After President Biden took many by surprise (including his own policy makers most likely) by stating that the US would defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack, Donald Forbes assesses the questions the US must now address on this most contentious of foreign policy issues.

President Biden, recklessly making foreign policy on the wing on live television, told a CNN town hall that the United States would defend Taiwan against attack by China. Would he? Really?

Biden is such a bumbling old fool – his administration is a disgrace to the presidency – that the temptation is to take nothing he says seriously. But China's communist leaders noted his advisors couldn't stop him making the tragic blunder of leaving Afghanistan in the lurch two months ago. Just in case, Beijing instantly warned the US to "be cautious in its words and deeds" and not to send the "wrong signals" regarding Taiwan.

When, how and to what extent the US would come to Taiwan's aid if China tried to swallow the island 110 miles off its coast are difficult open questions to address. The US is Taiwan's friend but owes it no treaty obligation. Its official policy is "strategic ambiguity" intended to keep China guessing. It sells Taiwan state of the art weaponry to secure its defence but had made no promise to intervene on its behalf before Biden's blurted commitment.

To put the best gloss on it, Biden was probably articulating one of many possible outcomes of Washington's war gaming about US involvement in the stand-off between China and Taiwan

China will probably accept that this was just another Biden blunder but it was a reminder of how careful both sides need to be. President Xi has personally committed China to regaining control of Taiwan. When he makes his move, Washington's response will determine whether the US keeps its world leadership status or sinks into dubious and maybe temporary co-equality with rising and aggressive China.

The debate in Washington is about whether the policy of strategic ambiguity should be replaced by one of strategic clarity now that Xi is on public record. Policy makers' overriding priority will be to decide what's best for America in a situation so complex and unpredictable that there is no decisively obvious answer.

In 1939, most Americans were isolationists who wanted nothing to do with another European war. FDR's shrewder calculation was that America's true national interest lay in intervention, whatever the cost. Biden's administration faces the same dilemma. The do-nothing case was expressed bluntly by former US army colonel and security consultant Daniel L. Davis who wrote on military affairs website 19fortyfive:

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"However much we desire to see Taiwan remain open and free, trying to prevent a Chinese attack with force of arms has virtually no chance of long-term success and a high probability of catastrophic failure for our own country."

Taiwan, which separated from the mainland in 1949 when the latter became communist, is a high-tech democracy of 23 million people determined to keep their independence. China has never relinquished its claim to the island. Officially the two remain one country as even Taiwan recognises.

Media talk about the risk of a nuclear confrontation between the two superpowers while not impossible is probably overwrought for the sake of frightening headlines. Nuclear deterrence worked during the Cold War era and its effectiveness has not been disproved by the spread of nuclear weapons to other countries.

The stakes are as high for Beijing – which is kept off balance by strategic ambiguity – as they would be for the US fighting another war on the other side of the globe. China is promising its people that Taiwan will be conquered and that they will replace the US as leaders of the world. Could the communist party survive either a diplomatic or a military defeat?

China's ability to grab Taiwan depends on how ruthless it is willing to be. A D-Day type invasion across 110 miles of water would be difficult with troop ships vulnerable to Taiwanese missiles. A more likely scenario would be a sudden, massive Shock and Awe air operation, of the kind the US launched against Saddam's Iraq, intended to wipe out Taiwan's defences pre-emptively with land troops following on.

Preparations for that would be hard to hide from satellite surveillance but if it were swiftly successful, the US and its allies would be forced to accept a fait accompli.

The plan must be to deter China from risking an attack in the first place centred on the US navy's high profile in the Indo-Pacific region and its ability to defeat the Chinese navy. Military experts calculate it can do this even though China claims it has missiles capable of destroying US aircraft carriers.

The US maintains a strong dissuasive battle fleet in the region and has been building a ring of containment round China in cooperation with Indian, South Korean, Japanese and Australian navies (think about Australia's decision to cancel an order for French submarines in favour of American nuclear submarines). The hope is that this, along with no more unscripted Biden comments, will be enough to keep the situation under control for the time being.

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