President Joe Biden said on Monday that the U.S. has made a commitment to defend Taiwan if the island democracy is attacked by China, which would end the long-standing U.S. policy of strategic ambiguity toward the country whose independence China does not recognize. During a press briefing in Tokyo, Biden first said that the U.S. policy toward Taiwan remains unchanged, though China’s provocations regarding the conflict are “already flirting with danger.” Then, later, when asked if the U.S. is willing to use its military to intervene in the event that China attacks, Biden responded, “Yes, it’s a commitment we made.”
He added that while the U.S. acknowledges — but does not agree with — China’s territorial claim to Taiwan, “the idea that it can be taken by force, just taken by force, it’s just not appropriate. It will dislocate the entire region and be another action similar to what happened in Ukraine. It’s a burden that’s even stronger.”
Again, traditionally the U.S. has been deliberately (and strategically) vague about how it would respond to China attacking Taiwan. So it was definitely surprising to hear a president suggest that such an attack would be worse than Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and therefore require a U.S. military response — going to war with China directly, as the U.S. has been unwilling to do with Russia. Unless, of course, that wasn’t what Biden was saying.
Cue the White House walk-back: Following Biden’s comments, White House officials quickly clarified to news organizations that Biden was just underlining the existing U.S. commitment to continue supplying arms to Taiwan so it can defend itself but that the U.S. would not send troops (which is also how the U.S. has handled Ukraine). No, there hasn’t been a policy change, in other words. But as Bloomberg’s Jennifer Jacobs pointed out on Monday, this was not the first time Biden has abandoned ambiguity toward the China-Taiwan dispute, including calling Taiwan “independent,” which China effectively considers a diplomatic obscenity. And as the Washington Post noted, Biden’s comments during such a high-profile Asia trip, as well as his announcement on Monday of a new trade framework aimed at fostering deeper economic ties with other countries in the region, are indeed a more aggressive stance toward Beijing.
Last week, China’s top diplomat warned that “if the U.S. side insists on playing the Taiwan card and goes further and further down the wrong road, it will certainly lead to a dangerous situation.” On Monday, following Biden’s maybe-gaffe, China’s foreign-ministry spokesperson said the U.S. should watch what it says “to avoid causing grave damage to bilateral relations.” Taiwan’s foreign-ministry spokesperson said they “sincerely welcomed” what Biden said.
Monday’s quiet-part-loud episode also echoed the incident in late March when Biden ad-libbed that Russian president Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power” during a major speech on the war in Ukraine. Though there was a kernel of truth in that statement as well, the White House quickly walked it back too.