During a news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo on Monday, US President Joe Biden for the third time intimated that the US would take direct military action to defend Taiwan should China attack. Responding to a question from a reporter — Would Washington be willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan? — Biden replied with an unequivocal “Yes.”
As per Biden’s previous deviations from the script of the US’ longstanding policy of “strategic ambiguity” — maintaining a deliberately nebulous position over whether the US would intervene militarily in the event of a conflagration between Taiwan and China — the White House moved quickly to walk back the comment.
“As the president said, our policy has not changed. He reiterated that policy and our commitment to peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told reporters. “He also highlighted our commitment under the Taiwan Relations Act to help provide Taiwan the means to defend itself.”
Biden made similar comments in October last year during a CNN program. When asked whether the US would come to Taiwan’s defense, Biden responded: “Yes, we have a commitment to do that.” In August last year, Biden listed Taiwan among nations the US has a commitment to defend, live on ABC News.
Predictably, Beijing reacted with rage at Biden’s latest remark, while Taipei diplomatically thanked Biden for his “rock solid” support. In Washington, some politicians and pundits have criticized Biden for making yet another “gaffe” and needlessly upsetting Beijing, while others have said Biden’s slip of the tongue might encourage, rather than deter, Chinese aggression and could even provoke pre-emptive military action.
However, while Biden is often characterized by the Washington commentariat as a walking gaffe machine — and not without some justification — perhaps in this instance, rather than a gaffe, the term Freudian slip might be more appropriate. When pressed on the issue during the heat of live television, Biden has thrice appeared to blurt out his true position: that as commander in chief, he would be prepared to put US troops in harm’s way to defend Taiwan.
Whatever the truth, a Freudian slip is likely how it will be interpreted in Beijing, since according to the mindset of totalitarian regimes — which carefully coordinate messaging through state-controlled mouthpieces and plant questions with vetted reporters at news conferences — nothing happens by accident. The level of control freakishness habitual to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders colors their perspective. The notion that it is some kind of a mistake simply does not compute in the minds of high-ranking party apparatchiks trained in Marxist-Leninist theory at the CCP’s Central Party School.
Whether by accident or by design, Biden’s repeated off-script remarks on Taiwan have nudged the US further toward a position of strategic clarity, and will have sown further doubt in the minds of Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) and his inner circle of advisers. It is likely they are now convinced that Biden is personally committed to militarily defending Taiwan, and would override any dissenting opinions from the US Department of State and his national security team.
Far from being calamitous blunders, Biden’s off-the-cuff remarks have conversely had the effect of bolstering deterrence against a Chinese attack on Taiwan. So long as Biden remains president, there will be a nagging doubt in the minds of Xi and his military planners over whether the US — and Japan, which just announced it would double defense spending — really would sit on the sidelines were missiles to rain down on Taipei.
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