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US President Joe Biden said on Monday he would be willing to intervene militarily to defend Taiwan, warning that China was “flirting with danger” if it tried to seize the democratic island by force.
Asked in a Tokyo press conference if – following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – he would be “willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?” he responded: “Yes...that’s a commitment we made.”
He added: “The idea that it could be taken by force, just taken by force, is just not..it would dislocate the entire region and be another action similar to what happened in Ukraine. So, it’s a burden that’s even stronger.”
Mr Biden is on the second leg of his first trip to Asia, visiting both South Korea and Japan in what has been widely viewed as an attempt to bolster cooperation with regional allies in opposition to China’s growing assertiveness across the Indo-Pacific.
Beijing’s ambitions to take over Taiwan – which the Chinese Communist Party claims as its own even though it has never ruled there – have put the region on alert over a potential future conflict.
Mr Biden said his expectation was that China would not use force to take the island, which functions like any other nation with its own government, military and foreign policy.
But in some of his strongest comments to date on the issue, he directly linked the outcome of Western attempts to help Ukraine repel the Russian invasion with lessons likely to be learned in Beijing regarding Taiwan.
"It's important that Putin pay a price for his barbarism in Ukraine", news agency AFP quoted Biden as saying. "Russia has to pay a long-term price."
This is "not just about Ukraine", Biden said, because China is watching to see if Western pressure on Russia slacks off.
"What signal does that send to China about the cost of... attempting to take Taiwan by force?" he asked.
Biden’s comments appeared to be a departure from the existing US policy of “strategic ambiguity,” under which Washington has pledged to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself but has not clarified whether it would intervene or send troops in a military conflict with China.
According to a New York Times reporter who was in the room, the president’s blunt declaration, offered without caveat or clarification, took some members of his own administration by surprise.
Shortly after he spoke, a White House official tried to backtrack on his stark statement, saying, “There is no change in US policy towards Taiwan.”
The official added: “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. He also reiterated our commitment under the Taiwan Relations Act to provide Taiwan with the military means to defend itself.”
The US “One China” policy recognises Beijing’s position that there is only one Chinese government but only acknowledges, and does not endorse, Beijing’s assertion that Taiwan is part of China. It maintains a de facto embassy in Taiwan, strong informal relations, and remains Taipei’s biggest arms supplier.
However, Mr Biden’s response is the third time in less than a year that he has strayed from the deliberately vague stance of previous presidents over the explicit question of whether the US would go to Taiwan’s aid if it was invaded by China.
Asked twice during a televised CNN town hall event in October whether the US would protect Taiwan if China attacked, the president said it would.
"Yes, we have a commitment to do that," he said, prompting another frantic response by aides to clarify that the US’ longstanding policy had not been altered.
The president may have misspoken or used imprecise language on Monday, or it could be seen as reflecting a greater sense of urgency in Washington to send a strong signal to China not to be emboldened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to make a move on Taiwan.
Both Taiwan and China issued standard responses to his remarks.
Taipei thanked the president for affirming America’s “rock-solid commitment to Taiwan” while Beijing said China had “no room for compromise” over its “sovereignty, territorial integrity and other core interests.”
But Mr Biden’s overt comments risked overshadowing the centerpiece of his visit, which is the launch of a broad plan providing an economic pillar for US engagement with Asia, called the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.
His visit also includes meetings with the leaders of Japan, India and Australia, in the “Quad” group of countries.