President Joe Biden threw down the gauntlet Monday before China, pledging to defend anti-communist Taiwan in the face of mounting threats by Beijing to wrest the island by force. Biden chose a hypersensitive occasion on which to make the pledge—a meeting in Tokyo with the prime minister of Japan, China’s historic enemy, itching for a firm commitment from its American ally.
Biden left no doubt of what the Japanese sometimes see as Washington’s wavering resolve, responding simply “Yes, that the commitment we made” when a reporter asked if the U.S. would come to Taiwan’s rescue in the event of a Chinese attack across the 100-mile-wide Formosa Strait separating Taiwan from the Chinese mainland.
“The idea that it could be taken by force will dislocate the entire region,” said Biden, in a crisis “similar to what happened in Ukraine.”
The president, standing beside Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, danced carefully, however, around the question of Beijing’s sovereignty, saying the communist government in Beijing was indeed “the sole legal government of China.”
The White House said Biden’s remarks did not represent a shift in longstanding policy, but Biden added to their significance by observing China was “flirting with danger right now by flying so close and all the maneuvers that are undertaken.” Flights of Chinese planes over the waters between Taiwan and the mainland have been a special concern to Japan, which is already at odds with China over the Senkaku Islands in waters near Taiwan. Japan controls the Senkakus, which China claims along with Taiwan.
The U.S., Biden said, agreed “with the One China policy” plus “all the attendant agreements made from there.” Nonetheless, he said, “the idea that [Taiwan] can be taken by force, just taken by force” was “not appropriate.”
That affirmation, however, did not mollify Beijing, where a foreign ministry spokesman said China was not about to yield on its historic claim to Taiwan. There was, he said, “no room for compromise.”
China’s claim to Taiwan has been critical ever since the anti-communist “nationalist Chinese” forces of Chiang Kaishek fled to Taiwan before the communist takeover of the Chinese mainland in 1949. The U.S., under then-President Jimmy Carter, transferred diplomatic recognition from Chiang’s regime in December 1978 but has supported Taiwan ever since with arms and advice while avoiding a treaty arrangement. Taiwan and the U.S. maintain diplomatic relations through an “American institute,” not an embassy, in Taipei.
Biden’s declaration of Washington’s full support of Taiwan climaxed a mission to northeast Asia in which he has in effect repudiated the policies of his predecessor, Donald Trump, who upset both Japanese and Koreans by calling for withdrawal of U.S. troops and offering little support in case they were under attack by China or North Korea, both now armed with missiles and nukes.
On the evening news in Japan, analysts dissected Biden’s remarks. “It’s the president,” Masayoshi Tanaka on NHK’s evening news program concluded. “That’s heavy.”
“The President would not have made these remarks just to "please" Japan or any other ally,” said Evans Revere, a retired senior U.S. diplomat with years of experience in Japan as well as Korea. “This is an important and serious warning to Beijing and it should be understood as such.”
Revere opined that Biden's trip to the region was “carefully crafted to reassure allies, strengthen alliances and partnerships, expand the scope and the foundation of U.S. alliances, and ensure that allies and potential adversaries alike understand that this administration means business.” Indeed, he said, “The president's ability to do all this has been made much easier by his administration's robust response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.”
Beijing’s “attempt to intimidate its neighbors has provided the perfect opportunity for President Biden to reassure allies and partners and show what he is prepared to do to preserve peace and stability,”said Revere. “While admittedly risky, the message was both timely and necessary.”
In Tokyo on Monday, Biden introduced what many regard as the highlight of his swing through the region, the Indo-Pacific Economic Initiative. Twelve countries besides the U.S. are included in the initiative, a successor to the Trans-Pacific Partnership—from which Trump withdrew on his first day as president in January 2017.
The new trading framework, like Biden’s support of Taiwan in case of attack, was another obvious challenge to China, which has been asserting its power and influence throughout Asia from the Korean Peninsula to the South China Sea to the Indian subcontinent and the Indian Ocean.
The declaration of the opening of the initiative, however, was long on flowery language but short on specifics. “Through this initiative,” it said, “we aim to contribute to cooperation, stability, prosperity, development, and peace within the region.”
Biden’s stopover in Tokyo came after a visit to Seoul in which he and the newly inaugurated South Korean president, Yoon Suk-yeol, agreed to open discussions for resuming joint real-life military exercises, which were arbitrarily canceled by Trump to the dismay of U.S. military commanders, after his summit in Singapore in June 2018 with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un.
U.S. commanders contend U.S. and South Korean forces have to exercise regularly on the ground, at sea, and in the air. Playing war games on computers, they say, are all well and good but no substitute for troops in action.
Biden and Yoon both asserted a number of times the need for “strategic deterrence,” a term with which Kishida concurs. The U.S., bound by treaty alliances with both Japan and South Korea, has encouraged “trilateral cooperation” but has gotten nowhere in pressing for a trilateral alliance. Korea remains at odds with Japan on a number of issues, notably the exploitation of Korean “comfort women” by the Japanese in World War II.
Biden has not mentioned Trump by name but not so subtly indicated his contempt for his predecessor, who said he and Kim “fell in love” in Singapore. When asked in Seoul what he would tell Kim, he replied “Hello,” hesitated a moment and added “Period.”