Commentary: What does Biden mean on Taiwan?

WELLINGTON: In the Cold War, analysts were sometimes concerned that the Kremlin might misread a rogue statement of bellicosity in Washington DC as an indication of White House intentions.

If a maverick senator stood up and insisted on rollback in a fire-breathing rant, did that mean US forces were about to intrude beyond the Iron Curtain? Would Russian forces be put on high alert? Or worse?

But as both political systems got to know each other, and weathered the occasional crisis without going to war, the hope was that leaderships on both sides of the divide could separate the authentic signal from the noise, to borrow an argument from Thomas Schelling.

Detecting America’s authentic signal on Taiwan’s defence must be one of Beijing’s most urgent foreign policy preoccupations. Strategic learning has also done some work in the China-US relationship. Chinese President Xi Jinping and his colleagues will know about the separation of powers that complicates and balances US politics.

They would be likely to place Senator Rand Paul (or someone of his ilk) in the noise basket. Quite what they make of the recent provocation by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a more serious and credible congressional actor, is another matter. But even there, Beijing still has the option of looking to the Biden administration for the authentic message.

But China’s problem is that the White House does not speak with one voice on Taiwan. And it would be too flattering to put that dissonance down to a deliberate attempt to foster uncertainty.

On four occasions now, US President Joe Biden has indicated that the United States would enter a war to defend Taiwan against aggression. And each time, after the fact, his officials have had to insist that Washington’s policy has not changed. Every time that happens, a little of whatever remains of strategic ambiguity gets chipped away.