US President Joe Biden said the United States would come to Taiwan’s defence in the event that China attacked the self-governed island, prompting confusion about whether his administration remained committed to the long-held US policy of “strategic ambiguity ”.
Asked by CNN’s Anderson Cooper during a prime-time town hall event on Thursday (Oct 21) whether the US would defend Taiwan if it was attacked by mainland forces Biden responded: “Yes, we have a commitment to do that.”
Though Washington does not have official diplomatic relations with Taipei, US law requires that it support the island’s efforts to defend itself, including through the sales of weapons. But the Taiwan Relations Act does not include an explicit commitment to intervene militarily in the event of an invasion of or attack on Taiwan by the mainland.
The US has long maintained a policy of strategic ambiguity on the Taiwan issue, whereby it does not state whether it would take military action if the island came under attack. The strategy is designed to discourage Taiwan from taking any unilateral action to declare full independence, while also dissuading Beijing from unilaterally seeking to annex the island.
“RIP strategic ambiguity,” Derek Grossman, a senior defence analyst at the Rand Corporation, wrote in a tweet soon after Biden’s remarks.
Biden’s comments marked the second time in recent weeks that he has prompted questions over his administration’s commitment to the strategic ambiguity principle. In August he told ABC News that the US would “respond” in the event of a Chinese attack on Taiwan.
White House officials soon walked back those comments, stressing the administration’s Taiwan policy had “not changed”.
“The US defence relationship with Taiwan is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act,” a White House spokesperson said.
“We will uphold our commitment under the act, we will continue to support Taiwan’s self-defence, and we will continue to oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo.”
The spokesperson added, “The president was not announcing any change in our policy and there is no change in our policy.”
Biden’s latest comments followed a longer response to a question about whether the US had the capability to keep up with China’s military advances, in light of recent reports by the Financial Times that Beijing had tested advanced hypersonic missiles. The reported tests took US officials by surprise, but were dismissed by the Chinese Foreign Ministry which said it was a “routine test of a space vehicle”.
“China, Russia, and the rest of the world knows we have the most powerful military in the history of the world,” Biden said. “Don’t worry about whether they’re going to be more powerful. But what you do have to worry about is whether they’re going to engage in activities that will put them in a position where they may make a serious mistake.”
Recent talks between US and Chinese officials, including a September call between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, have focused on efforts to responsibly manage competition between the two countries and avoid bilateral frictions from veering into conflict.
Despite the high-level engagement, tensions continue to simmer between Washington and Beijing on a range of issues, including human rights in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, territorial claims in the South China Sea, trade, and technology.
Calling himself the world leader who has spent the most time with Xi, Biden stressed that he did not want to escalate tensions with China, echoing remarks made in his address to the United Nations General Assembly in September.
“I don’t want a cold war with China,” he said. “I just want to make China understand that we are not going to step back, we are not going to change in any of our views.”
Thursday’s exchange came a day after Biden’s pick for US ambassador to China, Nicholas Burns, said during a confirmation hearing that the administration could not trust China to uphold its commitments on the Taiwan issue, and that the US had “enormous latitude” to deepen its security help to Taiwan.
But Burns rejected suggestions from senators that the US should abandon its long held policy of strategic ambiguity. “My own view, and this is also the view of course and more importantly of the Biden administration, is that the smartest and effective way for us to help deter aggressive actions by [China] across the Taiwan Strait will be to stay with a policy that’s been in place,” he said.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.