Another Slip of the Tongue

Jun 23, 2023

Joe Biden has done it again.  His depiction of Xi Jinping as a “dictator” at a private fundraising event on June 20 is yet another setback on the road to US-China conflict resolution. Two days later, in playing down his faux pas, Biden insisted, “I don’t think it’s had any consequences.” Of course, the White House basically said the same thing after four earlier occasions when the President indicated that the US would come to Taiwan’s defense in the event of a Chinese military action. Senior staffers insisted that Biden didn’t really mean it, that America’s “one-China” policy was unchanged.

Okay, Joe Biden is not America’s most eloquent president. But he is hardly alone in that respect. A cottage industry of humorists made a living off of “Bushisms”—the linguistic malapropisms of George W. Bush. My favorite was his line in a 2000 presidential debate, “We ought to make the pie higher.”  His father wasn’t much better. Nor was Donald Trump.

But there is a special problem associated with President Biden’s misstatements: They touch on the critical hot-buttons of a very serious US-China conflict. There is, of course, no question about the dominance of XI Jinping in China’s system of governance. But the explicit use of the term “dictator” has strong, pejorative implications that may well offend the sensitivities of the Chinese people. It may be technically correct in terms of its reference to a leader with absolute power, but the usage of this word runs at cross-purposes to Biden’s own efforts to re-stabilize a dangerously precarious relationship. Biden has made the clash between democracy and autocracy into an important political and foreign policy issue. It would have been far better to stick with that depersonalized distinction.

The President’s misstatements on Taiwan are far more consequential. Taiwan reunification is China’s red line. It has also become a hot button for the increasingly strident bipartisan anti-China sentiment of the US Congress. If the issue of Taiwan independence was put to a congressional vote today, I have little doubt that it would pass by a very large margin. Repeated (mis)statements by Joe Biden as to how the US would respond to a hypothetical Chinese military action serve no purpose other than to inflame China. Washington is operating under the presumption that Xi Jinping has set a hard date (2027) for reunification; yet the intelligence behind this presumption is dubious, at best. Unfortunately, the more Washington puts its foot on China’s throat regarding Taiwan, the greater the likelihood that this presumption will come to pass. For President Biden, ducking the Taiwan defense question would have been easy—and far more appropriate under the circumstances.

Strategic ambiguity is well worth remembering here. It is, first and foremost, a key principle of  deterrence—a deliberately vague depiction of a critical issue of trans-national contention aimed at avoiding miscalculations by either side. It was a key aspect of the three communiqués that framed the one-China Taiwan policy in the Nixon and Carter Administrations, but its origins in shaping foreign policy go back considerably further. If, as some argue, ambiguity is replaced by clarity—and this where Joe Biden’s words matter a lot—then deterrence can easily move from words into action. And that’s where a slip of the tongue can have very dangerous consequences.

You can follow me on Twitter @SRoach_econ

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