Biden Pledges to Defend Taiwan if It Faces a Chinese Attack

TOKYO — President Biden indicated on Monday that he would use military force to defend Taiwan if it were ever attacked by China, dispensing with the “strategic ambiguity” traditionally favored by American presidents, and risking Beijing’s anger at a time of rising tensions in the region.

At a news conference during a visit to Japan, Mr. Biden suggested that he would be willing to go further on behalf of Taiwan than he has in helping Ukraine, where he has provided tens of billions of dollars in weapons as well as intelligence assistance to help defeat Russian invaders but has refused to send American troops.

“You didn’t want to get involved in the Ukraine conflict militarily for obvious reasons,” a reporter said to Mr. Biden. “Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?”

“Yes,” Mr. Biden answered flatly.

“You are?” the reporter followed up.

“That’s the commitment we made,” he said.

The president’s declaration, offered without caveat or clarification, set the stage for fresh tensions between the United States and China, which insists that Taiwan is a part of its territory and cannot exist as a sovereign nation.

It also surprised some members of Mr. Biden’s own administration watching in the room, who did not expect him to promise such unvarnished resolve. The United States has historically warned China against using force against Taiwan while generally remaining vague about how far it would go to aid the island in such a circumstance.

The White House quickly tried to deny that the president meant what he seemed to be saying. “As the president said, our policy has not changed,” the White House said in a statement hurriedly sent to reporters. “He reiterated our One China Policy and our commitment to peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. He also reiterated our commitment under the Taiwan Relations Act to provide Taiwan with the military means to defend itself.”

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III sounded the same themes when asked by reporters back in Washington. “I think the president was clear on the fact that the policy has not changed,” he said.

But Mr. Biden’s comments went beyond simply reiterating that the United States would provide Taiwan with arms, because the question was posed as a contrast to what he had done with Ukraine.

Taipei earlier this month. Mr. Biden has said before that the United States would protect Taiwan against a Chinese attack, but officials insist U.S. policy has not changed.
Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times

In fact, he repeated the notion that he was committed to doing more than what he had done for Ukraine. “The idea that it can be taken by force, just taken by force, is just not appropriate,” he said of Taiwan. “It would dislocate the entire region and be another action similar to what happened in Ukraine. And so it’s a burden that is even stronger.”

Neither Mr. Biden nor anyone in his administration elaborated on what specifically would be entailed by getting “militarily involved” and the president did not respond to questions at a later event asking for more detail. But he left the clear impression that he meant that American forces would be deployed for Taiwan in some fashion.

“President Biden seems to have staked out a new position somewhere between ‘strategic clarity’ and ‘strategic ambiguity,’” said Danny Russel, vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute and a former adviser to President Barack Obama. “He’s clear about his belief that the U.S. should respond in the event of Chinese military aggression against Taiwan. But he’s ambiguous about what exactly that means and what it is based on.”

As president, Mr. Biden has ignored before the practiced imprecision of his predecessors with regard to China and Taiwan. Last August, in reassuring allies after his decision to abandon the government of Afghanistan, he promised that “we would respond” if there was an attack against a fellow member of NATO and then added, “same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with Taiwan.”

Taiwan, however, has never been granted the same U.S. security guarantees as Japan, South Korea or America’s NATO allies, and so the comment was seen as significant. Two months later, Mr. Biden was asked during a televised town hall if the United States would protect Taiwan from attack. “Yes, we have a commitment to do that,” he said. That also set off a frantic scramble by the White House to walk back his remark by insisting that he was not changing longstanding policy.

War in Taiwan does not appear to be imminent, and Mr. Biden said “my expectation is it will not happen.” But China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has taken a more aggressive stance than his predecessors, who long vowed to bring the island under their control, viewing the issue as the unfinished business of a bloody civil war waged more than 70 years ago.

For many in Taiwan, China’s authoritarian turn under Mr. Xi, and its moves to crush pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, have made any deeper political ties to the country unpalatable. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has heightened urgency in Washington, where officials are re-examining Taiwan’s defensive capabilities to ensure it could fight off an invasion.

The war has been watched closely in Asia, too, for whatever lessons it would hold for China’s intentions toward Taiwan. If Russia had succeeded in conquering Ukraine, once part of its empire, some feared it would set a dangerous precedent. Yet Russia’s failure to take over the entire country and the unified Western response may serve as a red flag to military adventurism.

China sent 14 aircraft into the island’s air defense zone last week on the day that Mr. Biden arrived in Asia, according to Taiwan’s Defense Ministry, part of a pattern of increasing incursions over the last year. Taiwan scrambled fighter jets in response, but no direct conflict was reported.

Xinhua, via Associated Press

On Monday, Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry welcomed Mr. Biden’s latest comments, expressing “gratitude” to the president for affirming America’s “rock-solid commitment to Taiwan.” In a statement, the ministry said Taiwan would “continue to improve its self-defense capabilities and deepen cooperation with the United States and Japan and other like-minded countries.”

Beijing, on the other hand, rejected the president’s remarks. “On issues concerning China’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and other core interests, China has no room for compromise,” Wang Wenbin, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, told reporters, adding that no one should underestimate China’s determination to defend itself.

Mr. Biden’s comments came barely an hour before he formally unveiled a new 13-nation Indo-Pacific Economic Framework intended to serve as a counter to Chinese influence in the region. The new bloc will bring the United States together with countries like Japan, India, South Korea, Australia and others to write future rules of commerce in areas like supply chain resilience, digital trade, clean energy and corruption.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan, who joined Mr. Biden for the earlier news conference, expressed concern about a Ukraine-style conflict over Taiwan. Any “unilateral attempt to change the status quo by force like Russia’s aggression against Ukraine this time should never be tolerated in the Indo-Pacific,” he said.

Nonetheless, he stuck to the traditional policy and maintained before the president’s comments that U.S.-Japan policy on the island was still the same. “Our two countries’ basic position on Taiwan remains unchanged,” he said.

Mr. Biden’s unscripted declaration put Japan in a complicated position. With Taiwan just 65 miles from Yonaguni, the westernmost inhabited Japanese island, a war with China carries enormous potential consequences for Japan, which has disavowed armed conflict since its defeat in World War II.

“Certainly, Mr. Biden said ‘America is in,’” said Narushige Michishita, vice president of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. “That means Japan will be in, too.”

While Mr. Kishida would not be so blunt as Mr. Biden, he added, his administration aims to increase Japan’s defense budget, while discussing plans to acquire weapons capable of striking missile launch sites in enemy territory and to conduct more exercises with American forces.

“Chinese planners must take the possibility of Japan getting involved into account when they plan and when they decide whether or not to attack Taiwan,” Mr. Michishita said. Forcing China to consider the prospect of facing American and Japanese forces, he said, would ultimately “enhance the possibility of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

Zolan Kanno-Youngs reported from Tokyo, and Peter Baker from Seoul. Motoko Rich contributed reporting from Tokyo, Helene Cooper from Washington, Paul Mozur from Seoul and John Liu from Taipei.

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