Biden claims no change in policy, but his Taiwan 'gaffe' may be no accident: ANALYSIS
Some say his comments sent a clear signal to China about a U.S. response.
President Joe Biden tried to clean up his own comments about the U.S. defending Taiwan "militarily" if China were to invade the island, telling reporters Tuesday during his last day in Asia that U.S. "policy has not changed at all."
But after saying for a third time now that the U.S. was committed to coming to Taiwan's defense, it seems clearer the president is leaning into a more assertive U.S. stance that differs with decades of U.S. policy -- and not just misspeaking.
To critics, the comments are making an already tense situation more unpredictable and worse, but to proponents, including Republican lawmakers who have otherwise criticized Biden's foreign policy, it's a stronger U.S. policy that's necessary to send a message to Beijing.
Beijing often criticizes the U.S. for what it sees as interference in its domestic affairs, but the issue of Taiwan is of particular importance. China considers Taiwan a breakaway province, with strongman leader Xi Jinping openly committed to reunifying the island with mainland China -- over seven decades after its independent government was created.
Since the Nixon administration's 1979 agreement with China, the U.S. has abided by the "One China" policy, recognizing Beijing as the sole legal government of China and acknowledging its position that Taiwan is part of China. But the U.S. has also maintained unofficial ties with Taiwan, starting with the 1979 law the Taiwan Relations Act and growing stronger in recent years because of Taiwan's vibrant democracy and powerful economy.
As part of that "One China" policy, the U.S. is opposed to "unilateral" changes in Chinese-Taiwanese relations, like a Chinese invasion. But while the U.S. is committed to Taiwan's defense, it has for decades been ambiguous about whether it would intervene to preserve the status quo if China invaded -- a policy known as "strategic ambiguity."
But Biden, who voted for the Taiwan Relations Act as a young senator, has three times now gone further than a commitment to Taiwan's defense.
Asked whether he was "willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan" on Monday, Biden said simply, "Yes."
The president didn't spell out what "militarily" meant -- from providing weapons and other military aid like the U.S. has with Ukraine, to deploying U.S. forces directly into combat.
But he said while the U.S. abides by the "One China" policy, the idea that Taiwan can "just [be] taken by force is just not a - is just not appropriate."
White House officials immediately cleaned up his comments, telling reporters U.S. policy had not changed. On Tuesday in Tokyo, the second stop of his first trip to Asia, Biden himself did, too -- saying the policy of strategic ambiguity was not dead.
"The policy has not changed at all, and I stated that when I made my statement," Biden said.
It's not the first time Biden has been here, though. In an August interview with ABC News, Biden said the U.S. was committed to coming to Taiwan's defense if attacked, just as with NATO allies or South Korea and Japan. But Taiwan is not a treaty ally like the others, with no guarantee of U.S. aid.
Two months later, Biden similarly told a CNN town hall that the U.S. had a "commitment" to come to Taiwan's defense if China invaded.
After each time, the White House has made the same comment -- saying U.S. policy has not changed.
But if a "gaffe" is a mistake, then making the same "mistake" three times doesn't seem like one at all.
That's perhaps especially true because Biden has a deep history on the issue and clearly knows the difference made by even slight tweaks to the language here.
In 2001, President George W. Bush told ABC News in an interview that the U.S. had an obligation to defend Taiwan. Asked if his commitment was backed by the "full force" of the U.S. military, Bush said, "Whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself."
The top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee pushed back hard -- then-senator Joe Biden, condemning Biden's "startling new commitment" and arguing the U.S. should "not cede to Taiwan, much less to China, the ability automatically to draw us into a war across the Taiwan Strait."
"We now appear to have a policy of ambiguous strategic ambiguity. It is not an improvement," he added.
But that's exactly where the U.S. sits now, and to some analysts, they agree with the former senator's view.
"The confusion and misstatements are more likely to undermine deterrence than strengthen it," tweeted Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund, a Washington think tank.
But others argue that Biden's more assertive stance of a U.S. commitment to defend Taiwan is stronger and more likely to give Xi pause, especially after the U.S. rallied with NATO allies, the European Union, and Indo-Pacific allies like Japan, South Korea, and Australia to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine and supply Kyiv with weapons and financial aid.
"President Biden's statement that if push came to shove the U.S. would defend Taiwan against communist China was the right thing to say and the right thing to do," tweeted Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC.
In Beijing, of course, it is the wrong thing to say -- with the Foreign Ministry escalating its criticism on Tuesday even as Biden tried to walk his comments back.
"I would like to remind the U.S. that no force in the world, including the U.S., can stop the Chinese people from achieving complete national reunification. There is no force in the world, including the United States, that can save the 'Taiwan independence' forces from defeat," said spokesperson Wang Wenbin
ABC News's Karson Yiu, Molly Nagle, and Ben Gittleson contributed to this report from Tokyo.
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