Ambiguity of Biden Administration's First Statement on Taiwan

By Sung Cheng-en

The Journalist, January 28, 2021


Not long after President Joe Biden took office in the United States, China immediately sent military aircraft to harass Taiwan on January 23 and 24. It is generally believed that apart from the practice and the entry of the USS Theodore Roosevelt carrier fleet into the South China Sea, it is also a political test towards the Biden administration.


In response, the Biden administration quickly responded. On the evening of Saturday, January 23, the Department of State issued a statement condemning China for threatening regional peace and stability.


Soft but Strong Statement Supporting Taiwan


The statement placed China's military operations in the framework of the Indo-Pacific region, pointing out that China's continuous attempts to intimidate its "neighbors", including Taiwan, is already a pattern of behavior, and the United States is paying attention and concerned about this.


The United States calls on Beijing to cease military, diplomatic, and economic oppression towards Taiwan; instead, it should have meaningful dialogue with Taiwan’s "democratically elected representatives." The United States reaffirms that it will stand with its friends and allies in the Indo-Pacific region to advance mutual prosperity, security, and values, including deepening relations with democratic Taiwan.


The United States has reiterated its commitment to Taiwan. (1) It continues to support the peaceful settlement of cross-strait disputes in a manner that suits the wishes and best interests of the people of Taiwan. (2) It reaffirms that the United States has long followed the "Three Joint Communiqués" and the "Taiwan Relations Act." And the promise of the "six guarantees." (3) Continue to assist Taiwan to maintain sufficient self-defense capabilities.


Finally, it states that the United States’ commitment to Taiwan is "rock-solid" and will help maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and the region.


This statement is soft but strong, maintains the Trump administration's tone in supporting Taiwan and shows the continuity of the U.S. foreign policy.


The statement was issued on the evening of the weekend, stating that it was written by officials of the State Council who worked overtime and was issued on the same day after being submitted for approval. The conclusion echoes the words used by Secretary of State Antony Blinken during the hearing, stating that the United States’ commitment to Taiwan is rock solid and is of great significance for future policies.


Although the tone remains unchanged, the wording of the statement shows that the United States intends to bring its Taiwan policy back to the framework of the past. Diplomacy is an exquisite knowledge, and the policy intention behind the writer is hidden in the wording of the statement. Since the formal statement was written carefully, it must also be interpreted carefully.


Return to “Unofficial” Jargon


The terms used in the State Council’s statement are noteworthy as follows:


  1. Use of "People's Republic of China" (PRC) to refer to China. This is in line with the position of the People’s Republic of China on behalf of China after the "Communiqué on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations" between the United States and China in 1979 and refers to the government level.


  1. Use of "Taiwan" throughout the text complies with the unofficial policies under the "Taiwan Relations Act."


  1. The term "Taiwan's democratically elected representatives" is puzzling. The United States calls on "Beijing" to engage in meaningful dialogue with Taiwan. Here, "Beijing" and "Taiwan" are used side by side.


First, the expression here has a strong sense of removing the “official,” avoiding recognizing Taiwan’s “government.” In this regard, the main body of the dialogue also refers to the method of democratic election, rather than the official title of president or the head of government.


Second, the term "representatives" does not appear in the "Taiwan Relations Act" but comes from the internal regulations of the State Department to govern official exchanges between the United States and Taiwan. In order to avoid referring to Taiwanese officials as "officials" in the internal regulations, Taiwan government officials are collectively referred to as "representatives". These internal regulations, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has repealed in a statement on January 9.


In the new administration’s first statement to Taiwan, the State Department re-used the terms used to symbolize the "unofficial" imprint of Taiwan and the United States, but Secretary of State Antony Blinken did not shy away from calling "President Tsai" in the hearing. Even if the statement is more formal that the official title cannot be used, there are alternative terms such as "leaders". What is the true meaning in this? The most likely explanation is that the "unofficial" has been brought back to life.


This is not to say that the United States has no determination to support Taiwan, or that it is worried about angering China or that high level officials have been infiltrated by China. America’s return to the past framework may be out of goodwill. Many people in the current Washington policy circle believe that returning to the framework under the "Taiwan Relations Act" will help Taiwan and maintain regional security and stability.


Focus on Whether Taiwan is Recognized as Country 


Coupled with this, Pompeo stated in November last year that the United States' position was that "Taiwan is no longer a part of China," and the January abolition of restrictions on U.S.-Taiwan exchanges. These have broken free of the shackles imposed on Taiwan in the past, and are moving towards treating Taiwan as at least a country. The difference in terms, coupled with the mention of the "Three Joint Communiqués" which have  not appeared for a long time, and the first Taiwan-related statement of the Biden administration's State Department, it has a strong sense of a return to the past framework.


Of course, we cannot judge the direction of the Biden administration’s Taiwan policy with a single statement. Whether the United States returns to the “One China” framework involves the American interpretation of its own “One China” policy. The statement and practical aspects of policy influence each other, which is an interactive process. In the process of observing, it’s important to see whether Taiwan is recognized as a state or not, and whether the United States intends to suppress this or not.


The author is a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford.



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