TOKYO — President Joe Biden indicated Monday that he would use military force to defend Taiwan if it were ever attacked by China, dispensing with the “strategic ambiguity” traditionally favored by U.S. presidents and repeating even more unequivocally statements that his staff tried to walk back in the past.
At a news conference with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan during a visit to Tokyo, Biden suggested that he would be willing to go further on behalf of Taiwan than he has in helping Ukraine, where he has provided tens of billions of dollars in arms as well as intelligence assistance to help defeat Russian invaders but refused to send U.S. troops.
“You didn’t want to get involved in the Ukraine conflict militarily for obvious reasons,” a reporter said to Biden. “Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?”
“Yes,” Biden answered flatly.
“You are?” the reporter followed up.
“That’s the commitment we made,” he said.
The president’s declaration, offered without caveat or clarification, set the stage for fresh tensions between the United States and China, which insists that Taiwan is a part of its territory and cannot exist as a sovereign nation. It also surprised some members of Biden’s own administration, who did not expect him to promise such unvarnished resolve. The United States has historically warned China against using force against Taiwan while generally remaining vague about how far it would go to aid the island in such a circumstance.
The White House quickly tried to deny that the president meant what he seemed to be saying.
“As the president said, our policy has not changed,” the White House said in a statement to reporters. “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.”
But Biden’s comments went beyond simply reiterating that the United States would provide Taiwan with arms, because the question was posed as a contrast to what he had done with Ukraine. The president made no effort to qualify what he intended when he agreed that he would “get involved militarily.”
In fact, he repeated the notion that his commitment to Taiwan went beyond what he had done for Ukraine.
“The idea that that can be taken by force, just taken by force, it’s just not appropriate,” he said of Taiwan. “It would dislocate the entire region and be another action similar to what happened in Ukraine. And so it’s a burden that is even stronger.”
Biden had ignored the practiced imprecision of his predecessors with regard to China and Taiwan before in his presidency. In 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 NATO allies of the United States, and so the comment was seen as significant. Two months later, 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 long-standing policy.
Indeed, the president has made a habit of disregarding the cautions his staff would prefer he take in confronting overseas adversaries. In March, Biden went further than his administration had gone by calling President Vladimir Putin of Russia a war criminal in response to a reporter’s question.
Barely a week later, he caused a stir when he ad-libbed a line at the end of a speech in Poland declaring that Putin “cannot remain in power.”
While war in Taiwan does not appear to be imminent, 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 a half-century ago.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has heightened urgency in Washington, where officials are reexamining 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 were to succeed in conquering Ukraine, once part of its empire, some feared it would offer a dangerous precedent. Yet Russia’s abject 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 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.
For many in Taiwan, China’s authoritarian turn under Xi, and its moves to crush pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, have made any deeper political ties to the country unpalatable. On Monday, Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry welcomed Biden’s latest comments, expressing “gratitude” to the president for affirming the United States’ “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, issued a ritual rejection of 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 spokesperson, told reporters, adding that no one should underestimate China’s determination to defend itself.
Biden’s comments came barely an hour before he formally unveiled a 13-nation Indo-Pacific Economic Framework intended to serve as a counter to Chinese influence in the region. Wrapping up the event, Biden ignored shouted questions about what a military intervention in Taiwan would look like and whether he was prepared to put U.S. troops on the ground.
Kishida, who spoke in strong terms about China during the 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.
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 Kishida would not be so blunt as Biden, he added, his administration aims to increase the defense budget, while discussing plans to acquire weapons capable of striking missile launch sites in enemy territory and to conduct more exercises with U.S. 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,” Michishita said. Forcing China to consider the prospect of facing U.S. and Japanese forces, he said, would ultimately “enhance the possibility of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.