Joe Biden has pledged to use the US military to defend Taiwan if China invades, in remarks made during his first visit to Japan as US president.
"Yes. That is the commitment we made," Mr Biden said at a news conference in Tokyo on Monday when asked whether he was willing to use force to defend Taiwan.
Mr Biden's remark appeared to overturn the decades-old US policy of "strategic ambiguity" on whether it would defend Taiwan, but the White House insisted its policy on the democratic island had not changed.
The president’s comments reignited speculation about his stance on Taiwan. Some defence experts have urged Mr Biden to make clear that the US would defend Taiwan as a way to deter an increasingly powerful China.
But there has been no sign of a formal policy shift apart from his comment in Tokyo and two similar remarks last year. On all three occasions, the White House immediately rolled back his remarks.
Speaking alongside Japan's prime minister Fumio Kishida on Monday, Mr Biden also reaffirmed Washington's one-China policy, which recognises Beijing as the sole legitimate government of China and acknowledges its position that Taiwan is part of China. "We signed on to it and all the attendant agreements made from there," the president said.
"But the idea that [Taiwan] could be taken by force, just taken by force, is just not ... appropriate. It will dislocate the entire region and be another action similar to what happened in Ukraine, " he said.
China expressed "firm opposition" to Mr Biden's remarks. "No one should underestimate the firm resolve, staunch will and strong ability of the Chinese people in defending national sovereignty and territorial integrity," said foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin.
A Japanese government official said it was unclear whether Mr Biden’s comments were intentional or not, but they were seen positively by Tokyo as a message that would serve as deterrence against China.
Washington's policy of "strategic ambiguity" is designed to discourage Taipei from formalising its independence - which would almost certainly spark a Chinese attack - while deterring Beijing from using military force to press its claim to sovereignty over the island.
Over the past few years, Washington has emphasised its support for Taipei, for example by declassifying documents that make clear it does not take a position regarding sovereignty over Taiwan, and that the “one China” policy is conditional on Beijing resolving the dispute peacefully.
Shortly after Mr Biden spoke in Tokyo, the White House insisted US policy was unchanged. “He reiterated our ‘one China policy’ and our commitment to peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” said a White House official. “He also reiterated our commitment under the Taiwan Relations Act to provide Taiwan with the military means to defend itself.”
But the president’s remarks caused some confusion in the region. “What he said reflected his attitude, but we have to wait to see what he will actually do,” said Lo Chih-cheng, chair of the foreign affairs and defence committee in Taiwan’s parliament.
Alexander Huang, representative to the US for Taiwan's opposition Kuomintang, said that while Mr Biden's remarks conveyed his sincere commitment to Taiwan's security, it was unlikely the US would announce a change in policy in response to a reporter's question.
Matthew Kroenig, a security expert at the Atlantic Council think-tank, said: "Some say it's a carefully co-ordinated campaign of ambiguity. Others say that Biden is senile and misspoke. I would argue that at this point the reason doesn't really matter.
“In the event of a war, it would always be up to the president to decide whether to intervene or not regardless of the formal policy. We now have a clear window into Biden’s instincts on the matter and what his decision would be.”
Last May Kurt Campbell, the top White House Indo-Pacific official, warned that any US declaration that it would defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack would carry "significant downsides". Other top US officials have privately argued that shifting to "strategic clarity" would provoke a Chinese attack on Taiwan.
Taiwan welcomed Mr Biden’s remarks and thanked his government for “reaffirming their rock-solid commitment”. “The challenge posed by China to the security of the Taiwan Strait has raised great concern in the international community,” the foreign ministry said.
Mr Biden made the comments as the US and Japan agreed to strengthen security co-operation and deterrence, pointing to "China's increasingly coercive behaviour" and the nuclear threat in North Korea.
“We will fundamentally reinforce Japan’s defence capabilities,” Mr Kishida said, as he promised to “substantially increase” the defence budget and consider first-strike capability against enemy bases.
On Tuesday, Mr Biden will also attend a meeting of the Quad, an Indo-Pacific security grouping that includes the US, Japan, India and Australia aimed at addressing China's assertiveness in the region. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022