President Joe Biden‘s aides knew what was coming. They squirmed in their seats, according to people present, as he was asked whether he would defend the autonomous island of Taiwan if it was invaded by China.
‘Yes,’ Biden replied. ‘That’s the commitment we made.’
In so doing, he went beyond official American foreign policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’ which helps arm Taiwan and its government but is vague on how far Washington would actually go in protecting its freedom.
The result was swift – just as it has been on each of the previous two occasions in the past nine months when he has said the U.S. would defend Taiwan.
Chinese officials expressed outrage while the White House played clean-up, insisting the president had not been announcing a new policy.
But China and analysts see something different: A president who is pushing U.S. policy to go further in standing up to an increasingly aggressive Beijing.
Biden may be out ahead of his advisers but that was very different to a gaffe, said David Sacks, an expert on U.S.-China relations at the Council on Foreign Relations.
‘I’m kind of old fashioned where I think that what the president says, especially in terms of matters of war and peace, and when push comes to shove, if China were to use force against Taiwan, there’s only one person who could order the United States to come to Taiwan’s defense, and that’s the president of the United States,’ he said.
‘Not a spokesperson in the White House or the National Security Council or the State Department.’
President Joe Biden on Monday said the U.S. would defend Taiwan if it was invaded by China. ‘That’s the commitment we made,’ he said in Japan
The island of Taiwan lies 100 miles from China. Beijing insists that Taiwan is a part of its territory and cannot exist as a sovereign nation. The U.S. acknowledges the Chinese claim
Just as he has got ahead of his officials in saying he wanted to unseat Vladimir Putin in Moscow or accusing Russian troops of war crimes, so too his comments this time may reflect the reality of U.S. policy before anyone else wants to say it publicly.
China has been flexing its muscles in the Indo-Pacific region in recent years, building military bases and expanding its territorial claims.
And it has sent warplanes on sorties into Taiwan’s ‘air defense zone’ with alarming frequency.
Biden is visiting the region for the first time as commander in chief in a trip designed to highlight that Washington remains focused on Asia. It coincided with five days of Chinese military drills in the disputed South China Sea.
On Monday, Biden appeared at a press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo.
‘We agree with the One China policy and all the attendant agreements we made,’ he said, which recognizes Taiwan’s government as legitimate but also acknowledges China’s claim.
‘But the idea that it can be taken by force, just taken by force, would just not be appropriate.
‘It would dislocate the entire region and be another action similar to what happened in Ukraine.’
The Taiwanese military has been on high alert this year. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine triggered fears that China could launch its own attack, and it has stepped up sorties by warplanes into Taiwan’s ‘air defense zone’ as it flexes its muscles in the Indo-Pacific
Taiwan frequently stages military exercises in a show of strength against China
That gave officials the space to insist that U.S. policy had not changed as they tried to row back his potentially explosive remarks.
‘He reiterated our “one China policy” and our commitment to peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,’ said a White House official.
‘He also reiterated our commitment under the Taiwan Relations Act to provide Taiwan with the military means to defend itself.’
That was not enough to placate China, which expressed its ‘strong dissatisfaction.
‘On issues concerning China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and other core interests, there is no room for compromise,’ said Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
‘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.’
At the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was asked whether the U.S. was about to send troops to defend Taiwan.
Again he insisted the president had not announced a change from the ‘One China’ policy.
During s sit-down with ABC News in August , Biden said the U.S. would ‘respond’ to a Chinese invasion, apparently comparing its commitment to that of defending a N.A.T.O. ally
‘He reiterated that policy and our commitment to peace and stability across across the Taiwan Strait,’ he said.
Yet Biden has form in saying the U.S. would defend Taiwan.
In an interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos in August last year he said Washington would ‘respond’ to a Chinese invasion, comparing its commitment to that of defending a N.A.T.O. ally.
Again officials were quick to brief journalists. ‘Our policy with regard to Taiwan has not changed,’ a senior administration official said.
Two months later he was asked during a CNN town hall about using the U.S. military to defend Taiwan and replied: ‘Yes, we have a commitment to do that.’
Sacks said White House efforts to walk back his comments would undermine their deterrent effect – which was needed now more than ever as China watched what was happening in Ukraine, where Biden has promised not to send troops.
‘When he’s speaking on this, he’s reflecting his personal views rather than the result of a coordinated or rigorous interagency process,’ he said.
That was different to misspeaking in a Trumpian way.
‘President Biden was on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, voted for the Taiwan Relations Act as a senator in 1979, whose traveled the world.
‘He’s met with world leaders. He’s written for Foreign Affairs. So this is somebody who I think is passionate about international relations, who thinks about international relations.’