Standing alongside the Japanese prime minister at a news conference in Tokyo on 23 May, Joe Biden was asked whether the United States would fight to defend Taiwan if it was attacked by China in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
This should not have come as a surprise. It was the most predictable question the US president could possibly have been asked during a trip that has focused on countering China’s power in the region. He had surely been briefed on the nuances of the language involved, which made his answer even more surprising.
“You didn’t want to get involved in the Ukraine conflict militarily for obvious reasons,” a reporter asked. “Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?”
“Yes,” Biden replied. “That’s the commitment we made.”
That is not a commitment the United States has previously made, in public at least. According to the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the US considers any attempt to take control of the self-governing island by force to be a “threat to the peace and security of the region” and a matter of “grave concern”. The act requires the US to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself, but does not specify that US troops would be involved.
For decades successive presidents have avoided giving a direct answer to the question that Biden faced, in keeping with the longstanding policy of “strategic ambiguity”. In part this was intended to facilitate diplomatic relations with Beijing, which considers Taiwan to be an inalienable part of its territory, but it was also meant to avoid emboldening any future Taiwanese leader who might be inclined to declare the island’s independence, a red line for China that would probably provoke a military response.
This is why Biden’s comments are so significant and, potentially, so dangerous. He went on to clarify his remarks, noting his support for the US’s “One China policy” (which acknowledges Beijing’s position that Taiwan is part of China without endorsing it) and the related agreements the US has signed, but he added: “The idea that [Taiwan] can be taken by force, just taken by force, would just not be appropriate. It would dislocate the entire region and be another action similar to what happened in Ukraine. So, it’s a burden that is even stronger.”
White House officials rushed to walk back his statement, insisting that there had been no change in policy towards Taiwan and stressing Biden’s commitment the One China policy. This is not the first time he has made similar comments, however. At a CNN town hall event in October 2021, Biden was similarly asked whether the United States would intervene to defend Taiwan if it was attacked, and his response was almost exactly the same. “Yes, we have a commitment to do that,” he said at the time, prompting a similar flurry from senior aides to insist that he had not intended to signal a strategic shift. In August 2021, following the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, Biden reiterated the US commitment to defending its Nato allies, commenting, “same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with Taiwan”, which was duly followed by denials that US policy towards Taiwan had changed.
Biden has ventured beyond his administration’s stated policy in public comments before, remarking in apparently unscripted comments in March this year, for instance, that Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, “cannot remain in power”. But this latest statement on Taiwan is not a one-off. On three occasions now he has stated that the US would fight to defend Taiwan, and the denials that have followed from his aides are unlikely to assuage concerns in Beijing.
Tensions around Taiwan were already at a 40-year high, with Beijing intensifying considerably its military flights into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone. Biden’s comments in Tokyo will only make the tense situation more fraught. Predictably, China’s foreign ministry has responded furiously, noting its “strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition” to his remarks and warning that there is “no room for compromise” in Beijing’s position.