May 26, 2022

Biden's Taiwan comments.

Biden's Taiwan comments.

Plus, a question about red flag laws.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

Biden's controversial comments on Taiwan. Plus, a question about red flag laws.

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen. Official Photo by Mori / Office of the President

See you Tuesday.

Tangle is taking a brief Memorial Day break (off tomorrow and Monday), but we'll be back in your inbox on Tuesday! As always, we encourage you to take little "news breaks" here and there for your own good — especially after weeks like this one. If you want to keep up with us over the weekend, be sure to check out our Instagram.

Quick Hits.

  1. Pennsylvania will begin a recount of its hotly contested GOP Senate primary today. Dr. Mehmet Oz is leading by 902 votes. (The recount)
  2. President Biden is expected to sign an executive order that bans chokeholds, creates a national database of police misconduct and requires anti-bias training. (The order)
  3. In Georgia, Brian Kemp defeated the Trump-endorsed Sen. David Perdue in the primary race for governor, and Brad Ratffensperger beat the Trump-endorsed Jody Hice in the race for secretary of state. Herschel Walker, Trump's pick in the Senate, won his primary and will face Raphael Warnock. Kemp will face Stacey Abrams. (The results)
  4. In Texas, Rep. Henry Cuellar declared victory against progressive challenger Jessica Cisneros, but a recount is underway. Cuellar is a pro-life Democrat supported by the NRA who drew criticism from the progressive wing of the party. (The recount)
  5. Oklahoma's governor signed the strictest abortion ban in the U.S., ending the procedure entirely with exceptions for rape, incest or if the mother's life is in danger. (The bill)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.

Today's topic.

Taiwan. On Monday, President Joe Biden was visiting Japan when he told world leaders that the U.S. would militarily defend Taiwan if China invaded the island.

“Yes,” he said when asked by a reporter if the U.S. would intervene militarily. “That’s the commitment we made.”

The response from Biden was a departure from the U.S. policy known as "strategic ambiguity," in which the U.S. has tried to keep both China and Taiwan happy by not committing to a position on what it would do in the event of an attack. The relationship between Taiwan and the U.S. is one of the most complicated in all of our foreign policy.

Brief refresher: Taiwan is an island with 24 million people, about 100 miles off the coast of mainland China. It previously existed under Japanese control for the 50 years prior to the end of World War II. In 1949, during the civil war in China, Mao Zedong's communist forces pushed Chiang Kai'shek and nationalist forces to flee to the island. Mao's party won the civil war, and the Taiwanese government became autonomous and democratic. However, China continues to claim sovereignty over the island, and Chinese leaders have often talked about both a peaceful unification and a threat of military takeover.

For decades, America's strategic ambiguity has done two things: It has helped prevent China from trying to take Taiwan by force, and it has helped prevent pro-independence Taiwanese from attempting to completely sever the country from China. In other words, it has kept the status quo in place.

You can read our previous explainer here.

30 years ago, most people in Taiwan viewed themselves as at least partly Chinese. Today, that opinion has changed drastically, although a third of the population still identifies as some mix of Chinese and Taiwanese. The most popular position today on reunification with China is to "remain in status quo and decide at a later date." The next two most popular options are "maintain status quo indefinitely" and "move toward independence." Taiwanese people overwhelmingly reject reunification (though some support does exist), and Taiwan's current President Tsai Ing-wen ran on a pro-independence platform.

In 1979, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which commits us to ensuring Taiwan can defend itself but does not require us to defend it militarily. Under Trump, the U.S. deepened its relationship with Taiwan, which is the major source of semiconductor computer chips to the U.S. While we do not formally recognize Taiwan as a country, we maintain a deep trade relationship with them, and we also sell them military equipment.

Biden's comments immediately set off a firestorm. This is the third time he has publicly indicated we would intervene militarily in the last year, and the third time the White House has walked back his comments afterward.

Today, we're going to look at this story through the lens of some U.S.-based writers on the right and left, then my take.

What the right is saying.

  • The responses on the right are mixed, with some worried Biden's stumble could provoke a conflict.
  • Others say Biden is acting in a calculated fashion, and it is the right time to pressure China.
  • Some wrote about the pressure this puts on the U.S. military and the risk at hand.

In Fox News, Liz Peek said the comments were just the latest from Biden that could unintentionally provoke a war.

"Once again, addressing a foreign audience without the benefit of his Teleprompter, President Biden wandered off-script, in this case promising that the U.S. would respond militarily if China were to invade Taiwan," Peek wrote. "Once again, the White House had to walk back his careless remarks. It was just weeks ago that Biden made similarly reckless comments during a visit to Poland, when he appeared to call for the overthrow of Vladimir Putin, and suggested that U.S. GIs might soon enter Ukraine.

"Casually dropping a military threat against China is not smart at any time. But especially now, as President Xi faces criticism for having mishandled the economy and COVID, he could grasp Biden’s injudicious promise like a life raft, using the implied threat as an excuse to ramp up military aggression, or even to invade Taiwan," Peek wrote. "Biden’s suggestion that the U.S. would back Taiwan militarily represents a departure from the ‘strategic ambiguity’ that has long guided official U.S. policy. Our approach has been, in effect, to keep China guessing, hoping that uncertainty would deter Beijing from invading its breakaway region. Biden, speaking in Japan, pretty much demolished that uncertainty."

In The Atlantic, David Frum argued that the words were not a mistake, but calculated policy.

"Not only the Biden-skeptical New York Post but other media organizations, too, have treated these words as an unintended mess that he’d need to 'untangle,' as the CBS anchor John Dickerson phrased it," Frum wrote. "But if there is a tangle, it’s not Biden’s fault. U.S. policy toward Taiwan is often described as 'strategic ambiguity,' usually understood as 'The U.S. will defend Taiwan but won’t say so.' But behind this U.S. ambiguity has stood a prior Chinese ambiguity. China’s version of strategic ambiguity simultaneously: 1) proclaimed Beijing’s theoretical sovereignty over Taiwan, but 2) refrained from overt actions to assert that sovereignty.

"Under the rule of Xi Jinping, China has progressively reneged on the second half of its strategic ambiguity," Frum wrote. "China has ordered bigger and bigger incursions into Taiwan’s air-defense zone. China has the means to mount a naval blockade of the island. It has mounted sustained and aggressive cyberattacks. Throughout, Chinese leaders have growled explicit threats of armed force. Taiwanese officials describe the present situation as the most dangerous of the past 40 years. So Biden is not leading this particular diplomatic two-step. Biden is not really initiating anything at all. As China jettisons its prior strategic ambiguity, so Biden has been pushed away from American strategic ambiguity. As Chinese threats of aggression have become more explicit, so, too, have U.S. promises of defense become more explicit."

In The Washington Examiner, Tom Rogan said the comments increase pressure on the U.S. military.

"Taiwan's reunification with China is a destiny-defining test. The importance with which Xi regards this issue cannot be overstated. It is even more significant to his political identity than the restoration of a greater Russian imperium is to President Vladimir Putin. And that is saying something," Rogan wrote. "After all, the party intends to assure its rise to global preeminence for this century. It wants to replace the U.S.-led democratic international order with its own autocratic mercantile feudal order. But if Beijing cannot bring nearby Taiwan under its heel and finish its own civil war, then Chinese leaders can hardly feel confident about achieving their global aims. Taiwan's continued existence as an independent entity tests the credibility of its ambition.

"Taiwan's democracy matters to Beijing for another reason," Rogan said. "Namely, it offers an increasingly dangerous governing counterpoint to the Communist Party's centralized autocracy. Evinced by its acts of genocide against the Uyghur peoples, its destruction of democracy in Hong Kong, its limits on celebrity culture, and its disappearance even of satirists who dare tease Xi, the Communist Party views true freedom as an existential threat. As tensions within China grow over issues such as COVID-19 lockdowns, living standards, and demographics, the regime's paranoid need for public dominion will only escalate. Taiwan's challenge to China will thus be seen as increasingly intolerable."

What the left is saying.

  • The responses on the left are also mixed, with some supporting Biden’s comments and others worried about escalation.
  • Some say Biden should have a specific plan on how to move forward.
  • Others say the comments amount to a new U.S. policy.

The Washington Post editorial board said Biden got less ambiguous and more strategic.

"We don’t pretend to know why Mr. Biden made his comment. What we will say is that it’s not cause for a crisis," the board wrote. "To the contrary, there might be a benefit. Mr. Biden did not so much end strategic ambiguity as modify it. Between his repeated allusions to a U.S. duty to defend Taiwan — Monday’s was the third such since August — and his staff’s repeated denials that the president’s words mean quite what they seem to mean, Beijing has new reasons to think long and hard before sending its armed forces across the Taiwan Strait. Yet the People’s Republic of China cannot quite accuse the United States of violating the understandings forged in Nixon’s time because, technically, it hasn’t.

"If there’s a flaw in Mr. Biden’s approach to countering China, it’s the vagueness of the plan for regional commercial integration he’s offering — the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework," the board wrote. "It is no substitute for the market-opening Trans-Pacific Partnership that was negotiated by President Barack Obama and then abandoned by President Donald Trump. Mr. Biden has China guessing about U.S. intentions toward Taiwan. Maximizing Beijing’s worries, however, would require much more robust economic engagement with East Asia, India and Australia."

In The Guardian, Stephen Wertheim said the comments were dangerous.

"This is the third time in less than a year that Biden has publicly declared that the United States would use force to keep Beijing from seizing the island," Wertheim said. "Once again, the White House scrambled to clarify that the US position has not actually changed: the United States continues to adhere to a One China policy and maintain ‘strategic ambiguity’ rather than clarity as to whether it would defend Taiwan. This approach is a wise one that, as many administration officials recognize, has served the United States well. But repeated gaffes risk being interpreted as changes in policy. They increase the chance of damaging peace and stability between the world’s two leading powers.

"No single presidential utterance is likely to cause President Xi Jinping of China to make a policy decision of enormous consequence," Wertheim wrote. "More troubling, however, is the larger policy drift in Washington to which the gaffe contributes. Over the past few years, members of Congress have increasingly called for strategic clarity about using force to defend Taiwan and have promoted other steps to restore the appearance of diplomatic relations between Washington and Taipei. Under Donald Trump’s administration, the United States loosened restrictions on high-level contacts with Taiwanese officials, and the Biden administration has issued new guidelines to reflect 'our deepening unofficial relationship.' Most important, these measures have accompanied the growing hostility across US-China relations, as the world’s two leading countries engage in intensifying economic, technological and security competition."

In Slate, Fred Kaplan questioned what was really behind the recent comments.

"But what, exactly, should we make of it? Was Biden just pulling yet another Biden, accidentally opening his mouth and speaking a bit too cavalierly on an issue requiring subtle sensitivity? Or did he deliberately unfurl a new policy? And was it a good or bad thing if he did? As is often the case with such incidents, the answers are unclear," Kaplan said. "Biden’s remarks may have been calculated or careless. The consequences could be damaging or beneficial or both. Either way, they have added another element of uncertainty to U.S.-Taiwan relations, a uniquely head-twisting hall of mirrors in the funhouse of American foreign policy.

"Hours after each of these cases—in August, in September, and this past Monday—the White House issued a 'clarifying' statement, noting that U.S. policy had not changed," Kaplan said. "Biden himself affirmed on Tuesday, standing alongside other Asian allies, who had assembled for a conference, that the policy of strategic ambiguity 'has not changed at all.' But is that true? Biden is the president. Three times in the past nine months, he has made statements about U.S. security guarantees toward Taiwan that differ quite a bit from the tenets of strategic ambiguity."

My take.

One thing is abundantly clear from reading all this commentary about Biden's position and how we'd navigate a Chinese invasion of Taiwan: Nobody seems to agree on it.

So... isn't that the point? What's more ambiguous than that?

The only people who really know whether this was another "gaffe" or a "blunder" are Biden and his closest aides, but there is good reason to believe it's anything but. For starters, this didn't happen just once. As many commentators have noted, this is the third time Biden has explicitly said the U.S. would defend Taiwan militarily. Second, this is right in Biden's wheelhouse. Few politicians have spent more time engaged on the China-Taiwan issue than he has, and his history with President Xi is also deep and storied. Third, there is a practical reason for what they are doing: To keep China guessing.

As conservative commentator Bret Stephens put it, "Don’t believe the diplomatic spin that there’s nothing to see here. Don’t believe, either, that the president didn’t know what he was doing. What Biden said is dramatic — as well as prudent, necessary and strategically astute."

One of the things I regularly complimented Trump on was that our adversaries never had any idea what he was going to do. Opponents of the former president say this was because he is a raving madman, but Trump and his allies maintained that his unpredictability was a strength. I tend to agree. And I think a similar idea exists here. It is important that your allies know where you stand, but it's also important that you maintain some level of ambiguity with your adversaries. The less China knows about how we will respond, the more cautious they will be, and the better things are for Taiwan and the world.

Now, of course, this is not Ukraine and Russia. These are two vastly different countries with different dynamics and histories and interests. While the Taiwanese population seems quite cool on the idea of reunification now, it should be said that it's a political issue that isn't going away anytime soon. Their agency should be prioritized in this equation, and the U.S. should continue to defer to the democratically elected leaders of Taiwan on the path forward.

As for what we should actually do, I'm not sure we'd have much of a choice. Even from a purely nationalistic perspective, if China were to invade Taiwan and we did nothing, the island would almost certainly fall. That would probably cripple our economy and send us into a recession or depression, given how dependent we are on Taiwanese semiconductors and other products. Unlike Ukraine, I'm not sure we'd be able to sit this one out and simply fund the game from afar. Like Ukraine, we'd also be faced with the moral question of whether we should simply allow one nation to invade and conquer a smaller, weaker, free country while doing nothing.

Fortunately, I don't really think this is all that likely. There are too many incentives not to have a real conflict — on both sides — and even though China continues to escalate its military exercises and bluster, its leadership has until now been far more cautious and calculating than to launch a war that could send the entire region into a tailspin.

I hope.

Have thoughts about "my take?" You can reply to this email and write in or leave a comment if you're a subscriber.

Your questions, answered.

Q: Red flag laws always come to the forefront when there is a mass shooting by a troubled individual who publicly displayed many warning signs, which seems to be most of them. As a libertarian, my concern with red flag laws is they seek to limit or deprive someone of a constitutional right before they have committed a crime. Do you support red flag laws and/or do you see them as a violation of due process?

— Luke, Lincoln, Delaware

Tangle: For the uninitiated: Red flag laws are when a state gives a court authority to confiscate firearms from someone who is deemed a danger to themselves or others. The request can come from relatives, friends or law enforcement. It seems worth noting that there are murmurs of Congress pushing a red flag law with some Republican support in the coming days.

You may have noticed in yesterday's lengthy piece on the Texas shooting that I didn't mention red flag laws as part of my "solutions" section. This is, honestly, because I can't make my mind up. I see the obvious benefit of them, in that they give the "first layer" of defense I wrote about yesterday (friends and family) the ability to stop someone in crisis from using a gun to be violent. Research on the laws are limited, but 19 states already have them, and so far it looks like — at the very least — they reduce suicides.

At the same time I share your concern about due process. Some states allow courts to order firearms taken away before a hearing is conducted. It isn't hard to imagine someone abusing this process in a vindictive way. There is also the dynamic of taking something someone owns away from them versus preventing someone from buying something that makes me feel a little icky. I prefer the latter, not the former, but with 400 million guns out there already there’s no doubt some shouldn’t be in the hands they’re in.

Still, I could see red flag laws that function well, with certain conditions: Harsh penalties for people who make false allegations, mandatory hearings before a decision about taking a weapon, and clear (and cost-free) avenues for someone to petition that ruling to get their gun back if they feel it was wrong.

Again, this wouldn't be a priority for me over the solutions I wrote about yesterday. But I definitely see both the merit and the concern, and since I had no definitive position I didn’t think it was worth addressing yesterday.

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

A story that matters.

On Wednesday, the head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Dr. Robert Califf testified on the conditions of the Abbott Nutrition plant in Michigan that was shut down. The plant was at the center of the baby formula crisis. Califf said the plant was "egregiously unsanitary," citing a leaking roof, water pooled on the floor, and cracks in production equipment that allowed bacteria to thrive. Califf also conceded the FDA's response was too slow in initially addressing the problems at the plant. The plant is now expected to reopen on June 4 after it meets the FDA and Justice Department’s required corrective guidelines. The New York Times has the story (subscription).


  • 5.3. The number of gun deaths per 100,000 children aged 0-19, now this age group’s leading cause of death in America.
  • 4.8. The number of motor vehicle deaths per 100,000 children aged 0-19, now the second-leading cause of childhood death in America.
  • 13. The number of countries globally that recognize Taiwan as a sovereign nation.
  • 163,000. The number of active duty military personnel in the Taiwanese army.
  • 2,035,000. The number of active duty personnel in the Chinese army.
  • 65%. The percentage of the globe's computer chips that are manufactured in Taiwan.

Have a nice day.

An 83-year-old woman in Missouri is becoming a Tough Mudder legend. Mildred Wilson has competed in three Tough Mudders, a five-kilometer endurance obstacle course that often includes human fears like fire, water, electricity, heights and more. “There’s a lot of people who think as they get older that they just have to sit down and quit. It’s not so." Wilson said. “I just enjoy them. I’ve always enjoyed competition." Along with competing in the events, Wilson uses them to raise money to build freshwater wells in Africa. She and her son are competing this year and say their goal is to raise $5,000. KFVS 12 has the story.

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