In a “60 Minutes” interview broadcast on CBS, Biden was asked whether the U.S. would defend Taiwan against an attack from Beijing, which claims the self-ruling island democracy as its territory.
“Yes, if in fact there was an unprecedented attack,” he said.
The president said “yes” when he was asked whether he meant that, unlike in Ukraine, U.S. forces would come to Taiwan’s defense.
It is at least the fourth time since last year that Biden has made comments that appear to alter longtime U.S. policy on Taiwan. Since it established diplomatic relations with China in 1979, the U.S. has recognized Beijing as the sole legitimate government of China while maintaining unofficial relations with Taiwan.
The U.S. is bound by law to provide Taiwan with defensive weapons, but it has a policy of “strategic ambiguity” when it comes to exactly how it would respond to Chinese aggression toward the island.
The interview with Biden, who is in London for Queen Elizabeth II’s state funeral Monday, was recorded last week. After it aired, a White House spokesperson said U.S. policy on Taiwan remained unchanged.
“The president has said this before, including in Tokyo earlier this year,” the spokesperson said, referring to comments Biden made in May. “He also made clear then that our Taiwan policy hasn’t changed. That remains true.”
Biden said in the “60 Minutes” interview that the U.S. still agreed with the One China policy and that Taiwan should determine its own future.
“We’re not encouraging their being independent,” he said. “That’s their decision.”
Responding on Monday, China said it had lodged “stern representations” with the United States.
Biden’s comments “seriously breached the important commitment the U.S. made not to support Taiwan independence, and send a seriously erroneous signal to Taiwanese separatist independence forces,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said at a regular news briefing.
In a statement on Monday, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it “extends its sincere appreciation to President Biden for once again emphasizing the staunch and rock-solid U.S. security commitment to Taiwan.”
International tensions over Taiwan have been heightened since last month, when China responded to a visit by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., with unprecedented live-fire drills. Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan has drawn the most attention amid an uptick this year in visits by U.S. congressional delegations pledging their support.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has not ruled out the use of force in achieving his goal of “reunification” with Taiwan, has warned Biden against any change to U.S. policy on the island, most recently during a call in July.
Wen-Ti Sung, a Taipei-based expert on U.S.-China-Taiwan relations at the Australian National University, said Biden’s comments could carve out a “sweet spot” for Washington, reinforcing U.S. determination to help Taiwan without overtly crossing Beijing’s red line.
“By saying ‘unprecedented attack,’ I think it attaches a certain level of conditionality to it, a conditionality that’s not very clearly defined, which again leaves room for interpretation,” he said.
A recent survey of 64 leading experts on China, Taiwan and cross-Strait relations, conducted by the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, found that while the potential for a military crisis or conflict over Taiwan is viewed as “very real,” most do not see China’s exercises after Pelosi’s visit as an indicator that its timeline for any invasion has accelerated.
The experts surveyed were unanimous in saying that Beijing already assumes the U.S. would intervene militarily in the event of an unprovoked invasion of Taiwan, though they disagreed on to what extent.
Some U.S. lawmakers have been pushing for a more aggressive policy on Taiwan, with a Senate panel last week approving legislation that would greatly enhance U.S. defensive support. Mao, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, criticized the bill as a violation of the One China policy and said it would “cause extremely serious consequences to China-U.S. relations.”
Taiwan, which is about 100 miles off China, has never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party. But China claimed sovereignty over the island after Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists, having been defeated by Mao Zedong’s Communist forces in China’s civil war, fled there in 1949 and established a rival government.