Biden says U.S. willing to use force to defend Taiwan, but White House says its policy is unchanged
Taiwan isn't the only issue that's prompted the White House to clarify or walk back president's comments
President Joe Biden said Monday the U.S. would intervene militarily if China were to invade Taiwan, declaring the commitment to protect the island is "even stronger" after Russia's invasion of Ukraine. It was one of the most forceful presidential statements in support of Taiwan's self-governing in decades.
Biden, at a news conference in Tokyo, said "yes" when asked if he was willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if China invaded. "That's the commitment we made," he added.
The U.S. traditionally has avoided making such an explicit security guarantee to Taiwan, with which it no longer has a mutual defence treaty, instead maintaining a policy of "strategic ambiguity" about how far it would be willing to go.
The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which has governed U.S. relations with the island, does not require the U.S. to step in militarily if China invades, but makes it American policy to ensure Taiwan has the resources to defend itself and to prevent any unilateral change of status by Beijing.
A White House official said Biden's comments did not reflect a policy shift for the United States, a point echoed more firmly by Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, asked by reporters if Biden's answer indicated the U.S. would do more to help Taiwan than it has done to help Ukraine and whether the U.S. was making a commitment to send troops to help Taiwan in the event of an invasion.
"As the president said our One China policy has not changed," Austin said at the Pentagon. "He reiterated that policy and our commitment to peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. He also highlighted our commitment under the Taiwan Relations Act to help provide Taiwan the means to defend itself. So, again, our policy is not changed."
But Biden's words drew a sharp response from mainland China, which has claimed Taiwan to be a rogue province.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin expressed "strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition" to Biden's comments. "China has no room for compromise or concessions on issues involving China's core interests such as sovereignty and territorial integrity."
He added, "China will take firm action to safeguard its sovereignty and security interests, and we will do what we say."
Speaking alongside Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Biden said any effort by China to use force against Taiwan would "just not be appropriate," adding that it would "dislocate the entire region and be another action similar to what happened in Ukraine."
China has stepped up its military provocations against democratic Taiwan in recent years, aimed at intimidating it into accepting Beijing's demands to unify with the communist mainland.
"They're already flirting with danger right now by flying so close and all the manoeuvres that are undertaken," Biden said of China.
The current 'one China' policy
Under the "one China" policy, the U.S. recognizes Beijing as the government of China and doesn't have diplomatic relations with Taiwan. However, the U.S. maintains unofficial contacts including a de facto embassy in Taipei, the capital, and supplies military equipment for the island's defence.
Biden said it was his "expectation" that China would not try to seize Taiwan by force, but he also said that "depends upon just how strong the world makes clear that that kind of action is going to result in long-term disapprobation by the rest of the community."
He added that deterring China from attacking Taiwan was one reason why it's important that Russian President Vladimir Putin "pay a dear price for his barbarism in Ukraine," lest China and other nations get the idea that such action is acceptable.
Wanting no escalation with nuclear-armed Russia, Biden quickly ruled out putting U.S. forces into direct conflict with Russia. But the U.S. has shipped billions of dollars in military assistance that has helped Ukraine put up a stiffer-than-expected resistance to Russia's onslaught.
Taipei cheered Biden's remarks, with Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Joanne Ou expressing "sincere welcome and gratitude."
"The challenge posed by China to the security of the Taiwan Strait has drawn great concern in the international community," said Ou. "Taiwan will continue to improve its self-defence capabilities, and deepen cooperation with the United States and Japan and other like-minded countries to jointly defend the security of the Taiwan Strait and the rules-based international order, while promoting peace, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region."
Biden has history of 'speaking from his heart'
It's not the first time Biden has pledged to defend Taiwan against a Chinese attack, followed by administration officials contending there had been no change to American policy. In a CNN town hall in October, Biden was asked about using the U.S. military to defend Taiwan and replied, "Yes, we have a commitment to do that."
Taiwan isn't the only foreign policy issue on which the White House has clarified or walked back Biden's comments. When he declared in March that Putin was a war criminal, Jen Psaki, then the press secretary, said the president was "speaking from his heart" even though a legal conclusion hadn't been reached on the issue.
During a March speech in Poland, Biden said of Putin, "This man cannot remain in power." White House officials raced to say that Biden was not calling for regime change in Russia.
Biden's latest comments on Taiwan came just before he formally launched a long-anticipated Indo-Pacific trade pact that excludes Taiwan.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan confirmed Sunday that Taiwan isn't among the governments signed up for the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, which is meant to allow the U.S. to work more closely with key Asian economies on issues like supply chains, digital trade, clean energy and anti-corruption.
Inclusion of Taiwan would have irked China.
Sullivan said the U.S. wants to deepen its economic partnership with Taiwan on a one-to-one basis.