President Joe Biden said definitively Thursday evening during a town hall-style event hosted by CNN that the United States would defend Taiwan against a Chinese invasion in a major break of protocol what forced White House officials to quickly issue a clarification that contradicted the commander-in-chief.
When asked specifically if the U.S. would come to Taiwan’s defense, Biden responded: “Yes. We have a commitment to that.”
But that statement differs substantially from long-standing U.S. policy of “strategic ambiguity,” whereby Washington commits to helping Taiwan defend itself but does not commit to actively participating to repel a Chinese invasion of the island democracy.
Shortly afterward, a White House official scrambled to clarify that Biden was not announcing any change in policy and said that the United States remains committed to a 1979 law that guides American policy towards Taiwan.
“The U.S. defense relationship with Taiwan is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act,” said the spokesperson, according to DailyMail.com. “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.”
Earlier in the day, Zhang Jun, China’s ambassador to the United Nations, said Beijing was attempting a “peaceful reunification” with Taiwan and was only responding to “separatist attempts” by the country’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party.
“We are not the troublemaker,” Zhang said, even though Taiwan’s government has said repeatedly it is not interested in reuniting with the mainland and wants to remain an independent democracy.
“On the contrary, some countries – the U.S. in particular – is taking dangerous actions, leading the situation in Taiwan Strait into a dangerous direction,” the ambassador said, adding: “Dragging Taiwan into a war definitely is in nobody’s interest.”
During an interview with ABC News in August when he said the United States would always jump to the defense of key allies including Taiwan, though he had ordered the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan as the Taliban quickly filled the void and over the country again after being out of power for two decades.
Critics saw Biden’s chaotic and deadly withdrawal as a sign of weakness and non-commitment to U.S. allies. The evacuation was also seen by critics as emboldening his Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping, who has vowed to reunify Taiwan with the mainland one way or another.
At the time, Biden talked of a “sacred commitment” to defend NATO allies including Canada and those in Europe, adding that it was the “same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with Taiwan.”
Afterward, White House officials said that American policy towards Taiwan “has not changed.”
The Taiwan Relations Act, signed by then-President Jimmy Carter, “declares it to be the policy of the United States to preserve and promote extensive, close, and friendly commercial, cultural, and other relations between the people of the United States and the people on Taiwan, as well as the people on the China mainland and all other people of the Western Pacific area.”
Also, the legislation “states the United States decision to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means and that any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes is considered a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.”
Importantly, the law does not commit U.S. forces to come to the defense of the island. Rather, the law states the U.S. “shall provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character and shall maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or social or economic system, of the people of Taiwan.”
During the town hall and after Biden said the U.S. would defend Taiwan, he told the questioner, “Don’t worry about whether… they’re going to be more powerful.”
“China, Russia and the rest of the world knows we have the most powerful military in the history of the world,” he continued, adding that some nations may nevertheless “engage in activities where they may make a serious mistake.”
In recent weeks, China has sent waves of military aircraft — fighters, bombers, and anti-submarine planes — towards Taiwan, leading the island democracy to scramble its own fighters in response.
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