TOKYO — President Biden indicated on Monday that he would use military force to defend Taiwan if it were ever attacked by China, forgoing the “strategic ambiguity” traditionally favored by US presidents when outlining what the United States should do. States would do in such a volatile scenario.
At a press conference with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan during a visit to Tokyo, Mr. Biden suggested he would be willing to go further on behalf of Taiwan than he has done to help Ukraine, where he has provided tens of billions of dollars in weapons and intelligence to Help defeat Russian invaders, but refused to send American troops.
“You did not want to get militarily involved in the conflict in Ukraine for obvious reasons,” a reporter told Mr Biden. “Are you willing to get militarily involved to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?”
“Yes,” Mr Biden replied bluntly.
“You are?” the reporter followed.
“That’s the commitment we made,” he said.
The president’s statement, which was made without qualification or clarification, surprised some members of his own government who watched in the room, who did not expect him to show such undisguised determination. The United States has historically warned China against using force against Taiwan, while remaining generally vague about how far it would go to help the island in such a circumstance.
The White House was quick to deny that the president meant what he appeared to say. “As the president said, our policies have not changed,” the White House said in a statement hastily sent to reporters. “He reiterated our One China policy and our commitment to peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. He also reiterated our commitment under the Taiwan Relations Act to provide Taiwan with the military means to defend itself.”
But Mr Biden’s comments went beyond simply reiterating that the United States would provide Taiwan with arms, as the question was posed as a contrast to what he had done to Ukraine. The president made no effort to nuance what he meant when he agreed to “become militarily involved.”
In fact, he echoed the idea that his dedication to Taiwan went beyond what he had done for Ukraine. “It’s just not appropriate,” he said of a possible Chinese attack on Taiwan. “It would disrupt the whole region and be another action similar to what happened in Ukraine, and so it’s a burden that’s even stronger.”
Mr. Biden had already ignored the ambiguous ambiguity of his predecessors during his presidency and stated in similar terms last October that the United States would protect Taiwan. “Yes, we have a commitment to do that,” he said at a town hall-style meeting at the time. That also sparked a frantic battle from the White House to push back his comment by insisting he didn’t change long-standing policy.
The president has even made a habit of ignoring the warnings his staff would prefer to take when confronting foreign opponents. In March, Mr. Biden went further than his administration had gone by calling Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin a war criminal in response to a reporter’s question. Barely a week later, he caused a stir when, at the end of a speech in Poland, he issued a line declaring that Mr Putin “cannot remain in power”.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been closely watched in Asia for the lessons it could hold for China’s long-standing ambition to recapture Taiwan. If Russia had succeeded in conquering Ukraine, which was once part of its empire, some feared it would set a dangerous precedent. Still, Russia’s abnormal failure to take over the entire country and unified Western response may serve as a red flag for military adventurism.
Speaking strongly about China during the press conference, Mr Kishida expressed concern about a Ukraine-style conflict over Taiwan. Any “unilateral attempt to change the status quo by force, such as the Russian aggression against Ukraine this time around, should never be tolerated in the Indo-Pacific,” he said.
Nevertheless, he stuck to traditional policies, claiming before the president’s comments that the policy between the US and Japan on the island was still the same. “The base position of our two countries towards Taiwan remains unchanged,” he said.
Zolan Kanno Youngs reported from Tokyo, and Peter Bakker from Seoul.