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Biden takes the ‘ambiguity’ out of defending Taiwan

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine looms large as the world gauges China’s ambitions.

In a joint news conference with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan in Tokyo on Monday, President Biden indicated that the United States would use military force to defend Taiwan if it were ever attacked by China.Doug Mills/NYT

On the first day of President Biden’s five-day Asia trip, Taiwan was forced to scramble its fighter jets in response to 14 Chinese aircraft entering its air defense identification zone.

On day four of his trip, Biden signaled in the strongest terms yet that the United States was firmly committed to the defense of Taiwan should it be attacked by China — that the last thing the world needed was another Ukraine, another self-governing democratic nation invaded by the forces of an autocrat laying claim to a purportedly rebellious province.

Ever since Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February, the international community has been eyeing China’s increasingly aggressive behavior toward the island nation that the People’s Republic still considers part of its territory. In fact on the day of the Russian invasion, nine Chinese military aircraft entered Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, according to Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense.

So Monday in Tokyo, when asked by a reporter, “Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?,” Biden gave an unequivocal “yes,” adding, “That’s the commitment we made.”


Biden was also quick to add, “We agree with the ‘One China’ policy . . . but the idea that it [Taiwan] can be taken by force, just taken by force, is just not appropriate. It would dislocate the entire region and be another action similar to what happened in Ukraine. And so it’s a burden that’s even stronger.”

The “commitment” Biden referred to was the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act signed at the same time the US recognized the government of mainland China as the government of China. Taiwan, for example, has no embassy in the United States (although the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office acts as a de facto embassy), and it has no representation at the United Nations. But the 1979 act did provide that “the United States will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain sufficient self-defense capabilities.” What “defense services” might mean has never been fully explained.


The resulting policy toward Taiwan has become known as “strategic ambiguity” — a phrase only diplomats could love. And Monday Biden removed some of that ambiguity.

It wasn’t, of course, the first time Biden had issued a similar warning to Beijing to keep its hands off Taiwan. Last August, fresh from the disaster that was the US evacuation from Afghanistan, Biden told ABC News that the United States had a “sacred commitment” that “if in fact anyone were to invade or take action against our NATO allies, we would respond. Same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with Taiwan.”

Last October, at a forum hosted by CNN, he was asked, “Are you saying that the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense if China attacked?”

“Yes. We have a commitment,” Biden replied.

Now, for the third time, the president has made it as clear as humanly possible that Taiwan will not be sacrificed on the altar of strategic ambiguity. This was no slip of the tongue.

Just as it is certainly not simply a happy coincidence that Japan has taken unprecedented steps to give military aid to Ukraine, to accept more than 1,000 Ukrainian refugees, and to increase its own defense budget. Russia may be the current bête noire of the global community, but China’s aggressive stance toward Taiwan makes it a close second.


Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan, speaking at the joint news conference with Biden, also addressed the possibility of a Ukraine-style invasion of Taiwan by China, noting, any “unilateral attempt to change the status quo by force like Russia’s aggression against Ukraine this time should never be tolerated in the Indo-Pacific.”

Among the many lessons learned from the world’s naive insistence that somehow President Vladimir Putin of Russia could be cajoled into giving up his designs on Ukraine is that tyrants aren’t easily dissuaded if they see an opportunity for conquest. China must never be allowed to view Taiwan as an easy target. Taiwan’s own military and defensive capability — much of it US-made — is one way to prevent that.

Biden’s addition of some presidential clarity to the usual diplo-speak ambiguity is even better.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.