change policy.
At any rate, a few weeks later on September 9, 2021, President Biden engaged in a one-on-one, 90-minute video conference with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) during which he believed he had reached an understanding on the Taiwan issue. The President said afterwards, “I’ve spoken with Xi about Taiwan. We agree … we’ll abide by the Taiwan agreement,” adding “we made it clear that I don’t think he should be doing anything other than abiding by the agreement.”
What “agreement”? Again (to repeat a point I make repeatedly in my “On Taiwan” commentaries), that agreement is this: “The United States pretends to have a ‘one China’ policy only so long as China pretends to have a ‘fundamental policy of striving for a peaceful solution’ of differences with Taiwan.”
I won’t speculate on what President Xi Jinping may have done shortly afterwards that may have angered Biden (perhaps it was an October 13th headline “China’s Military Holds Beach Landing Drills About 100 Miles From Taiwan) but at a “town hall meeting” with voters in Baltimore, Maryland, cable-cast by CNN exactly a year ago on October 21, 2021, the President doubled-down.
One participant asked “And can you vow to protect Taiwan?” to which the President unhesitatingly responded “yes and yes.” CNN host Anderson Cooper was horrified, “So are you saying that the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense if China attacked?” Mr. Biden: “Yes” and, asked again, “Yes, we have a commitment to do that.” Cooper quickly cut to a commercial and, after the break, asked Biden for stories about how the former vice president and late secretary of state Colin Powell drag-raced their Corvettes on a Secret Service race track in an undisclosed location.
The Corvettes didn’t make the news. But the next afternoon the White House was besieged with media clamors for clarification about Taiwan. White House press secretary Jen Psaki patiently repeated, “Our policy has not changed,” adding “He was not intending to convey a change in policy, nor has he made a decision to change our policy.” Unsurprisingly, The Wall Street Journal reported “the White House walked back comments Mr. Biden made about Taiwan.”
But, either the White House was not “walking back” the President’s comments, or President Biden hadn’t gotten the memo. Because on Monday evening, November 15, 2021, Biden held another marathon video conference call with Chinese President Xi.
“It was a good meeting,” Biden told a gaggle of journalists. Biden’s idea of a “good meeting” surely was not Xi Jinping’s.
“Any progress on Taiwan?” the gaggle asked. Biden assured them (and I quote): “Yes. We have made very clear we support the Taiwan Act, and that’s it. It’s independent. It makes its own decisions.”
Unable to believe what they heard, the American news media collectively dismissed the President’s comments as yet another gaffe. But on February 24, 2022, things changed cataclysmically as Russia invaded Ukraine. Three days into the invasion, the American State Department was so absorbed by the crisis that it plumb forgot to celebrate the Fiftieth Anniversary of the “Shanghai Communique,” and then the State Department launched a campaign of regular denunciations of the Chinese Foreign Ministry for distorting the substance of America’s “one China policy.”
By May 2022, the truth was beginning to dawn on the global news media. On May 23, from Seoul, The New York Times reported, “Maybe President Biden isn’t speaking off script after all. Maybe he just doesn’t think much of the script.” At a major press conference in Tokyo the day before (and after insisting that US policy on Taiwan “has not changed at all”) President Biden asserted that the United States had a “commitment we made” to “get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that.”
This was not ambiguous. The President walked the press through his thinking: “The idea that it can be taken by force, just taken by force, is just not appropriate.” He added that an attack on Taiwan “would dislocate the entire region and be another action similar to what happened in Ukraine. And so it’s a burden that is even stronger.” Some in the White House staff may have tried to “walk-back” the president but according to The New York Times many on the President’s staff excoriated their back-walking colleagues “for undercutting their boss rather than ratifying his comments.”
And yet again, on Sunday, September 18, 2022, on the popular nation-wide Sunday evening news broadcast 60 Minutes, Biden was asked, “would US forces defend the island?” And he responded, “Yes, if, in fact, there was an unprecedented attack.” The President reiterated the United States remained committed to a “one-China” policy and said the United States was not encouraging Taiwanese independence. And then he explained: “We are not moving, we are not encouraging their being independent ... that’s their decision.”
Whatever back-walking there was at the White House ended the next day. President Biden’s top Indo-Pacific policy aide, Kurt Campbell, cautioned pundits that “the president’s remarks speak for themselves. I do think our policy has been consistent and is unchanged and will continue.”
A week later, over at the State Department, spokesman Ned Price was once again badgered by his nemesis, Associated Press correspondent Matt Lee: “I just want to make sure that I understand correctly that your ‘one China’ policy means that Taiwan is part of China and that you respect Chinese territorial integrity and sovereignty over Taiwan.”
Ned Price responded deftly: “Matt, ‘our one China’ policy has not changed. ‘Our one China’ policy has not changed in the sum of 40 years.” Lee pushed harder. “Well, what does your ‘one China’ policy say about Chinese territorial integrity for…”
At this, Ned Price cut him off: “Very, very basically, we don’t take a position on sovereignty. But ‘our one China’ policy has not changed. That is a — that is a position we made very clear in public.”
And then Price made an extraordinary disclosure: “It is a position that Secretary Blinken made very clear in private to [Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs] Wang Yi (王毅) when he met with him on Friday [September 23] ... We don’t take a position on sovereignty. But the policy that has been at the crux of our approach to Taiwan since 1979 remains in effect today.”
First, “independence is their decision”! And now “We don’t take a position on sovereignty”!
That’s a statement that no State Department spokesman has uttered aloud in a half-century. Taken together with the President’s four-time pledge that “US forces” would defend Taiwan, the spokesman’s words settle it: US policy toward Taiwan has not changed in the past forty years. What has changed is the policy of not talking about it.
John J. Tkacik, Jr. is a retired US foreign service officer who has served in Taipei and Beijing and is now director of the Future Asia Project at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
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