Earlier this week in Tokyo, Joe Biden said that the US would involve itself directly in the defense of Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack. This is the third time since taking office that he has said or suggested that the US has a security commitment to defend Taiwan when it does not, and each time the White House staff have been obliged to clarify that Biden was not endorsing so-called “strategic clarity.” The official line is that Biden was only restating existing policy that the US would provide military assistance to Taiwan. This is not what he said, and it was not how his words were interpreted. It is increasingly difficult to credit the White House’s claim that there has been no change in policy when the president habitually declares that the US “made” a commitment to defend Taiwan.
Either the president doesn’t understand long-standing US policy, or he is incapable of correctly articulating it in public, or he is changing it on the fly without any serious consideration of the dangers that such a commitment involves. None of the alternatives is reassuring. Regardless, Biden has managed to further strain US-Chinese relations with his provocative remarks, and he has provided fodder for hardliners in Washington that have been agitating for years for an explicit commitment to go to war over Taiwan.
China hawks were predictably thrilled with Biden’s statement, and some declared the end to strategic ambiguity. Even if Biden didn’t mean what he said, he has made the same unforced error too many times for it to be discounted as nothing more than “misspeaking.” Hawks will hold him to the statements he has made and use them to pressure him to back up his careless words with actions. If Biden yields to that pressure, it will just invite additional demands for more hardline posturing.
If the Chinese government were to launch an attack or merely to threaten one, Biden could find himself boxed in by a commitment he should never have made. Considering how often Biden has said something like this about Taiwan in the first year and a half of his presidency, we should expect more of what Justin Logan has aptly called Biden’s “extemporaneous fatwas.” Each time the president makes another one of these statements, the harder it becomes for him to dismiss them as meaningless.
While Biden doesn’t seem to have thought through the implications of what he keeps saying, his public commitment has made war with China more likely rather than less. Biden has arbitrarily extended a security commitment that would involve the US in its biggest war since WWII if it were ever triggered, and he has done it over something that matters far more to China than it does to the United States. It should go without saying that the has no authority to decide by himself whether the US goes to war, but that is effectively what Biden is doing when he invents a commitment out of thin air. A commitment of that magnitude is something that should be entered into only with the explicit support of the American people and their representatives, and then only when it is necessary to protect vital US interests. No vital US interests are at stake in Taiwan, and Biden is wrong if he thinks there are any.
Biden’s sloppiness with respect to Taiwan stands in sharp contrast to his correct opposition thus far to intervening directly in Ukraine. In both cases, the US has no formal security commitments to defend them if they are attacked, but on Taiwan Biden keeps referring to a commitment that the US “made” as if they were still a treaty ally. While Biden has rightly been wary of escalation in Ukraine because it could lead to nuclear war, the similar danger of escalation in Taiwan leading to a nuclear exchange does not seem to weigh as heavily on him.
Public opinion on defending Taiwan has fluctuated in recent years, and there is more support for direct US intervention than there has been in the past, but it is doubtful that most Americans would support going to war with China if they appreciated the full extent of the costs. As it is, there is barely majority support for sending US forces to fight for Taiwan, and the support would probably collapse when the reality of a war with China sinks in. Many Americans may be inclined to express support for intervention in the abstract, but it will likely be a different story once the fighting starts.
The dangers of fighting a war with a nuclear-armed major power are far greater than in any of the conflicts of the previous seventy years. I doubt that the government or the public is prepared for what it would look like or the economic dislocation that would come with it. Even if such a war could be kept “limited” and nuclear weapons were not used, the US might still take losses greater than it suffered in the entire Vietnam War. If it became a nuclear war, the death toll would be staggering and the damage to both countries would be incalculable.
The US already has far too many security commitments around the world, and it doesn’t need the president to start inventing new ones. The United States is not obliged to go to war over Taiwan, and it is wrong and dangerous for the president to suggest otherwise. The US should be striving to avoid war with China, and it should not be drawing lines that make that war more likely.