Biden vows to defend Taiwan
U.S. President Joe Biden pledged to defend Taiwan militarily on Monday, concluding his first Asia tour with a declaration that surprised White House staffers in the room and elicited sharp reactions from Chinese officials.
“That’s the commitment we made,” he told reporters in Tokyo, while drawing parallels between Russia and China. “The idea that [Taiwan] can be taken by force, just taken by force, is not just appropriate.”
While Biden’s remarks have ignited a fierce debate over Washington’s stance on the island, former U.S. officials and China experts say these remarks do not necessarily suggest a significant shift in U.S. policy towards Taiwan.
Biden has “indicated that he believes the United States has a commitment to defend Taiwan, and that he intends to uphold longstanding American policy. I think in his mind, those two things are in alignment with each other,” said Ryan Hass, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who served as the director for China, Taiwan, and Mongolia on the National Security Council during the Obama administration.
The U.S. president also has a track record of misspeaking on Taiwan when responding to reporters, which has long raised questions over whether he has been hinting at a new policy or simply bungling details, as Amy Mackinnon and Anna Weber reported in November.
“Although experts believe the latter is more likely,” wrote Mackinnon and Weber, “they warn that precision is of the utmost importance when it comes to Taiwan, which many fear could be the spark that ignites a wider conflict between the United States and China.”
White House officials quickly clarified that Biden was not trying to indicate a new U.S. position over Taiwan. “As the President said, our policy has not changed,” the White House said on Monday. “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 the statement angered Chinese officials, who declared there was “no room for compromise or concession” and warned that they would protect their interests. Chinese President Xi Jinping and Biden may also get a chance to clarify Washington’s stance: U.S. national security advisor Jake Sullivan has said that the two leaders could speak in the coming weeks.
Ultimately, Biden’s remarks likely won’t change China’s calculations over Taiwan, Hass said. “The underlying question is: ‘Does it alter any of Beijing’s assumptions about how the United States would respond to a military intervention?’” he said. “Probably not.”
And in the long run, the current turmoil surrounding Biden’s Taiwan pledge will likely fade. “In the current moment, this feels like a significant statement,” said Hass. “But if you sort of take a step back, I think it’s going to have less effect over the long term than many people at the moment assume.”
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