Biden’s ‘Slips of the Tongue’

November 02, 2021 06:00
US President Joe Biden Photo: Reuters

President Joe Biden asserted in late October that the United States would defend Taiwan if it came under attack, a stance different from the “strategic ambiguity” that has characterized American policy.

At a CNN town hall event, Biden was asked if he could “vow to protect Taiwan” given reports that China had tested a hypersonic missile. Biden answered “yes” without hesitation, and went on to say “China, Russia and the rest of the world knows we’re the most powerful military in the history of the world.”

Asked again by CNN anchor Anderson Cooper if the U.S. would defend Taiwan if attacked by China, Biden replied: “Yes, we have a commitment to do that.”

Asked to comment, Wang Wenbin, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, reiterated the Chinese positon, that Taiwan is part of China and that “the Taiwan question is purely China’s internal affairs that allow no foreign interference.”

A White House spokesman clarified that there was no change in U.S. policy, and said that defence cooperation was conducted under the Taiwan Relations Act, a domestic law that calls on the U.S. to provide weapons to help Taiwan defend itself.

Biden had misspoken, and not for the first time.

Back in August, in an ABC News interview, Biden had bracketed Taiwan with Japan and South Korea as allies to which the United States had made a “sacred commitment” to respond if “anyone were to invade or take action.”

After that statement, too, a senior administration official said, “Our policy with regard to Taiwan has not changed.”

This time, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said she noticed that there was some suggestion “that this may have been a slip of the tongue” and again asserted that “Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory.”

Between these two events, Biden had a telephone call with China’s leader, President Xi Jinping. Subsequently, Biden told reporters the two men had agreed that they would “abide by the Taiwan agreement.”

“We made it clear that I don’t think he should be doing anything other than abiding by the agreement,” Biden said. The problem is, there is no document called a Taiwan agreement.

The Chinese foreign ministry was again asked for comment. This time, spokesman Zhao Lijian, instead of commenting on Biden’s ssertion that Xi had agreed to abide by some mysterious “Taiwan agreement,” stressed that the United States had made clear commitments to continue the “one China” policy. He urged the U.S. to “properly handle Taiwan-related issues and avoid sending wrong signals to the Taiwan independence separatist forces lest it should seriously damage China-U.S. relations and peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

The State Department was asked at a press briefing October 7 what Biden meant by the “Taiwan agreement.”
Spokesman Ned Price proceeded to explain U.S. policy, saying “Our ‘One China’ policy has been guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, by the three joint communiques and the six assurances provided to Taipei.”

So American policy, not surprisingly, was guided by domestic law, the Taiwan Relations Act. But there was no explanation as to what Biden meant when he said Xi would abide by the “Taiwan agreement.” Surely, Biden didn’t mean that Xi would abide by U.S. law on Taiwan?

There have been so many slips of the Biden tongue that one has to consider whether they were deliberate and, if so, what the intention was.

Biden will be 79 years old on November 20 and it would be perfectly natural for him to “misspeak” from time to time.

But it is also possible that some of the “slips of the tongue” are deliberate. Thus, even though the United States is not obliged to defend Taiwan, under “strategic ambiguity” it has the option of doing so. Biden may want to telegraph the message to China that he fully intends to protect the island, with the intention of deterring a Chinese attack.

In fact, that could be seen as reinforcing strategic ambiguity, with the president keeping the other side guessing as to what he would do if faced with a choice. Biden may well be encouraging China to believe that he would defend the island out of choice. In fact, in the current political environment, with both political parties strongly critical of China, vowing to defend Taiwan can only help Biden in political terms.

As for saying that Xi has to abide by an American law, the Taiwan Relations Act, well, that is less likely to be an attempt to influence potential adversaries. But then, “slips of the tongue” are quite normal for people of all backgrounds, including presidents.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.