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2022-05-23 18:29
Why Biden’s off-the-cuff comment about defending Taiwan matters
President Joe Biden speaks during a news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at Akasaka Palace in Tokyo, Japan, on May 23. | Evan Vucci/AP

Biden hasn’t discarded longtime policy toward Taiwan, but it sounds like he has.

President Joe Biden had sought to make his first Asia tour about forging a new economic framework for the region, deepening relations with the heads of state of Japan and South Korea, and advancing diplomacy among countries in the Indo-Pacific. But one off-script comment derailed those goals.

On Monday at a news conference in Tokyo, Biden was asked by a journalist: “Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?”

“Yes,” said Biden. “That’s the commitment we made.”

Biden’s remark might be a big deal. US policy toward Taiwan has been one of “strategic ambiguity” for four decades — supporting Taiwan’s independence without quite saying so. As part of the “One China” policy, the US does not recognize the democratic island nation of Taiwan, but maintains “a robust unofficial relationship” with it, according to the State Department. (The US supports Taiwan with weapons and has deep economic ties with the country.) In a phrase, Biden broke down that convention.

At the same time, it wasn’t a particularly revelatory moment. It was actually the third time that Biden has said something along these lines. In October 2021, Biden stated a similar “commitment” to Taiwan. In August 2021, Biden compared the US approach to Taiwan to its pledge to defend NATO countries. (An official then walked back those remarks).

All of those comments reveal a lot about Biden’s tendency for undisciplined, off-the-cuff responses — another example is his remark in late March that Russian President Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power” — but don’t necessarily represent major policy shifts.

Today, once again, the White House quickly disavowed Biden’s statement. “As the president said, our policy has not changed,” a White House official said.

Before his takeoff to Asia, Biden’s team didn’t want to concede that the trip was really all about responding to China’s global influence. Now, Biden has said, in as many words, that the trip is really all about countering China.

How dangerous is Biden’s Taiwan comment?

The diplomatic gymnastics of the “One China” policy may seem absurd. The US doesn’t officially recognize the country of Taiwan, and yet it sells the country lots of weapons to defend itself, under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act.

But Asia experts say that the “One China” policy remains the best approach to East Asia.

The “One China” policy is imperfect, but any changes to the status quo could lead to an even more intensive arms race or escalation of threats, says Van Jackson, a scholar of international relations at the University of Wellington in New Zealand.

“The ‘One China’ policy is a terrible interim solution, and it’s the best we got,” he told me. “If you’re going to clarify strategic ambiguity, if you’re going to try to declare two nations, if you’re going to give up on ‘One China’ policy, you’re just asking for conflict.”

There is no immediate resolution to the conflict between China and Taiwan, but saying that the US would back Taiwan militarily in essence is poking China. A comment like this from Biden could lead to the Chinese government drawing the worst-case conclusions about what US security interests are in Taiwan: that the US, in contradiction of its stated diplomatic policy, is reinforcing a military commitment to Taiwan. It’s something the US has historically avoided saying aloud.

Meanwhile the Biden administration has not said enough about the need for an effective level of diplomacy that will revitalize the “One China” policy in ways that could avoid escalations. “To my mind, the United States needs to be clear that we’re not engaged in an effort to create a strategic ally in Taiwan, because that’ll be the shortest path to conflict with the Chinese,” said Michael Swaine of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. “And the United States is not in a position where it can assume that that conflict will go in its direction.”

Swaine has pointed out that the Biden Pentagon’s top Asia official, Ely Ratner, made an unprecedented comment last year about Taiwan’s strategic importance to the US. Ratner testified to Congress and said that Taiwan is “critical to the region’s security and critical to the defense of vital US interests in the Indo-Pacific.” The comment was “reckless,” according to Swaine, a clear indication that Biden’s team was going to take risks surrounding the long-standing “One China” policy.

As a Financial Times correspondent wrote at the time, “This may well be remembered as the moment Washington came clean on its intentions regarding Taiwan.”

Biden’s one-liner in Japan could take its place as a new, more important turning point.

Many national-security observers in Washington have noted that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been an opportunity for the Chinese government to study what the US does when a country that is not quite a US or NATO ally is threatened.

The entire US playbook is on display, from comprehensive sanctions that severed much of Russia from the world economy to the rapid arming of Ukraine.

Biden’s remark fortifies the notion that official Washington sees conflict with China as a real possibility — and would be ready to back Taiwan in the event of a war that, without doubt, would have no winners.

Biden is a gaffe machine, in contrast to his very disciplined team

It’s hardly news that Biden puts his foot in his mouth. Throughout his career, he has been known for his gaffes. His verbal slippages have been a recurring trend as the US has played a delicate role in the Ukraine war.

In pushing back against Russia, the Biden administration has been carefully navigating a role on the sidelines — supporting Ukraine against Russia assault with billions of dollars of weapons, intelligence sharing, and diplomatic assurances, but being careful not to come into direct conflict with Russia, a nuclear power.

Yet Biden himself has often said the things that you’re not supposed to say, and in the process become the administration’s id.

In the days before the war, Biden said that if Russia pursued a “minor incursion” of Ukraine it would shape the US response — which outraged many observers, including Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who said there was no such thing as a minor incursion.

Biden called Putin a “war criminal,” before such a statement was the official policy of the administration, leading spokesperson Jen Psaki to say that Biden was “speaking from his heart.”

Visiting Poland at the end of March, Biden said of Putin, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power” — too close to saying that the US is in the business of regime change in the Ukraine war. Like all of the Biden statements, there was a White House walk-back.

The president has a way of cutting through the diplo-speak of a press conference and dispensing with nuance.

Biden’s persistent oratory missteps contrast with the unusually disciplined nature of the rest of the administration. Biden administration officials exhibit incredible cool and control, often in complete paragraphs that might as well have been torn from the page of a presidential briefing book.

“Our view, as we’ve expressed many times, is that we are concerned about peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and the ratcheting up of tensions. And we believe that China is contributing to the ratcheting up of those tensions through provocative military activities around Taiwan and around the Strait,” Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, said in a press briefing in Anchorage last week, en route to Asia.

“From our perspective, our position has been clear and consistent,” he added.

That is, until his boss, the president, chimes in.

2022-05-21 11:00
The problem of global energy inequity, explained by American refrigerators
A person opening a refrigerator.
Getty Images

The average fridge in the US consumes more electricity in a year than an average person in dozens of countries.

My refrigerator — that appliance humming in the background that I rarely think about — consumes about 450 kilowatt-hours of energy (kWh) every year. A highly efficient air conditioner uses 483 kWh per year, and even more if the system is older or less efficient.

Chances are, though, kilowatt-hours don’t mean a lot to you. To help put it into perspective, consider this chart:

Let’s spell this out. In any given year, the average refrigerator or air conditioner in the US consumes much more energy than an average person in dozens of countries around the world consumes for all purposes over an entire year.

The issue isn’t that Americans should be going without air conditioners, let alone refrigerators. It’s that the world needs to prioritize how to get much higher levels of energy to the poorest countries in the world. Energy access is a foundational component of development, yet many people across Africa and Asia don’t have the energy they need to thrive — and even survive — in a warming world.

South Asia, for instance, has been experiencing a record heat wave for the last three weeks, with heat consistently over 110° Fahrenheit and “wet-bulb” temperatures — which account for humidity as well as heat — reaching potentially fatal levels. About half of the workforce in India and Pakistan is employed in agriculture, which means working hours outside in the blistering heat; less than 10 percent of Indians — compared to 91 percent of Americans — own air conditioners. To Americans, living in 110°F heat without air conditioning is almost unthinkable, but for billions of people around the world, cooling is an unaffordable luxury due to poverty and the lack of access to reliable electricity.

The energy gap shown in the chart above is one of the starkest examples of global economic inequality. Energy poverty is a major cause of health issues because of indoor air pollution from burning coal or biomass instead of electricity or gas for stoves — there are an estimated 3.8 million premature deaths each year due to indoor air pollution — and an impediment to economic growth.

Even in areas where there isn’t risk of illness and death from heat, someone without reliable energy access won’t have regular lighting to study at night, won’t have a smartphone to gain access to new farming techniques and markets, won’t be able to prevent food spoilage at home. Things that most Americans take for granted — smartphone access, hot showers, and, yes, refrigerators — are erratic or nonexistent in much of the world. Americans experienced on average eight hours of electricity disruption over the course of 2020 — and this represented the most amount of lost power since at least 2013. By contrast, in most Indian states, power outages are surging due to the heat wave, and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), only about 10 percent of people have access to electricity at all.

Lack of reliable energy pervades all areas of life and makes people reliant on suboptimal sources of power, which affects people and businesses even more as energy prices spike. “Being a DRC national, I’ve witnessed all my life that whenever fuel prices increase, the prices of everything else increase too,” said Rachel Boketa, the country director for the DRC office of the nonprofit Women for Women International. “Leading an office in an area which has so many electricity-related problems, we rely on generators and we use fuel for that. Now it’s affecting our budget because we have to cover all these unplanned increases in price.”

I spoke with Todd Moss, who heads the Energy for Growth Hub, an initiative to connect energy research to policy. He created the original “fridge graph,” so I asked about the rationale behind making it. “We know that inequality is really bad in the world, but this is a stark visual of how unequal energy consumption is. … [Americans] consume 100 times as much electricity as hundreds of millions of people.”

There are of course climate and carbon trade-offs involved in expanding energy access, and the most recent UN climate conference featured a push to restrict fossil fuel development in the global South. But Western nations have been rightly accused of hypocrisy for trying to hold poor countries to standards they don’t hold themselves, particularly given that, as the chart shows, one fridge or one air conditioner takes more energy than the average DRC citizen uses in a year.

When the war in Ukraine and the resulting economic response raised the possibility Germany would be cut off from Russian natural gas, Moss said, Berlin’s priorities completely changed. Suddenly ultra-green Germany was discussing extending coal plant usage. “Taking [energy] away is very powerful,” he said. With the war in Ukraine, “African leaders are going to say, ‘Energy security is obviously a top priority for Europe, that’s why they’re responding this way. Well, energy security is just as urgent for us. We don’t have it, we need it. Just because you already have it doesn’t mean you’re more entitled to it than we are.’ It’s a different conception of what energy security means, which is being able to count on having it when you need it.”

In a recent op-ed in the Economist, Nigerian Vice President Yemi Osinbajo underscored the importance of energy access for jobs and growth, and wrote that while Nigeria is moving toward renewables such as wind and solar energy, policy around energy needs to be as flexible as it was for rich nations. “The renewables-only mantra is also driven by unjustified fears of the continent’s future emissions,” Osinbajo wrote. “Yet under no plausible scenario is Africa a threat to global climate targets.”

As renewables grow more widespread and affordable, it’s becoming increasingly possible to balance growth with sustainability. For cooling in India, Oxford University sustainable development expert Radhika Khosla told me, passive cooling methods, such as shading, natural ventilation, green roofs or reflective white roofs, and changing working schedules and hydration practices when possible will continue to be vital for people who can’t afford air conditioners or work most of the day outdoors. Making efficient air conditioners more affordable and widely used — few in India use the most efficient models due to cost — will require technological advances, policy and market mechanisms, and education about long-term cost savings of efficient air conditioners.

Energy needs and policies will vary by country. The Democratic Republic of Congo, in which about half the population lacks access to electricity, is very different from India, which has high electrification but faces deadly heat waves that make cooling essential and extend service interruptions. These massive energy inequalities, as well as human suffering from lack of energy, are important to appreciate before high-income countries make wholesale policy decisions for the rest of the world.

A version of this story was initially published in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up here to subscribe!