resident Joe Biden was asked at a CNN town hall earlier this week whether the United States would protect Taiwan if China attacked. “Yes, we have a commitment to do that,” he said. Biden’s comments elicited swift condemnation from Beijing, with Chinese ministry spokesperson Wang Wengbin announcing within hours of the president’s town hall that there is no “room for China to compromise or make concessions” on the Taiwan issue. White House officials tried to walk back the president’s comments in the following days, clarifying that Biden was not announcing any changes to Washington’s established Taiwan policy. “The U.S. defense relationship with Taiwan is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act. We will uphold our commitment under the Act, we will continue to support Taiwan’s self-defense, and we will continue to oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo,” said a U.S. official.
Biden’s comments follow a familiar pattern of stark U.S.-China disagreement over the status and future of the self-governing island to the east of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), accompanied by rising military tensions and diplomatic demarches.
Ostensibly, Washington and Beijing share a basic understanding concerning Taiwanese statehood. As part of continued joint efforts to normalize the bilateral relationship in the 1980s, Washington adopted a “One-China policy” explicitly rejecting the notion that there are two sovereign Chinas, or one sovereign China and one sovereign Taiwan. But Beijing employs a different term when discussing the issue of Taiwan: “One-China principle.” Far from merely being a stylistic discrepancy, the two phrases convey sharply different visions of cross-strait relations.
“When the Chinese use the phrase One-China Principle, their principle is that there is only one China and Taiwan is part of China,” noted Paul Heer, a distinguished fellow at the Center for the National Interest. The U.S. One-China policy, explains Heer, agrees that there is only one China but does not inherently “accept the notion that Taiwan is part of the People’s Republic of China.” Rather, Washington believes that Taipei and Beijing should reach an agreement on how to “resolve the historical issue of the separation of Taiwan” from the Chinese mainland. Heer says that the current military-diplomatic tensions over Taiwan stem from Beijing’s perception that Washington and Taipei have largely abandoned the One-China framework.