United States President Joe Biden has said US forces would defend Taiwan from a Chinese invasion, the strongest indication yet of a shift away from Washington’s decades-long policy of strategic ambiguity towards the island democracy.
Asked in a television interview whether the US military would defend the self-governed island if China invaded, Biden said it would if there “was an unprecedented attack.”
Asked to clarify further, Biden confirmed that US personnel would come to the defence of Taiwan, unlike in Ukraine, which Washington has given material support and military equipment to repel Russia without committing American troops.
Biden’s comments are his latest to cast doubt on longstanding US policy towards Taiwan enshrined in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which commits Washington to help Taipei defend itself but stops short of promising to provide troops or directly participate in any conflict.
During a trip to Japan in May, Biden appeared to confirm that he would use force to defend Taiwan if it was attacked by China, describing the defence of the island as a “commitment we made”.
While many observers have taken Biden’s comments as signalling the end of strategic ambiguity towards Taiwan, White House officials have repeatedly insisted that US policy towards the island remains unchanged.
A White House spokesperson said US policy had not changed despite Biden’s latest remarks.
“The president has said this before, including in Tokyo earlier this year,” the spokesperson said. “He also made clear then that our Taiwan policy hasn’t changed. That remains true.”
In his interview with US television network CBS’ 60 Minutes, Biden reiterated that Washington does not support Taiwanese independence and is committed to the “One-China” policy, under which the US officially recognises Beijing but not Taipei.
Despite not officially recognising Taipei, Washington has been among Taiwan’s strongest international backers. Earlier this month, the US State Department approved the sale of $1.1bn in weaponry to Taiwan, while a Senate committee voted to advance legislation that would provide an additional $4.5bn in security assistance and impose sanctions on Beijing for any attempt to seize the island by force.
China claims Taiwan as a province that must be “reunified” with the mainland, by force if necessary, and has accused the US of disrupting regional stability and encouraging Taiwanese separatism.
After Biden’s comments in May, China’s foreign ministry warned that “no one should underestimate the firm resolve, staunch will and strong ability of the Chinese people in defending national sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
Matthew Kroenig, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, said Biden’s stance on defending Taiwan was “crystal clear”.
“As long as he is president, US policy is to defend Taiwan. This is the right policy as it contributes to the deterrence of China and helps to guide US military planning,” Kroenig told Al Jazeera.
“I do think America has the stomach for that fight. Hitler and imperial Japan bet that America didn’t have the stomach for a fight in the run-up to WWII. How did that turn out for them? Washington has a huge strategic interest in maintaining peace and stability, and a free and open order, in the Indo-Pacific.”