NOT FOR THE first time, US President Joe Biden has said that the United States would defend Taiwan militarily in the event of China using force to take control of the island. Nor is it the first time that his diplomats have had to walk back his comments, even before the inevitable condemnation from Beijing.
At the same time, Biden, who was responding to a question during a press conference during his visit to Tokyo, said there had been no change in US policy towards Taiwan. The US One China policy holds that Washington maintains formal diplomatic relations only with Beijing and none with Taiwan and exercises’ strategic ambiguity’ over Beijing’s One China principle that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China to be reunified one day. Part of that ambiguity is not to say publicly that the United States would defend Taiwan militarily.
It has always been an illusionary fudge. The same year that Washington and Beijing established formal diplomatic ties (1979), setting the intractable Taiwan issue to one side, the US Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act. The act guarantees US support for the island and specifies that the US must help Taiwan defend itself. It has been the basis on which the United States has continued arms sales to Taipei.
As regional leaders watch China build up its armed forces and demonstrate prowess in the skies around Taiwan and the waters of the East and South China Seas, concern about military action against Taiwan has increased. Pressure has been quietly mounting for the United States to be explicit about its military support for Taiwan in such an event.
Recently, former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said it was time for the United States to state clearly that it would defend Taiwan. Our man in Tokyo tells us that the incumbent, Fumio Kishida, has passed on the same view.
Opinion in Washington splits between officials and politicians taking a more assertive posture towards Beijing and those who fear provoking Beijing into advancing its plans for reunification. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made the question of whether something similar could happen in Taiwan more prominent in Washington discussions.
Beijing’s view, repeated after Biden’s latest remarks, is that the Taiwan question and the Ukraine issue are fundamentally different. Foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said that to compare the two is absurd.
Biden was speaking a truth hiding in plain sight as his administration seeks haltingly to mould a China policy that incorporates the direction set by his predecessor Donald Trump, but without the idiosyncratic rhetorical toxicity and disregard for diplomatic process.
His comments on Taiwan overshadowed the announcement of his administration’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). The IPEF aims to fill the vacuum of US economic engagement in the region left by Trump’s withdrawal from the US-initiated Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in 2017 and cold-shouldering of its successor, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
At this point, the IPEF is little more than a bare framework and far from a conventional trade agreement that most of the 13 US allies that have signed up for it would prefer. The trade-agreement adverse Biden administration may cast it as a trade arrangement for the 21st century. However, it reflects domestic US political realities, including needing to satisfy Biden’s organised labour constituents and the groundswell of anti-China economic nationalism in Washington, as it does the promotion of regional economic integration.
Many of the South and Southeast Asian participant countries will be uneasy about the way the IPEF is being portrayed within the United States and among Washington’s closest regional security allies as a way of containing China’s growing economic sway over the region. China’s closest neighbours want deeper economic relationships with both powers.
The IPEF has four pillars:
- fair and resilient trade, encompassing seven subtopics, including labour, environmental, and digital standards;
- supply chain resilience;
- infrastructure, clean energy, and decarbonisation; and
- tax and anti-bribery and anti-corruption.
Participants in the IPEF can pick and choose from that menu as they wish. Even though this should eliminate some of the horsetrading that so often stalls conventional trade deals, negotiating agreements for each IPEF pillar will neither be quick nor easy.
The target deadline is likely the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders’ Meeting in November 2023, which the United States will be hosting.