‘Yes’: Biden says US would defend Taiwan against China

Comments prompt swift clarification from White House after seeming to suggest change to decades-long policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’.

US president Joe Biden told a town hall on Thursday that the US would defend Taiwan in the event of an attack by China [File: Chiang Ying-ying/AP Photo]

US President Joe Biden has said the United States would come to Taiwan’s defence if the island were attacked by China, in comments that appeared to be a departure from a longstanding US policy of “strategic ambiguity”.

“Yes,” he responded when asked in a CNN town hall about defending Taiwan, whose government has been under mounting military and political pressure from Beijing, which claims the island as its own. “We have a commitment to that.”

The US has for years maintained a policy of “strategic ambiguity” under which it provides key military support to Taiwan, but does not explicitly promise to come to the island’s aid in the event of a Chinese attack.

The White House later told reporters that US policy on Taiwan had “not changed”.

“The US defence relationship with Taiwan is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act. 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,” a spokesperson said.

In August, a Biden administration official said US policy on Taiwan had not changed after the president appeared to suggest the US would defend the island if it were attacked.

Earlier this month, President Biden appeared to suggest there was an “agreement” between China and the US over Taiwan.

US President Joe Biden was asked about Taiwan at a twon hall organised by the US broadcaster CNN [Nicholas Kamm/AFP]

China has stepped up pressure on Taiwan in recent months and sent dozens of its aircraft into the islands’ air defence identification zone (ADIZ) in a series of sorties that started on October 1, China’s National Day.

Taiwan’s Defence Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng said earlier this month that military tension across the strait was at its worst in more than 40 years, and that China would be capable of mounting a “full-scale” invasion by 2025.

‘Rock solid support’

Biden’s comments were welcomed on Friday by Taiwan, which has pushed to bolster international alliances to protect itself from Beijing. The island maintains it is an independent country and will defend its freedoms and democracy.

“The US government has demonstrated, through actual actions, their rock solid support for Taiwan,” Presidential Office spokesperson Xavier Chang said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Beijing warned that Biden’s comments risked “damaging Sino-US relations,” telling Washington on Friday to “act and speak cautiously on the Taiwan issue.”

“China has no room for compromise on issues involving its core interests,” foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said at a regular press briefing.

He added the US should not underestimate China’s “staunch determination, firm will and strong ability” to defend against what it sees as threats to its sovereignty.

Arms race

China, which has been modernising its armed forces and developing advanced weaponry, has denounced what it calls “collusion” between Washington and Taipei.

Asked by an audience member at the town hall whether the US would be able to keep up with China’s rapid military development, Biden also said, “yes”.

“China, Russia and the rest of the world knows we’re the most powerful military in the history of the world,” he said.

“What you do have to worry about is whether or not they’re going to engage in activities that would put them in a position where they may make a serious mistake,” Biden said.

“I don’t want a cold war with China. I just want China to understand that we’re not going to step back, that we’re not going to change any of our views.”

On Thursday, the Financial Times reported China has tested two hypersonic missiles – one in July and one in August – in a move that had ‘stunned’ the US.

The United States and Russia are also developing hypersonic weapons, which are more difficult to defend against than existing ballistic missiles.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies