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Douglas Andrews / May 24, 2022

Biden’s Taiwan Blunder

It’s another clean-up on Aisle 46 for our oft-confused commander-in-chief.

So much for strategic ambiguity.

For decades, U.S. policy toward the China-Taiwan dispute has been to keep from tipping our hand, thereby keeping both our geopolitical foes and friends guessing. That ended yesterday — at least temporarily — at a joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo, when a reporter asked Joe Biden if the U.S. would defend Taiwan if it were attacked by China.

“Yes,” replied the cognitively addled American president.

To which the obviously stunned journalist followed up, “You are?”

To which Biden, um, elaborated: “Look, here’s the situation: We agree with the One China policy; we’ve signed on to it and all the attendant agreements made from there. But the idea that — that it can be taken by force — just taken by force — is just not a — is just not appropriate. It will dislocate the entire region and be another action similar to what happened in — in Ukraine. And so, it’s a burden that is even stronger.”

In fact, under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. is committed to arming the island nation to defend itself but is unclear about whether American forces would join the fight — thus, strategic ambiguity.

We’ll say this about Joe Biden, though: His cringeworthy adventures off-script certainly keep his people on their toes. In this case, as soon as that initial monosyllabic utterance left his lips, the Aisle 46 clean-up crew sprang into action. Not even the lickspittles at The New York Times could man the mops quickly enough. As Peter Baker writes:

Each time he says what he really thinks, there is the ritual cleanup brigade dispatched by the White House to pretend that he did not really say what he clearly articulated — or that even if he did, it did not really amount to a change in policy. But then Mr. Biden, unperturbed and unapologetic, goes out and does it all over again.

His remarks on Taiwan on Monday were just the latest instance of a president saying out loud what is on his mind even if it leaves his staff scrambling to spin it away afterward. In March, he called President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia a war criminal (just his opinion, not a legal conclusion, aides quickly explained). Then days later, he ad-libbed at the end of a speech that Mr. Putin “cannot remain in power” (just an observation, they said, not a call for regime change).

Of course, it’s possible that ol’ Scranton Joe is playing 4D chess while Xi Jinping is playing Chinese checkers. It’s possible that by appearing to be unambiguous about our intention to defend Taiwan, Team Biden was actually being ambiguous. Think about it: No one believes a word that comes out of this president’s mouth, and this is especially true when the situation calls for a degree of sophistication beyond a simple yes-or-no answer.

“Yes,” for example, is a great response when asked whether you want cream with your coffee. It’s rather less great when you’re threatening a hot war with a nuclear-armed superpower. China, after all, has long considered Taiwan a “breakaway province” and has long vowed to retake it by force if necessary. Complicating matters is that Taiwan considers itself to be a sovereign state, just as any other island entity might — especially one that has its own constitution, democratically elected leaders, a powerful tech and manufacturing economy, more than 23 million citizens, and about 300,000 active troops in its armed forces.

“This is amateur hour at 1600 Pennsylvania,” said China expert Gordon Chang, “and this actually has real-world consequences, largely because the Chinese will look at this and say that the administration is incapable and irresolute. Now, Biden was very clear a couple of days ago when he said, look, the United States will defend Taiwan. … There was no ambiguity about that, and now under pressure … you have his subordinates contradicting him. … And it’s bad not with regard to Taiwan only [but] all our defense commitments around the world.”

Meanwhile, a nervous world awaits Joe Biden’s next blunder.

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