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Wrapping up a five-day trip to Asia on Tuesday, President Joe Biden wanted to showcase the alliances he’s building in the Indo-Pacific in part to counter China’s growing economic and security prowess.
But his comment earlier on the trip about Taiwan dogged his final day of travel in Tokyo. Biden told reporters on Monday he would authorize U.S. military help for Taiwan if China were to invade the self-governing island.
As Biden posed for a photo with the leaders of Japan, India and Australia, a reporter asked if the policy of “strategic ambiguity” toward Taiwan was dead.
“No,” Biden responded, despite having indicated Monday he is willing to respond militarily to defend Taiwan.
Could he explain?
“No,” he again replied.
Asked specifically if he would send troops to Taiwan if China invaded, Biden said: “The policy has not changed at all.”
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Adding to the confusion was the fact that Monday was the third time Biden has appeared to put the protection of the U.S. military explicitly behind Taiwan only to have administration officials – or Biden himself – stress that nothing had changed.
Biden’s latest comments – his most forceful yet – are likely to fuel a debate about whether the “strategic ambiguity” policy should be replaced by “strategic clarity.”
They’ve also led to calls for a more detailed explanation of his stance.
“A senior official from the Biden administration should give a comprehensive speech on US policy toward Taiwan,” tweeted Bonnie Glaser, director of the German Marshall Fund’s Asia program. “The confusion and misstatements are more likely to undermine deterrence than strengthen it.”
The response from Beijing was more emphatic.
“The Taiwan question is purely China’s internal affair that brooks no foreign interference,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Monday when asked about Biden’s comments. “No one should stand in opposition to the 1.4 billion Chinese people.”
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Here's what you need to know:
Why is there a dispute about China and Taiwan?
Taiwan, an island separated from China by the Taiwan Strait, sees itself as an independent, sovereign nation. It's been governed independently of China since 1949 and officially calls itself the Republic of China.
China views Taiwan as part of its territory and hasn't ruled out force to achieve its goal of unification.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman on Monday called "the Taiwan question" the "most important and sensitive issue in China-US relations."
What is U.S. policy on Taiwan?
In 1979, when the United States established formal diplomatic relations with China, it recognized the communist leadership in Beijing as the sole legal government of China, acknowledging the Chinese position that there is one China and Taiwan is a breakaway province that is part of China.
But Washington maintains unofficial relations with Taiwan, which the State Department describes as a leading democracy, technological powerhouse and key U.S. partner in the Indo-Pacific.
The Taiwan Relations Act, passed in 1979, opposes use of force against Taiwan and ensures Taiwan has the ability to defend itself. It gives the United States the ability to come to Taiwan’s defense but doesn't require it. The hope was that the resulting "strategic ambiguity" would serve as a deterrent to China while not encouraging Taiwan to provoke a showdown.
Why is this a growing issue?
China has dramatically increased its military capabilities in recent years. It now boasts the world's largest navy in terms of the number of ships, and it has formidable ballistic and cruise missile programs.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping believes that reuniting China with what he views as its lost province of Taiwan will help cement his place in history, according to David Sacks, an Asia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
In recent months, China has been sending large numbers of warplanes into Taiwan's air defense zone.
David Shullman, an expert on China with the Atlantic Council think tank, said Biden arrived in Asia as analysts have been debating whether China feels emboldened to move against Taiwan either because China thinks the U.S. is distracted by Russia's invasion of Ukraine or "because they feel like now is the time and if they wait any longer, it's going to become only harder in coming years."
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How has the Biden administration reacted to China?
Biden has prioritized strengthening alliances that can stand up to China, including by reviving the Asia-Pacific security partnership between the United States, Australia, Japan and India, known as the "Quad." He drew Beijing's ire after securing a deal last year with the U.K. to supply Australia with nuclear-powered submarines. And an Indo-Pacific economic alliance Biden launched Monday in Tokyo was criticized by China as an “exclusive clique” that will create “turmoil and chaos in the region.”
Biden, during his trip, also emphasized why the world must ensure Russia pays a "dear price" for its invasion of Ukraine. If Russia is not held accountable, Biden said, "then what signal does that send to China about the cost of attempting, of attempting, to take Taiwan by force?"
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What has Biden said about defending Taiwan?
Biden's linkage of Russia and China came in response to a reporter asking Monday if the president is "willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan, if it comes to that?"
"Yes," Biden responded.
"You are?" the reporter pressed.
"That's the commitment we made," Biden continued.
While the U.S. still supports the "One China" policy recognizing there is only one Chinese government, Biden said, "that does not mean that China has the jurisdiction to go in and use force to take over Taiwan."
Has Biden said before about defending Taiwan?
Last August, Biden compared the U.S.'s commitment to Taiwan to the pact among NATO countries to defend any member who is attacked.
"We made a sacred commitment to Article Five that if in fact anyone were to invade or take action against our NATO allies, we would respond," Biden told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos. "Same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with Taiwan."
During a CNN town hall in October, Biden was asked if the U.S. would come to Taiwan’s defense if China attacked.
"Yes," he responded. "We have a commitment to do that."
The White House later insisted Biden was not stating a new position and was still following the Taiwan Relations Act.
"He was not intending to convey a change in policy nor has he made a decision to change our policy," Jen Psaki, who was Biden's press secretary, told reporters in October.
Should the policy be changed?
Despite the Biden administration's assertions that the policy hasn't changed, the U.S. is increasingly acting as if it would come to Taiwan's defense and should explicitly say so, according to Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations.
"This is the third time @potus has spoken out in favor of strategic clarity on Taiwan and third time WH staff has tried to walk it back," Haass tweeted Monday. "Better to embrace it as new US stance, one that is fully consistent with one-China policy but that alters how US will go about implementing it."
Strategic ambiguity, he argued in a December opinion piece co-authored with Sacks, is "unlikely to deter an increasingly assertive, risk-tolerant, and capable China."
But Avril Haines, Biden's director of national intelligence, advised against a policy change during a Senate hearing last year. An explicit commitment by the U.S. to intervene, Haines testified, could encourage Taiwan to try to separate itself from China.
Also, the Chinese would find the shift "deeply destabilizing."
"I think it would solidify Chinese perceptions that the U.S. is bent on constraining China's rise, including through military force," Haines told the Senate Armed Services Committee, "and would probably cause Beijing to aggressively undermine U.S. interests worldwide."
But Sen. Bob Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, welcomes a tougher stance.
"President Biden is right," Menendez tweeted Monday. "Credible deterrence requires both courage and clarity – and Taiwan’s vibrant democracy deserves our full support."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden riles China with vow to defend Taiwan. What is the US policy?