While Washington is required by law to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself, it has long followed a policy of “strategic ambiguity” on whether it would intervene militarily to protect Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack.
After Biden made the remark at a joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo, an aide said the president’s statement represented no change in the long-standing American stance to the island that China claims as its own.
A reporter asked Biden if the US would defend Taiwan if it were attacked. “Yes,” the president answered.
“That’s the commitment we made,” said Biden, who helped build an international coalition trying to thwart Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“We agree with a one-China policy. We’ve signed on to it and all the intended agreements made from there. But the idea that, that it (Taiwan) can be taken by force, just taken by force, is just not, is just not appropriate,” he said.
Biden added it was his expectation that such an event would not happen or be attempted.
But the comment was likely to be closely watched in a region worried about China’s rising influence. China has been a key topic for Biden on his inaugural trip to Asia.
A White House official later said there was no change in policy towards Taiwan, a point reiterated by Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin at a Pentagon briefing.
“As the president said, our ‘one China’ policy has not changed,” Austin said. He said Biden had stressed the US commitment under the Taiwan Relations Act “to help provide Taiwan the means to defend itself.”
China considers the democratic island its territory, under its “one China” principle, and says it is the most sensitive and important issue in its relationship with Washington.
China has no room for compromise or concessions on matters relating to its sovereignty and territorial integrity, foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told a news briefing.
Taiwan’s foreign ministry thanked Biden for his support.
Biden’s national security aides shifted in their seats and appeared to be studying Biden closely as he responded to the question on Taiwan. Several looked down.
Biden made a similar comment in October, saying “Yes, we have a commitment to do that” when asked if the US would come to the defence of Taiwan.
At that time, a White House spokesperson said Biden was not announcing any change in US policy and one analyst referred to the comment as a “gaffe”.
Despite the White House insistence that yesterday’s comments did not represent a change of policy, Grant Newsham, a retired US Marine Corps colonel and now a research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, said the meaning was clear.
“This statement deserves to be taken seriously,” Newsham said. “It is a clear enough statement that the US will not sit by if China attacks Taiwan.”