Soldiers attend the Taiwanese army special command training session at a camp base in Hsinchu, Taiwan on March 25, 2022.

Soldiers attend the Taiwanese army special command training session at a camp base in Hsinchu, Taiwan on March 25, 2022. Anadolu Agency via Getty Images / Walid Berrazeg

Despite Biden’s Latest, Pentagon Says Nothing Has Changed On US Defense of Taiwan

The president suggested that the U.S. is willing to get involved militarily—which could mean troops.

For a third time, President Joe Biden has suggested that the United States would come to the military defense of Taiwan, provoking hasty administration “clarifications” that nothing’s changed. 

During his first trip to Asia on Monday, Biden was asked by a reporter: “You didn’t want to get involved in the Ukraine conflict militarily for obvious reasons. Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?”

“Yes,” the president replied. 

That single word seemed to indicate that the United States would do more to support Taiwan in its defense against a Chinese invasion than it did Ukraine against Russia.

In Ukraine, the U.S. and Western allies were initially reluctant to provide lethal aid to Ukraine, and the administration stressed that early shipments of weapons were defensive in nature, to avoid the risk of escalation. But that’s largely changed. The U.S. has sent anti-aircraft weapons to shoot down Russian warplanes – which is ostensibly why the U.S. will not provide fighter jets. On Monday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced that Denmark had agreed to send over-the-horizon Harpoon anti-ship missiles.

For Taiwan, that similar defensive support is maintained under the Taiwan Relations Act, which allows the U.S. to provide security assistance “to provide Taiwan with the military means to defend itself,” a White House official said.

The official emphasized that that “policy has not changed” after Biden spoke. 

If Biden did intend to say the U.S. would go further militarily with Taiwan than it has in Ukraine, one way might be to send U.S. troops. 

At a joint press conference at the Pentagon on Monday, neither Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Army Gen. Mark Milley would address the question of troops. Austin said “as the president has said, our  One China policy has not changed.” 

Repeating the White House line issued shortly after Biden spoke, Austin continued that the U.S. is committed to supporting Taiwan through the Taiwan Relations Act, “to help provide Taiwan the means to defend itself.”

Milley said he could not discuss any options for troops, or the risks associated if they were sent to defend Taiwan. 

“There’s a variety of contingency plans that we hold, all of them are highly classified, Pacific, Europe and elsewhere, right? And it would be very inappropriate for me at a microphone to discuss the risk associated with those plans relative to anything with respect to Taiwan or anywhere else in the Pacific,” Milley said. 

Some lawmakers quickly criticized the president for the remarks. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Biden “sort of violated” America’s One China policy with the comment, but acknowledged it’s likely a matter of “when” – not if – China tries to take Taiwan, especially, McCaul said, given its powerful superconductor industry. 

McCaul also wondered if the American public would be as supportive of helping Taiwan militarily as it has been of helping Ukraine win the fight with Russia, which has been portrayed as a fight between democracy and autocracy, or good guys versus bad guys

“I don’t know how many Americans would want to go to war over a tiny island they know nothing about,” McCaul said Monday at the Davos World Economic Forum in Switzerland. “We had to educate them on Ukraine [and] why Ukraine is so important.”

A conflict over Taiwan could be murkier than Ukraine. Two-thirds of Americans view China as a “major threat” and more than 80 percent have an unfavorable view of Beijing, according to a Pew Research poll released last month. But while 70 percent of Americans call Russia an “enemy,” just 25 percent name China an “enemy,” a decrease from 34 percent last year. Still, while more than half of Amerians called China a “competitor” last year, that number is now up to 62 percent.

There’s also a much smaller Taiwanese constituency to lobby members of Congress if a conflict were to happen. In 2018, there were almost one million Ukrainians in the United States. It’s more difficult to estimate the number of Taiwanese people in America, but a 2019 study estimates a range of 195,000 to 697,000.

China ramped up aggressive flights around Taiwan last October. Over three days, it sent almost 100 aircraft, some of which breached Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, an offshore area where Taiwan maintains control of the airspace. In recent days, China has sent new waves of aircraft, including J-11 fighter jets and J-16 strike fighters and Xian H-6 bombers.