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Would the U.S. defend Taiwan if China invades? Biden said yes. But it's complicated

President Biden participates in a CNN town hall at the Baltimore Center Stage Pearlstone Theater, on Oct. 21. When asked whether the U.S. would protect Taiwan if China attacked, he said the U.S. has a "commitment" to do so.
President Biden participates in a CNN town hall at the Baltimore Center Stage Pearlstone Theater, on Oct. 21. When asked whether the U.S. would protect Taiwan if China attacked, he said the U.S. has a "commitment" to do so.

This week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on countries to support Taiwan's participation in the United Nations. The self-governed island has not been a member of the body since October 1971, when the U.N. gave Beijing a seat at the table and removed Taiwan.

"Taiwan's meaningful participation in the UN system is not a political issue, but a pragmatic one," Blinken said, citing its democracy, transparency, respect for human rights and the rule of law, and importance to the global high-tech economy.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian begged to differ. He said Blinken's comments "seriously violate" the agreements that underpin China-U.S. relations and America's own commitments.

The to-and-fro is the latest in a string of episodes of U.S.-China tensions that have cast a spotlight on America's Taiwan policy.

Just last week, during a CNN "town hall," President Biden touched upon the most sensitive of all related issues, saying unequivocally that America would leap into action if China attacked Taiwan.

Here's the transcript from the White House:

MR. [ANDERSON] COOPER:  So, are you saying that the United States would come to Taiwan's defense if —

THE PRESIDENT:  Yes.

MR. COOPER:  — China attacked?

THE PRESIDENT:  Yes, we have a commitment to do that.

The White House later clarified: "The president was not announcing any change in our policy and there is no change in our policy."

Then on Tuesday, Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen said in a CNN interview she has "faith" that the U.S. would, in fact, defend Taiwan if the Chinese government made a move.

So what, exactly, is U.S. policy toward Taiwan?

The U.S. formally acknowledges "one China"

For 30 years after the Communist Party seized power in mainland China after a civil war with its rival Nationalist Party, Washington did not recognize it as the rightful government of China. Instead, the U.S. had an embassy in Taipei, where the remnants of the Nationalist-run Republic of China (ROC) had set up shop after fleeing to Taiwan in 1949.

In the 1970s, as geopolitical winds shifted, Washington and Beijing laid the groundwork for rapprochement to counterbalance the Soviet Union. And at the start of 1979, the U.S. gave formal diplomatic recognition the communist-run People's Republic of China, cutting ties with Taipei.

In doing so, Washington recognized the PRC as the sole legal government of China. It also acknowledged Beijing's position that there is only one China, and that Taiwan is a part of it. But the U.S. has never supported the Communist Party's claim that the People's Republic of China has sovereignty over Taiwan. This is known as the "One China policy." Beijing considers the island of nearly 24 million people a wayward province to be brought back into the fold, preferably peacefully; by force, if necessary.

Carter signed the Taiwan Relations Act

After the U.S. cut off formal relations with Taipei, Congress passed, and President Jimmy Carter signed, legislation known as the Taiwan Relations Act. It has underpinned U.S. ties toward the island ever since.

The Taiwan Relations Act did two main things.

First, it enshrined as U.S. policy the promotion of robust informal relations with Taiwan, and established a de facto embassy in Taipei called the American Institute in Taiwan.

Second, it declared that diplomatic recognition of Beijing "rests on the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means." Anything less would be of "grave concern" to the U.S. Critically, it noted: "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 a sufficient self-defense capability."

The American Institute in Taiwan building stands in Taipei, widely seen as a de facto embassy to Taiwan.
Sam Yeh / AFP via Getty Images
The American Institute in Taiwan building stands in Taipei, widely seen as a de facto embassy to Taiwan.

The U.S. keeps its strategy ambiguous on purpose

How, exactly, the U.S. would help in Taiwan's self-defense was left unspecified in the 1979 legislation. The nature and quantity of "defense articles and defense services" went unstated — intentionally. That is the cornerstone of a policy known as "strategic ambiguity."

The U.S. has sold Taiwan advanced weapons and helped train its soldiers. But for 42 years, successive U.S. administrations have stood by "strategic ambiguity."

The reason is twofold.

First, the possibility of U.S. intervention has been enough to give Chinese military planners pause. Strategic ambiguity has forced Beijing to assume the U.S. would get involved. Even though the balance of power across the Taiwan Strait is shifting in China's favor, experts believe it is still years away from being able to successfully seize Taiwan.

Second, ambiguity is a deterrent against those in Taiwan who might be tempted to declare independence. Taiwan may be self-governed, but a formal declaration of independence would almost certainly trigger a crisis. With no assurance of U.S. help fending off Chinese troops, the costs are potentially higher.

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen (left) presents a flag during the commissioning ceremony of the a domestically made warship at the Suao Naval Base in Yilan county, Taiwan, on Sept. 9. Taiwan's president oversaw the commissioning of the new ship as part of the island's plan to boost its defense capacity amid heightened tensions with China.
Chiang Ying-ying / AP
Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen (left) presents a flag during the commissioning ceremony of the a domestically made warship at the Suao Naval Base in Yilan county, Taiwan, on Sept. 9. Taiwan's president oversaw the commissioning of the new ship as part of the island's plan to boost its defense capacity amid heightened tensions with China.

Biden has vowed to defend Taiwan before

Biden's comment on CNN wasn't his first time taking an assertive stance on Taiwan defense. In August, he told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos the U.S. had "made a sacred commitment" to defend its NATO allies, and the same held for Taiwan. Administration officials later signaled that America's Taiwan policy had not changed.

As for America's position on Taiwan's participation in the United Nations, Blinken stopped short of calling for Taiwan to be readmitted to the body. Taiwan has been allowed to participate in U.N. forums in the past, such as the World Health Assembly, often as an observer. But Beijing has forestalled such participation in recent years because it doesn't like the current Taiwan leadership, which hails from the traditionally independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party. Blinken said, "Taiwan's exclusion undermines the important work of the UN and its related bodies."

For now, it appears, the Biden administration is publicly sticking with America's long-standing "One China" policy.

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