By Trevor Hunnicutt
BALTIMORE – The United States would come to Taiwan’s defense and has a commitment to defend the island China claims as its own, U.S. President Joe Biden said on Thursday, though the White House said later there was no change in policy towards the island.
“Yes, we have a commitment to do that,” Biden said at a CNN town hall when asked if the United States would come to the defense of Taiwan, which has complained of mounting military and political pressure from Beijing to accept Chinese sovereignty.
While Washington is required by law to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself, it has long followed a policy of “strategic ambiguity” on whether it would intervene militarily to protect Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack.
In August, a Biden administration official said U.S. policy on Taiwan had not changed after the president appeared then to suggest the United States would defend the island if it were attacked.
A White House spokesperson said Biden was not announcing any change in U.S. policy at the town hall and “there is no change in our policy”, but declined further comment when asked if Biden misspoke.
“The U.S. defense relationship with Taiwan is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act. We will uphold our commitment under the Act, we will continue to support Taiwan’s self-defense, and we will continue to oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo,” the spokesperson said.
China expressed its displeasure anyway, with a foreign ministry spokesman saying Beijing has no room for concessions on its core interests.
China urges the United States “not to send the wrong signals to the forces of Taiwan independence, to avoid seriously harming Sino-U.S. ties and peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” spokesman Wang Wenbin said.
Taiwan’s presidential office said its position remained the same, which is that it will neither give in to pressure nor “rashly advance” when it gets support.
Taiwan will show a firm determination to defend itself, presidential office spokesperson Xavier Chang said in a statement, adding that the Biden administration’s continued concrete actions show its “rock-solid” support for Taiwan.
Bonnie Glaser, a Taiwan expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, called Biden’s remark a “gaffe” and said it was “patently not true” that Washington has a commitment to defend Taiwan.
“Some are suggesting a deliberate effort to send unclear signals, but in my view, that makes no sense. A confused U.S. policy weakens deterrence,” she said, noting that Biden’s Asia policy czar, Kurt Campbell, had rejected “strategic clarity” over Taiwan.
‘MOST POWERFUL MILITARY’
Biden said people should not worry about Washington’s military strength because “China, Russia and the rest of the world knows we’re the most powerful military in the history of the world.”
“What you do have to worry about is whether or not they’re going to engage in activities that would put them in a position where they may make a serious mistake,” he said.
“I don’t want a cold war with China. I just want China to understand that we’re not going to step back, that we’re not going to change any of our views.”
Military tensions between Taiwan and China are at their worst in more than 40 years, Taiwan’s Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng said this month, adding that China will be capable of mounting a “full-scale” invasion by 2025.
China says Taiwan is the most sensitive and important issue in its ties with the United States and has denounced what it calls “collusion” between Washington and Taipei.
Earlier on Thursday, China’s United Nations Ambassador Zhang Jun told reporters China was pursuing “peaceful reunification” with Taiwan and responding to “separatist attempts” by its ruling Democratic Progressive Party.
“We are not the troublemaker. On the contrary, some countries – the U.S. in particular – is taking dangerous actions, leading the situation in Taiwan Strait into a dangerous direction,” he said.
“I think at this moment what we should call is that the United States to stop such practice. Dragging Taiwan into a war definitely is in nobody’s interest. I don’t see that the United States will gain anything from that.”
(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington, Michelle Nichols in New York, Gabriel Crossley in Beijing and Ben Blanchard in Taipei; Writing by Mohammad Zargham; Editing by Stephen Coates, Edwina Gibbs and David Gregorio)