The White House insists that President Joe Biden did not break with long-standing policy when, at a news conference in Tokyo on May 23 with the prime minister of Japan, he flatly answered “yes” to the question, “Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?”
Don’t believe the diplomatic spin that there’s nothing to see here. Don’t believe, either, that the president didn’t know what he was doing. What Biden said is dramatic — as well as prudent, necessary and strategically astute. He is demonstrating a sense of history, a sense of the moment and a sense that, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, new rules apply.
U.S. policy toward Taiwan for the past 43 years has been chiefly governed by two core, if somewhat ambiguous, agreements. The first, the One China policy, which Biden reaffirmed in Tokyo, is the basis for Washington’s diplomatic recognition of Beijing as the sole legal government of China.
The second, the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, is the basis for our continued ties to Taiwan as a self-governing entity. But unlike the treaties the U.S. maintains with Japan and South Korea, the act does not oblige U.S. forces to come to the island’s defense in the event of an attack — only that we will provide Taiwan with the weapons it needs to defend itself.
Former presidents, including Donald Trump, have hinted that the United States would fight for Taiwan but have otherwise remained studiedly vague on the question. That may have once served Washington’s strategic purposes, at least when relations with Beijing were warming or stable.
But Xi Jinping has changed the rules of the game.
He did so in Beijing by setting himself up as leader for life. He did so in Hong Kong by doing away with the “one country, two systems” formula and crushing pro-democracy protests. He did so by flouting the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling against China’s outrageous claims to possess most of the South China Sea. He did so through a policy of industrial-scale theft of U.S. intellectual property and government data. He did so through a policy of COVID-19 stonewalling and misinformation. He did so with pledges of friendship to Russia that reassured Vladimir Putin that he could invade Ukraine with relative impunity.
And he’s changed the rules of the game through some of the most aggressive military provocations against Taiwan in decades. Countries that spoil for fights tend to get them.
All the more so after the chaotic U.S. retreat from Afghanistan threatened to turn into a global rout. Chinese propaganda organs began speaking of the “Afghan effect.” An editorial last summer in Beijing’s Global Times warned that “Washington’s arms are way too long, so Beijing and Moscow should cut them short in places where Washington shows its arrogance and parades its abilities.”
What, then, should Biden have done? Stick to the diplomatic formulas of a now-dead status quo?
This is not the first time Biden has suggested the United States would fight for Taiwan, but the last time he said something along similar lines, it was treated as a classic Biden gaffe by the press. Now it should be clear he means it. In Tokyo he stressed that an invasion of Taiwan would be a catastrophe on a par with Ukraine — and that he’d be willing to go much further to stop it.
This is a good way of not repeating Dean Acheson’s infamous 1950 mistake of excluding South Korea from the U.S. defense perimeter in Asia, which invited North Korea’s invasion later that year. It’s also a good way of not repeating Biden’s own mistakes in the runup to the invasion of Ukraine that gave Putin too many reasons to doubt the strength of Washington’s commitments to Kyiv.
It’s also a good basis for a more open military relationship with Taiwan. Last year The Wall Street Journal broke the news that a few dozen U.S. Special Operations forces and Marines were in Taiwan, secretly training their island counterparts. That contingent should grow.
So should U.S. sales of the kinds of smaller weapon systems — Stingers, Javelins, Switchblades — that have foiled the Russians in Ukraine and that are hard to target and easy to disperse. Beijing will call such steps provocations, but it’s mere deterrence. The point is to raise the costs of an invasion beyond anything even a headstrong chauvinist like Xi is willing to pay.
Two more items. First, Taiwan’s defense budget, in relation both to its robust economy and the military threat it faces, remains scandalously low, despite recent growth. The Biden administration should stress to Taipei that the American public’s appetite to help our allies militarily is directly proportionate to their willingness to help themselves.
Second, U.S. defense spending, despite nominal increases, is also too low in the teeth of inflation, with a Navy that continues to shrink in a world far more dangerous in this decade than it was in the last. Biden may have wanted to model his presidency on FDR’s and the New Deal. History may give him no choice but to model it on Harry Truman’s and containment. There are worse precedents.
Bret Stephens is a columnist for The New York Times.