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Last week I tweeted that I was worried that President Biden would do something stupid and reckless to try to establish or reestablish (depending on our viewpoint) his global chops following the Afghanistan military withdrawal his administration has so disastrously conducted. As known by RealityChek regulars, American Presidents have followed this course before – notably John F. Kennedy.

And sure enough, on Wednesday he at least came uncomfortably close. No, Mr. Biden didn’t invade or threaten another country, or even move U.S. military forces into provocative positions versus, say, China or Russia or Iran or North Korea. But he did say something that should worry all Americans. In his interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos, the President suggested that Taiwan now enjoys the same status in American eyes as Japan, South Korea, and the members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). That is, they’re allies in whose defense against external aggression the United States is treaty-bound to fight.

Specifically, when asked by Stephanopoulos if China could credibly tell the Taiwanese – who they claim run a renegade province that Beijing has vowed to bring back into its fold with force if necessary – “See? You can’t count on the Americans,” Mr. Biden’s response included:

We have made– kept every [defense] commitment. We made a sacred commitment to Article Five that if in fact anyone were to invade or take action against our NATO allies, we would respond. Same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with– Taiwan. It’s not even comparable to talk about that.”

The President is right about NATO. In fact, that Article Five he mentioned is the keystone of the treaty that established the alliance. In 1949, the signatories agreed

that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs…will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”

The Japan-U.S. Security Treaty of 1951 contains its own Article Five. The key section:

Each Party recognizes that an armed attack against either Party in the territories under the administration of Japan would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes.”

The promise to meet aggression with U.S. military force is a little looser here – and notice that the treaty creates no Japanese obligation to aid the United States with its own military if American territory comes under attack. The reasons are complicated – for example, in 1947, Japan, then under U.S. military cooperation, adopted a constitution containing a proposal from Supreme Allied Commander General Douglas MacArthur that pledged “never” to “maintain” “land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential.” The idea, of course, was to prevent Japan from ever reemerging as the type of threat it became in the 1930s. And at that point, it wasn’t even a fully sovereign nation, much less an armed one.

Nonetheless, as the Cold War developed, and Washington’s priorities in East Asia shifted toward using any actual and potential assets available to resist communist aggression, the United States proceeded to push Japan to rearm and add to the regional forces that could fight the Soviets or the Chinese or the North Koreans. But even though Japan continuously balked, the United States’ determination to defend Japan could never be seriously doubted as long as tens of thousands of American servicemen were stationed on Japanese soil, representing a “tripwire” whose presence and possible vulnerability to the superior conventional militaries of potential regional aggressors would guarantee an armed U.S. response – poentially complete with the use of nuclear weapons – against an attack on Japan. 

A similar U.S. commitment – complete with unequal obligaions and tripwire forces – has been made to South Korea.

There’s now clearly a case for adopting the same policy toward Taiwan. From 1954 to 1979, the U.S. security relations with Taiwan were governed by a assymetrical defense treaty, too, complete wiith an Article Five American commitment. But since the United States decided to recognize the People’s Republic of China (yes, the Communists) as China’s sole legitimate government, its approach toward Taiwan’s defense has been informally called “strategic ambiguity” – which is just as fuzzy and plastic as it sounds.

Yet whereas that posture arguably made sense for most of the post-1979 period, since the People’s Republic has grown so much stronger and more important economically than Taiwan (which still calls itself the Republic of China), the island can now legitimately claim to boast an asset vital to America’s own national security and prosperity – world leadership in the manufacture of the world’s most advanced and powerful semiconductors.

At the same time, extending Article Five-type status even to a technological powerhouse like Taiwan isn’t a decision to be made on the spur of the moment. The impact on China – which has significantly closed the military gap with the United States especially in its own backyard (where Taiwan is located) – needs to be carefully considered. And more important, it’s a move that the United States can’t make by presidential fiat. Congress needs to approve.

On Thursday, a “senior Biden administration official” told reporters that American “policy with regard to Taiwan has not changed.” And the usual supposed experts and talking heads said that Mr. Biden had simply added to his long record as a “gaffe machine.” But who the heck is this senior official, anyway? Why should anyone believe him or her if they’re not willing to speak for attribution? And why should the Chinese take this walk-back seriously, or take comfort in (unofficial) assurances that the President was just Biden-ing again – especially since “strategic ambiguity” has become a lot bolder under both him and President Trump?

Moreover, if they’re not aware of it already, the Chinese should know that Presidents have used all sorts of ways short of formal treaties to tie the nation militarily to foreign countries, and even to use military force (Google “Tonkin Gulf Resolution,” or “Authorization for Use of Military Force”), and that timely, effective Congressional resistance is anything but a sure thing. That could go double for a national political establishment that today is united by a sense of humiliation due to the Afghanistan debacle – and possibly spoiling for an opportunity to regain global confidence.

Again, I’m not against a treaty commitment to Taiwan. But it needs to be made with full consideration of all the pluses and minuses, and according to clear Constitutional procedures. And it certainly shouldn’t result from an out-of-the-blue comment by a Chief Executive under heavy political fire, however richly deserved.