White House backtracks after Joe Biden's pledge to defend Taiwan

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Taiwan's military takes part in a parade to mark the island's national day on October 10 - Anadolu Agency
Taiwan's military takes part in a parade to mark the island's national day on October 10 - Anadolu Agency

The White House on Friday desperately sought to calm the waters after Joe Biden blundered over US policy on Taiwan.

Officials clarified there was no change in policy after Mr Biden, in a live television event, promised to defend the island from Chinese attack.

In the CNN town hall Mr Biden was asked if the US would come to Taiwan's defence if China invaded. He replied, "Yes. We have a commitment to that."

The President appeared to be shifting Washington’s delicate longtime policy of “strategic ambiguity" with regard to Taiwan.

However, a White House official later said: "The president was not announcing any change in our policy and there is no change in our policy,"

In her press conference, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, was forced to repeatedly make clear there had been no change in US policy.

When asked if the policy on Taiwan had shifted Ms Psaki said: "There has been no shift, the President was not announcing any change in our policy, nor has he made a decision to change our policy. There is no change in our policy."

Asked if Mr Biden's "unambiguous" sounding response had been "intentional," she said: "What I can convey to you is our policy has not changed. He's not intending to convey a change in policy, nor has he made a decision to change our policy."
Asked if the "commitment" Mr Biden spoke about included military intervention, she said: "As I said earlier, he wasn't announcing a change in policy."

Ms Psaki said Lloyd Austin, the defence secretary, had "conveyed clearly" the US policy on Taiwan.

Earlier, Mr Austin declined to discuss "hypotheticals" but said the US "will continue to help Taiwan with the sorts of capabilities that it needs to defend itself."

That policy is guided by the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, in which Congress required the US to provide Taiwan weapons for its own defence, but was ambiguous on whether America would intervene militarily.

Washington has never officially said what it would do in case of conflict.

Beijing claims Taiwan as its own territory and has significantly increased military and political pressure in recent weeks, pushing tensions to their highest level in decades.

Pentagon officials believe Taiwan is the likeliest trigger for a major conflict in the coming years.

Mr Biden's remarks prompted a furious reaction from Beijing.

The US should “act and speak cautiously on the Taiwan issue," warned Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin.“China has no room for compromise on issues involving its core interests.”

China's ramped up military activity is raising worries that it may try to assert sovereignty over the island’s 24 million citizens by force, fears heightened by a recent crackdown on the previously semi-autonomous city of Hong Kong.

This isn't the first time Mr Biden's comments have caused confusion over Taiwan - a democracy of 23.5 million people with its own government, foreign policy and military.

In August, he said the US had a “sacred commitment” to “respond” if anyone invaded its allies, including Taiwan, prompting administration officials to make clear that policy hadn't shifted. Washington is required by law to provide Taiwan with a way to defend itself.

Taiwan’s presidential office noted the Biden administration’s “rock-solid” support and said their position not to give into pressure or “rashly advance” remained the same.

Relations between Taiwan and China are at their worst in more than 40 years, said Taiwanese defence minister Chiu Kuo-cheng said earlier this month, adding that China was capable of mounting a “full-scale” invasion by 2025.

In early October, Beijing flew a record 150 warplanes near the island’s airspace – including the nuclear-capable H6 bomber, which would be used to strike in the event of invasion – in a show of force around both Beijing’s National Day on Oct 1 and Taipei’s on Oct 10.

Beijing often engages in sabre-rattling around such high-profile days, but governments and experts are alarmed as recent actions have been coupled with escalating rhetoric and the issue has become a sore point in the already-delicate relationship with Washington.

Military experts also say China’s provocative actions heighten the risk of an accident or miscalculation that could spark conflict.

Beijing’s stern warnings to other countries not to back Taiwan seem to be having the opposite effect.

A Taiwanese government delegation is currently visiting three eastern EU countries – Slovakia, Czech Republic and Lithuania - and earlier this week, the European Parliament pushed to deepen ties with Taiwan and start work on an investment deal with the island.

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