Biden Struggles to Stick to the Script on Taiwan

Not for the first time, the U.S. president misspoke about the island at the center of U.S.-China tensions.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a former intern at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks to reporters.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks to reporters.
U.S. President Joe Biden briefly speaks to reporters about his Build Back Better legislation and Taiwan after returning to the White House in Washington on Oct. 5. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, and three times is habit—or so the saying goes.

Amid escalating tensions with China, U.S. President Joe Biden has misspoken about U.S. policy toward the self-governed island of Taiwan at least four times since August, fueling speculation as to whether the president is subtly trying to signal an evolving U.S. policy toward Taiwan or just fumbling the details.

Although experts believe the latter is more likely coming from Biden, who has been known to misspeak, they warn that precision is of the utmost importance when it comes to Taiwan, which many fear could be the spark that ignites a wider conflict between the United States and China.

Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, and three times is habit—or so the saying goes.

Amid escalating tensions with China, U.S. President Joe Biden has misspoken about U.S. policy toward the self-governed island of Taiwan at least four times since August, fueling speculation as to whether the president is subtly trying to signal an evolving U.S. policy toward Taiwan or just fumbling the details.

Although experts believe the latter is more likely coming from Biden, who has been known to misspeak, they warn that precision is of the utmost importance when it comes to Taiwan, which many fear could be the spark that ignites a wider conflict between the United States and China.

On Nov. 15, Biden met virtually with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, for the first time since taking office in January. The meeting was billed as an attempt to reduce the chances of potentially catastrophic miscommunication as economic and military competition between the two nations continues to heat up, with Taiwan’s status a particular bone of contention between the two sides.

Asked by a reporter on Tuesday whether the two leaders made any progress on Taiwan, Biden responded: “We have made very clear we support the Taiwan Act, and that’s it. It’s independent. It makes its own decisions.”

Biden later clarified that he was not encouraging Taiwanese political independence and there was no change to U.S. policy in this regard; rather, the island had the right to make its own decisions. “Let them make up their mind,” he said

But Biden’s choice of words in an off-the-cuff remark struck Beijing’s third rail. China’s readout of Monday’s meeting warned “we will be compelled to take resolute measures” should Beijing be provoked by “separatist forces” in Taiwan, which were echoed in a briefing by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian on Tuesday. 

“That is definitely a red line that no one would dispute,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund. “So having the president say Taiwan is independent would really be of concern to China.”

Since 1979, U.S. policy toward Taiwan has existed in an uneasy limbo. Under the so-called One-China policy, the United States does not recognize Taiwan as a sovereign entity but, at the same time, has close ties with (and sells arms to) the government in Taipei. Officially, Washington said it does not support the island’s independence but has remained intentionally vague on whether it would intervene to defend the island in the event of an attack from China, a policy that has come to be known as “strategic ambiguity.”

Regarding Biden’s most recent misstep on Taiwan, a senior U.S. administration official said: “Our policy has not changed. We are committed to our One-China policy, which is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, three joint communiques, and six assurances. We oppose unilateral changes to the status quo from either side. That is a longstanding policy.”

In the past, the administration has been quick to clarify there has been no change to its Taiwan policy following Biden’s head-scratching statements on the issue. “That is why these gaffes have not elicited a volcanic response from Beijing,” said Jude Blanchette of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Privately, of course, Beijing is worried.”

But some analysts have wondered whether his remarks are part of an intentional strategy to signal a shift in policy. Both Democrats and Republicans have come to view China as Washington’s biggest strategic rival, and Beijing’s designs for the island have driven increased U.S. defense engagement with Taiwan since at least the George W. Bush administration, accelerating during the Trump and Biden administrations. Some lawmakers have proposed tweaking U.S. law to give the president more leeway to respond to a Chinese attack, taking square aim at the idea of strategic ambiguity. Lawmakers visited Taiwan as part of a regional congressional delegation trip last week despite a direct request by the Chinese Embassy in Washington not to go. 

“It would be brilliant, but I think Occam’s razor would come down on the conclusion that this is imprecision of language on an issue where you want a lot of precision,” Blanchette said. Deliberately veiled signaling of a major policy shift would also carry the risk of provoking Beijing, he added.

In clarifying his remarks on Tuesday, Biden referred to the Taiwan Relations Act as the Taiwan Act. “It shows an imprecision, which is surprising to many of us,” Blanchette said.

When speaking from notes, Biden has stayed on message in regard to Taiwan. It’s in unscripted responses to questions when he has veered off course. “It appears that his heart is in supporting stronger relations with Taiwan and maybe even independence,” Glaser said. 

Biden first misspoke about Taiwan in an ABC interview in August in the wake of the Afghan government’s collapse. Asked by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos about the United States’ credibility in defending its allies, Biden said the United States has a “sacred commitment” to defend its NATO allies, “same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with Taiwan.” A senior administration official was quick to clarify that U.S. policy on Taiwan had not changed. 

In October, Biden sparked confusion by referring to the U.S.-China “Taiwan agreement,” although no such deal exists between Washington and Beijing. Later that same month during a CNN town hall, Biden was asked if the United States would defend Taiwan in the event of an attack. “Yes, we have a commitment to do that,” he responded. 

“Our policy has not changed,” White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said after the event. “He was not intending to convey a change in policy nor has he made a decision to change our policy.”

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Anna Weber is a former intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @annasweber

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