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White House plays cleanup on Biden's Taiwan comments

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The White House was still setting the record straight more than 12 hours after President Joe Biden pledged to defend Taiwan militarily from China, charging that the president’s comment did not amount to a change of policy.

“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,” press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Friday, adding, “There’s no change in our policy.”

Biden had seemed to some observers to declare a shift in the country’s defense posture toward Taiwan during a CNN town hall on Thursday night, stirring confusion.

“Are you saying that the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense if China attacked?” CNN's Anderson Cooper asked.

Biden responded: “Yes. Yes, we have a commitment to do that.”


The question comes amid increased scrutiny over China’s posture in the region. Taiwan, an independent island off the coast of mainland China, receives U.S. defense support but has not been formally recognized by Washington since the 1970s. Beijing has long sought to fold Taiwan under its control but hasn’t done so. The U.S. policy on Washington’s response if China moved to attack Taiwan is known as “strategic ambiguity.”

Biden’s response prompted a rapid clarification by the White House Thursday evening, with one spokesperson telling the Washington Examiner that despite asserting that Washington would defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack, Biden “was not announcing any change in our policy and there is no change in our policy.”

“The U.S. defense relationship with Taiwan is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act,” the official said. “We will uphold our commitment under the act, we will continue to support Taiwan’s self-defense, and we will continue to oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo.”

Biden has forced a similar clarification before, telling ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos in August that the U.S. commitment to Taiwan was akin to its obligations to NATO allies.

“We have made — kept every commitment. We made a sacred commitment to Article V that if, in fact, anyone were to invade or take action against our NATO allies, we would respond,” Biden said. “Same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with Taiwan.”

Biden’s latest comment sparked a comparison to a White House correction in 2001 after former President George W. Bush said Washington would do “whatever it took” to come to Taiwan’s defense, including pledging U.S. troops.

Psaki repeatedly sought to correct the record Friday.

“Our defense relationship with Taiwan is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act. Some of the principles of the Taiwan Relations Act that the United States will continue to abide by, of course, assisting Taiwan in maintaining a sufficient self-defense capability and other principles that the United States would regard any efforts to determine the future of Taiwan by other threats to peace and security of the Western Pacific as a grave concern to the United States.

I would also note that [Defense] Secretary Austin also spoke to this earlier today, and he said, ‘Nobody wants to see the cross-strait issues come to blows, certainly not President Biden, and there’s no reason that it should.”

“What I can convey to you is that our policy has not changed. He was not intending to convey a change in policy, nor has he made a decision to change our policy,” Psaki said of Biden.

Michael Swaine, director of the East Asia program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, said Biden had “made a serious gaffe in stating that the U.S. has a "commitment" to defend Taiwan if attacked by China.

“No such commitment exists.”

Under the Taiwan Relations Act, Biden must consult with Congress if he assesses Beijing is threatening Taiwan’s security.

“In this current era of near-adversarial U.S. relations with China, marked by a worsening security competition, Washington has a greater need than ever to be precise about its Taiwan policy,” Swaine said, adding that Biden had made the mistake before.

“Each time, as in this case, the administration has corrected the record, saying that U.S. policy has not changed,” he said.

And Biden has criticized others for the same misstep.

In a Washington Post op-ed in May 2001, Biden, at the time the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, tore into Bush for stepping out ahead of U.S. commitments.

“Where once the United States had a policy of ‘strategic ambiguity' — under which we reserved the right to use force to defend Taiwan but kept mum about the circumstances in which we might, or might not, intervene in a war across the Taiwan Strait — we now appear to have a policy of ambiguous strategic ambiguity,” Biden wrote, adding that Bush’s “inattention to detail has damaged U.S. credibility with our allies and sown confusion throughout the Pacific Rim.”

“Words matter,” he added.


Swaine said there is a good reason for this.

“The ambiguity in the extent of the U.S. commitment to Taiwan if attacked is there for a purpose: Taiwan is not a formal U.S. ally, the United States does not recognize Taiwan as an independent nation, and Washington has a One China policy that would collapse if the U.S. started treating Taiwan as a security ally,” Swaine explained. “The ambiguity also serves to remind Taiwan that the U.S. will not automatically back any actions taken by Taipei that might invite a Chinese attack.”

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Tags: News, White House, Biden Administration, China, Taiwan, Defense, Joe Biden, Jen Psaki

Original Author: Katherine Doyle

Original Location: White House plays cleanup on Biden's Taiwan comments

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