Biden’s vow to defend Taiwan marks the end of Obama-era neutrality

Joe Biden will be flying back from his trip to Asia having made a big promise: that the US will defend Taiwan if it is ever invaded by China. ‘It would dislocate the entire region,’ he said, ‘and be another action similar to what happened in Ukraine.’

Until now, America’s policy has been one of strategic ambiguity: this meant not saying whether or not it would come to Taiwan’s aid. Biden’s remarks go further than that policy and suggest a new dividing line: that the democracies punishing Russia for Ukraine also stand ready to confront China over Taiwan.

Biden’s Asia trip underlines one of his recent themes: that the new divide is not ‘Russia vs The West’ but democracy vs autocracy – but this time on a global basis. I argued in my Daily Telegraph column last week that the invasion of Ukraine has seen Asian democracies take sanctions against Russia in a way they didn’t after Crimea in 2014 – throwing up an alliance that may now supplant ‘the West’ with something better. For example:

  • Japan had been trying to improve relations with Moscow, listing areas of joint collaboration etc. After the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Japanese public opinion was against sanctions on Russia. But this changed after Ukraine: sanctions are now in place and Japan’s PM said he’s defending a rules-based order on which Asian peace also depends. Ten years of Japan-Russia diplomacy is now in tatters.
  • Singapore hadn’t sanctioned anyone since the Vietnam/Cambodia flare up. But it’s now sanctioning Russia, saying the attack on Ukraine is an ‘existential’ issue for small democracies.
  • South Korea normally keeps its head down during times of crisis and didn’t join 2014 sanctions vs Russia. Now, it’s sending LNG to Europe and targeting Russian banks. Biden thanked them in his visit.
  • Taiwan has projected the Ukrainian flag over major buildings and said it ‘will join democratic countries to jointly impose sanctions’.

Biden’s comments in Tokyo were unscripted and came in answer to a question.

‘Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?’ he was asked. ‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘You are?’ the reporter said. ‘That’s the commitment we made,’ Biden said. Except it isn’t: this is a new commitment. Biden has ad-libbed support for Taiwan before only for the White House to row back (it attempted to do so this time as well, saying the policy has not changed.) But with a sitting president having twice promised to defend Taiwan, it seems a new de-facto policy is emerging. The Obama-era neutrality may be another casualty of the Ukraine war.


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