President Joe Biden insisted Tuesday that the U.S. hasn’t changed its strategic policy on Taiwan, a day after he angered Beijing when he said his administration would be willing to use military force to defend the island.
Biden met with leaders from Japan, India and and Australia at their second so-called Quad Leaders’ Summit, which wrapped up Tuesday in Tokyo.
The U.S. president startled many of the delegates when he suggested Monday that the U.S. could put American troops in Taiwan should China invade. When asked by a reporter if he “was willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan,” Biden said “yes.”
Those remarks came as a surprise to world leaders as a departure from decades of U.S. policy that warned China against using force in Taiwan — but opted to remain vague about the extent to which it would defend the island.
The president clarified his statement after wrapping up talks with global leaders in Tokyo on Tuesday.
“The policy has not changed at all,” he said when asked if his earlier comments signaled an end to the U.S. approach of strategic ambiguity American diplomats have followed for decades. “I stated that when I made my statement yesterday.”
Biden’s initial declaration, made during his first trip to Asia as president, enflamed tensions between the U.S. and the communist Chinese government, which believes that Taiwan is a part of its territory and cannot exist as a sovereign nation.
Despite Biden’s second-day clarification, it remains unclear whether the president’s comments were a gaffe or intentional. Nevertheless, the White House was quick to offer a moderating message in an email to CNBC.
“As the President said, our policy has not changed. He reiterated our One China Policy and our commitment to peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” a White House official told CNBC in an email.
The One China policy holds that the communist People’s Republic of China is the sole legal government of China and acknowledges unofficial relations with the people of Taiwan.
“He also reiterated our commitment under the Taiwan Relations Act to provide Taiwan with the military means to defend itself,” the White House official added.
Chinese communist leaders, however, were not convinced.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin warned on Monday that “no one should underestimate the strong resolve, determination and capability of the Chinese people in safeguarding national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
“No one should stand in opposition to the 1.4 billion Chinese people,” he added.
This isn’t the first time White House aides have attempted to temper remarks made by the president.
Biden in March sparked a political firestorm when he said in Poland that Russian President Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power.” Later that day, a White House official attempted to clarify that Biden “was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia, or regime change.”
Former Defense Department analyst Dewardric McNeal insisted the president’s comment were no mistake.
“This WAS NOT a gaffe or a misspeak on President Biden’s part — his view may not be the view of his advisors,” McNeal, a CNBC contributor, wrote Tuesday morning. “This was a very intentional statement that was meant to send a signal not ONLY to Beijing but also to Taipei,” the capital of Taiwan.
The promise of U.S. military intervention would also supersede the provisions of the U.S.-China Taiwan Relations Act, which has guided geopolitical policy in Asia since 1979.
The act obligates the U.S. “to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.”
While the law does not compel Washington to use the U.S. military to protect Taiwan from a Chinese invasion, it’s long been viewed as an imprecise pledge to maintain the current order on the self-governing island.
“Biden wants to make it clear to the world, that US commitments mean something,” McNeal added.
McNeal, now a policy analyst at Longview Global, said that Biden likely believes many of the assumptions that underpinned the U.S. “strategic ambiguity” policy are questionable.
Some of those assumptions, he explained, included the notion that China’s military capabilities would not outpace that of Taiwan and that discussions between Beijing and Taipei would lead to peaceful resolution.
While the U.S. president may still believe in the One China policy insofar as the communist party’s control over China, Biden’s remarks may reflect a desire to modernize the policy of “strategic ambiguity” to account for those outdated assumptions.