President Joe Biden said Monday that the United States would intervene militarily if China attempts to take Taiwan by force, a warning that appeared to deviate from the deliberate ambiguity traditionally held by Washington.
The White House quickly downplayed the comments, saying they don't reflect a change in US policy. It's the third time in recent months -- including during a CNN town hall in October -- that Biden has said the US would protect Taiwan from a Chinese attack, only to have the White House walk back those remarks.
Joe Biden says US would respond 'militarily' if China attacked Taiwan, but White House insists there's no policy change
During a joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo, Biden was asked if the US would be willing to go further to help Taiwan in the event of an invasion than it did with Ukraine.
"We agree with the One China policy. We signed on to it, and all the attendant agreements made from there, but the idea that it can be taken by force, just taken by force, is (just not) appropriate," he said.
Under the "One China" policy, the US acknowledges China's position that Taiwan is part of China, but has never officially recognized Beijing's claim to the self-governing island of 23 million. The US provides Taiwan defensive weapons, but has remained intentionally ambiguous on whether it would intervene militarily in the event of a Chinese attack.
Biden's strong warning was made right on China's doorstep during his first trip to Asia as President. The visit is aimed at uniting allies and partners to counter China's rising influence. It also came a day before Biden is scheduled to attend the second in-person summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) -- an informal grouping between the US, Japan, Australia and India that has alarmed Beijing.
"As the President said, our policy has not changed. He reiterated our One China policy and our commitment to peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. He also reiterated our commitment under the Taiwan Relations Act to provide Taiwan with the military means to defend itself," the official said.
"We urged the US side to earnestly follow the One China principle ... be cautious in words and deeds on the Taiwan issue, and not send any wrong signal to pro-Taiwan independence and separatist forces — so it won't cause serious damage to the situation across the Taiwan Strait and China-US relations."
China's Taiwan Affairs Office spokesperson Zhu Fenglian added, "We urge the US to stop saying or doing anything in violation of the one-China principle and the three China-US Joint Communiqués. ... Those who play with fire will certainly burn themselves."
Taiwan lies fewer than 110 miles (177 kilometers) off the coast of China. For more than 70 years the two sides have been governed separately, but that hasn't stopped China's ruling Communist Party from claiming the island as its own — despite having never controlled it.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping has said that "reunification" between China and Taiwan is inevitable and refused to rule out the use of force. Tensions between Beijing and Taipei are at the highest they've been in recent decades, with the Chinese military sending record numbers of war planes near the island.
Joanne Ou, a spokesperson for Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told CNN that it "expresses sincere welcome and gratitude to President Biden and the United States government for reiterating its rock solid commitment to Taiwan."
Joe Biden compares potential invasion of Taiwan to Ukraine war
Biden on Monday compared a potential invasion of Taiwan by China to Russia's invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, warning, "It will dislocate the entire region," and emphasizing "Russia has to pay a long-term price for its actions."
"And the reason I bother to say this, not just about Ukraine -- if, in fact, after all (Russian President Vladimir Putin has) done, there's a rapprochement ... between the Ukrainians and Russia, and these sanctions are not continued to be sustained in many ways, then what signal does that send to China about the cost of attempting, attempting to take Taiwan by force?"
"But the United States is committed, we made a commitment, we support the One China policy, we support all we've done in the past, but that does not mean, it does not mean that China has the ability, has the, excuse me, jurisdiction to go in and use force to take over Taiwan," he added.
"As the regional security environment becomes increasingly severe, I reaffirmed with President Biden that we need to speedily strengthen the deterrence and response of the Japan-US alliance," he said, adding that he conveyed his determination to "fundamentally strengthen Japan's defense capability."
Joe Biden just keeps stepping in it
Within hours, his White House aides insisted that the President's comments did not constitute any official US policy change, despite the fact that Biden has suggested at other points in recent months that the US would defend Taiwan if the country was attacked by China.
This is not an isolated incident. Over his first 18 months in office, Biden has repeatedly said things that appear to go well beyond what his administration's policies are -- and forced officials to walk back what he has said.
* In mid-March, Biden said that Russian President Vladimir Putin "cannot remain in power" amid the country's invasion of Ukraine. Not long after, a White House official said: "The President's point was that Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region. He was not discussing Putin's power in Russia, or regime change." For his part, Biden said he was not walking anything back.
* Also in March, Biden appeared to suggest American troops would be sent to Ukraine, before a White House spokesman said: "The President has been clear we are not sending US troops to Ukraine and there is no change in that position."
* In the fall, Biden -- in a CNN town hall -- suggested he was considering using the National Guard to ease supply-chain issues. The administration was forced to issue a statement making clear that: "We are not actively pursuing the use of the National Guard on a federal level."
* Last summer, Biden briefly imperiled the bipartisan infrastructure deal by saying that he wouldn't sign the measure unless a bigger domestic package was on his desk as well. Biden issued a statement walking back that threat.
On and on it goes. And it's clear that Biden getting ahead of his administration's policies is a feature, not a glitch, of his time in office.
Biden's tendency toward saying something that he shouldn't isn't exactly new.
"I am a gaffe machine, but my God, what a wonderful thing compared to a guy who can't tell the truth," Biden said in 2018.
Which, well, OK.
It is beyond debate that Biden has repeatedly strayed from the official line during his time in public life. The most prominent example of that tendency came in May 2012 when as vice president, Biden expressed support for same-sex marriage -- a policy stance that put him ahead of where then-President Barack Obama was on the issue at the time.
But as president, the bar is -- and should be -- higher. What a president says can move markets. It can create diplomatic uncertainty. And perhaps most importantly for a president struggling to convince the public of his command of the major issues facing the country, it serves as a major distraction.
Every time the administration has to put a statement out clarifying something Biden said -- and it seems to happen nearly weekly these days -- it erodes the notion that the President is on top of the major issues facing the country. It suggests that there is some sort of disconnect between what Biden says and what his administration's actual policies are.
In short: It's a bad look for a President already in a very dark political place.
As president, Mr. Biden has ignored before the practiced imprecision of his predecessors with regard to China and Taiwan. Last August, in reassuring allies after his decision to abandon the government of Afghanistan, he promised that “we would respond” if there was an attack against a fellow member of NATO and then added, “same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with Taiwan.”
Taiwan, however, has never been granted the same U.S. security guarantees as Japan, South Korea or America’s NATO allies, and so the comment was seen as significant. Two months later, Mr. Biden was asked during a televised town hall if the United States would protect Taiwan from attack. “Yes, we have a commitment to do that,” he said. That also set off a frantic scramble by the White House to walk back his remark by insisting that he was not changing longstanding policy.
War in Taiwan does not appear to be imminent, and Mr. Biden said “my expectation is it will not happen.” But China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has taken a more aggressive stance than his predecessors, who long vowed to bring the island under their control, viewing the issue as the unfinished business of a bloody civil war waged more than 70 years ago.
For many in Taiwan, China’s authoritarian turn under Mr. Xi, and its moves to crush pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, have made any deeper political ties to the country unpalatable. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has heightened urgency in Washington, where officials are re-examining Taiwan’s defensive capabilities to ensure it could fight off an invasion.
The war has been watched closely in Asia, too, for whatever lessons it would hold for China’s intentions toward Taiwan. If Russia had succeeded in conquering Ukraine, once part of its empire, some feared it would set a dangerous precedent. Yet Russia’s failure to take over the entire country and the unified Western response may serve as a red flag to military adventurism.
China sent 14 aircraft into the island’s air defense zone last week on the day that Mr. Biden arrived in Asia, according to Taiwan’s Defense Ministry, part of a pattern of increasing incursions over the last year. Taiwan scrambled fighter jets in response, but no direct conflict was reported.
An undated photo released by Chinese state media in December showing a carrier-based J-15 fighter jet preparing to land on the Chinese navy's Liaoning aircraft-carrier during open-sea combat training.Credit...Xinhua, via Associated Press
On Monday, Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry welcomed Mr. Biden’s latest comments, expressing “gratitude” to the president for affirming America’s “rock-solid commitment to Taiwan.” In a statement, the ministry said Taiwan would “continue to improve its self-defense capabilities and deepen cooperation with the United States and Japan and other like-minded countries.”
Beijing, on the other hand, rejected the president’s remarks. “On issues concerning China’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and other core interests, China has no room for compromise,” Wang Wenbin, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, told reporters, adding that no one should underestimate China’s determination to defend itself.
Mr. Biden’s comments came barely an hour before he formally unveiled a new 13-nation Indo-Pacific Economic Framework intended to serve as a counter to Chinese influence in the region. The new bloc will bring the United States together with countries like Japan, India, South Korea, Australia and others to write future rules of commerce in areas like supply chain resilience, digital trade, clean energy and corruption.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan, who joined Mr. Biden for the earlier news conference, expressed concern about a Ukraine-style conflict over Taiwan. Any “unilateral attempt to change the status quo by force like Russia’s aggression against Ukraine this time should never be tolerated in the Indo-Pacific,” he said.
Nonetheless, he stuck to the traditional policy and maintained before the president’s comments that U.S.-Japan policy on the island was still the same. “Our two countries’ basic position on Taiwan remains unchanged,” he said.
Mr. Biden’s unscripted declaration put Japan in a complicated position. With Taiwan just 65 miles from Yonaguni, the westernmost inhabited Japanese island, a war with China carries enormous potential consequences for Japan, which has disavowed armed conflict since its defeat in World War II.
“Certainly, Mr. Biden said ‘America is in,’” said Narushige Michishita, vice president of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. “That means Japan will be in, too.”
While Mr. Kishida would not be so blunt as Mr. Biden, he added, his administration aims to increase Japan’s defense budget, while discussing plans to acquire weapons capable of striking missile launch sites in enemy territory and to conduct more exercises with American forces.
“Chinese planners must take the possibility of Japan getting involved into account when they plan and when they decide whether or not to attack Taiwan,” Mr. Michishita said. Forcing China to consider the prospect of facing American and Japanese forces, he said, would ultimately “enhance the possibility of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”