“Yes,” he said Monday. “That’s the commitment we made.”
A White House official said Biden was not describing a change in US policy toward Taiwan, a self-governing island that China considers a breakaway province that should be reunited with the mainland.
There is no mutual defense treaty between the United States and Taiwan, but America sells Taiwanese military equipment. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Biden’s comment “underscored our commitment under the Taiwan Relations Act to help provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself.”
Is it so simple? The confusion recalls Washington’s position of “strategic ambiguity” when it comes to Taiwan – essentially leaving China to guess what exactly the United States would do if there were an invasion.
It’s a sensitive issue in a complex corner of the globe, and it has received renewed attention in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
An overview of how things got to this point:
HOW DID TAIWAN’S UNUSUAL STATUS ARRIVE?
Taiwan is located about 100 miles off mainland China. During China’s civil war, Communists under Mao Zedong forced Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist forces to flee the mainland for the island in 1949.
The Taiwanese government in Taipei has become autonomous and democratic, even conducting its own foreign policy.
Meanwhile, Beijing has never given up on its claims. We often speak of peaceful reunification, but the threat of military force remains.
WHAT RELATIONSHIP DOES THE UNITED STATES HAVE WITH TAIWAN?
Taiwan falls into a gray area of US foreign policy. For decades after Chiang fled to the island, Washington viewed the rulers of Taipei as China’s legitimate government, and there was no formal connection to Beijing.
However, President Richard Nixon visited China in 1972, initiating a diplomatic thaw that culminated in 1979 when President Jimmy Carter formally recognized the government in Beijing and severed nation-to-nation ties with Taiwan.
In response, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, creating a benchmark for an ongoing relationship. The United States sells military equipment to Taiwan, and the island is an important trading partner, especially as a major producer of semiconductors for computer chips.
“We have a deep political, economic and military relationship with a place that we don’t officially recognize,” said Julian Ku, professor of international law at Hofstra University in New York. “I don’t think there’s a place like this in the world of American foreign policy.
For years, China has made the Taiwan issue a top priority in diplomatic and other conversations with the United States, according to current and former officials who say their Chinese interlocutors repeatedly raise the same talking points on Taiwan. at each meeting.
WHAT HAS BIDEN SAID BEFORE?
This is the third time Biden has made waves with his comments on protecting Taiwan.
During an August interview with ABC News, he compared the United States’ relationship with Taiwan to America’s Article 5 commitment to NATO, which requires the alliance to defend any attacked member.
Then, during a town hall on CNN in October, Biden said “we are committed” to defending Taiwan.
White House officials backtracked on his comments both times, but that didn’t stop Biden from using similar language in Japan on Monday.
And there was Biden’s November trip to New Hampshire, a day after a virtual meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. When speaking to reporters, Biden described Taiwan as “independent.”
Later that day, he clarified.
“We don’t encourage independence,” he said.
HOW DID CHINA AND TAIWAN REACT TO THE NEW COMMENTS?
Taiwan welcomed the news. The island’s foreign ministry issued a statement expressing “its sincere welcome and gratitude to President Biden and the U.S. government for reaffirming their unwavering commitment to Taiwan.”
“China’s challenge to the security of the Taiwan Strait has caused great concern in the international community,” spokeswoman Joanne Ou said.
Unsurprisingly, China responded with an angry statement.
“China has no room for compromises or concessions on issues involving China’s core interests such as sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said.
WHAT IS THE CHANCE OF A MILITARY CONFLICT ON TAIWAN?
Biden said on Monday he did not believe China would invade Taiwan, although he also said “it depends on how strongly the world makes it clear that this type of action will lead to long-term disapproval of the from the rest of the community.
Others have sounded the alarm.
When Admiral Phil Davidson was the outgoing head of the US Indo-Pacific Command last year, he said he thought China could attack “within the next six years”.
A recurring concern is Chinese military flights. They performed several times near Taiwan, including the first day of Biden’s trip to Asia.
WHAT IS THE UNITED STATES DOING FOR THE DEFENSE OF TAIWAN?
The United States is a major arms supplier to Taiwan, although sales have fallen over the past year.
A review of congressional notifications shows that since taking office, the Biden administration has approved less than $1 billion in arms sales to Taiwan. By contrast, from October to December 2020, then-President Donald Trump’s administration greenlighted nearly $4.7 billion in sales.
There is an ongoing debate over what kind of weapons to sell to Taiwan, a source of contention between US policymakers, competing political and military interests in Taipei, and the US defense industry.
Successive U.S. administrations and a growing number of politicians in Taiwan have argued that Taipei’s security is best served with tactical weapons of the type that Ukraine has used to effect against Russia, not with expensive and large targets such as battleships that could be destroyed at the start of a Chinese invasion.