President Joe Biden insisted on Tuesday there has been no change to the United States’ policy on Taiwan, a day after drawing China’s ire by signaling he would be willing to use military force to defend the self-governing island.
Asked whether those comments marked an end to the longstanding U.S. approach of “strategic ambiguity” on the issue, Biden said: “No.”
“The policy has not changed at all,” he said, following a round of talks in Tokyo with leaders of the Quad, an informal security grouping consisting of the U.S., Australia, India and Japan that is seen as an effort to counter Beijing. “I stated that when I made my statement yesterday,” Biden added.
As the summit unfolded, Chinese and Russian warplanes flew in tandem over the area, with Japan and South Korea saying they were forced to scramble jets in response.
The Chinese defense ministry later said it had been holding “routine joint air patrols” with Russia over the Sea of Japan, the East China Sea and the western Pacific Ocean. The exercise came just a day after the Kremlin said it would be focusing on deepening its ties with China as relations with the West deteriorate.
But the final day of Biden’s first trip to Asia as president was largely overshadowed by confusion over his Taiwan comments the day before.
Speaking at a news conference after meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Biden suggested that unlike in Ukraine, Washington would be willing to intervene militarily if China were to invade Taiwan, which Beijing views as its own territory.
The White House quickly walked back Biden’s comments, which would represent a break with decades of U.S. policy on Taiwan.
But they still rippled across the region, with Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin expressing “firm opposition” to the comments and warning against any support for “Taiwanese” independence. By contrast, Taiwan’s Foreign Affairs Ministry welcomed Biden’s statement, expressing “gratitude” to the president and the U.S. government for “reaffirming their rock-solid commitment to Taiwan.”
This is not the first time Biden has suggested the U.S. could come to Taiwan’s defense should China invade, and it was unclear whether it was a gaffe, a deliberate effort to sow doubt in Beijing about American intentions, or something else entirely.
While Washington is required by law to provide Taiwan with defensive weapons, its policy of “strategic ambiguity” deliberately leaves it unclear as to how the U.S. would respond if Taiwan were to come under attack.
As Biden faced pressure for clarity, other Quad members were also questioned about their Taiwan policies.
Australia’s new prime minister, Anthony Albanese, headed to Tokyo right after being sworn in on Monday. Asked about Biden’s comments, he said he could “confirm there’s no change in Australia’s position.”
“There should be no unilateral change to the status quo. Our position has not changed,” he said.
The prospect of Chinese action against Taiwan has gained renewed attention in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with the war in Europe also clouding proceedings in Tokyo.
On Tuesday, Biden said the international community faced a “dark hour in our shared history” as he called for stronger efforts to pressure Moscow to end the war.
Kishida said Tuesday that Russia’s invasion “shakes the foundation of international order,” according to Reuters.
“We should not allow similar things to happen in the Indo-Pacific region,” he said.
In a joint statement following Tuesday’s summit, the Quad leaders vowed to uphold their “steadfast commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific that is inclusive and resilient.”
They also appeared to offer a warning to China, without naming Beijing specifically, against following in Russia’s footsteps.
“We strongly oppose any coercive, provocative or unilateral actions that seek to change the status quo and increase tensions in the area, such as the militarization of disputed features, the dangerous use of coast guard vessels and maritime militia, and efforts to disrupt other countries’ offshore resource exploitation activities,” the statement read.
India is the only Quad member that has not clearly condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as it tries to balance its relations with the U.S. and Russia, one of its most important arms suppliers.
In a bilateral meeting on Tuesday, Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi committed to providing humanitarian assistance to Ukrainians and discussed how to work together to manage disruptions caused by the war, including higher energy and food prices, according to the White House.