Shakespeare’s Hamlet says, “Though this is madness, there is method in it.” To express something similar, modern strategists have coined the term “deliberate ambiguity.” If the wording is intentionally ambiguous, what is said is not quite what is meant. The opponent is meant to be shaken up, even frightened, but in a way that allows the excitement to be portrayed as a big misunderstanding with hindsight.

Joe Biden is a master at it. At the end of last year, he declared that the US was “obligated” to assist Taiwan in the event of an attack. The Chinese leadership was irritated. The White House quickly made it clear that the President did not want to change the American position. In late March, during a visit to Warsaw, Biden said Vladimir Putin “can’t stay in power.” No, the White House said, that was not a call for “regime change”.

So now again. During his visit to Japan, during a press conference, Biden was asked whether the United States would also defend Taiwan militarily in the event of an attack. He replied, “Yes.” When asked, he stressed, “It is a commitment we have made.” China responded promptly and condemned the remark. Again, the White House made it clear that nothing had changed in the American position.

Admittedly, this position is complicated. The United States does not recognize Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan. However, they also do not recognize Taiwan’s sovereignty and do not officially maintain diplomatic relations with Taipei. On the other hand, they supply weapons and, in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, pledged to “enable Taiwan to maintain sufficient self-defense capability.”

The crisis has deepened since Russia’s attack on Ukraine, never condemned by China. Many Taiwanese fear that Beijing will use military force to incorporate the breakaway island. The US government warns against “unilateral changes to the status quo” all the more urgently. The rhetorical device of “deliberate ambiguity” is intended to emphasize determination.