White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN’s Phil Mattingly at Tuesday’s White House press conference that Biden answered a “hypothetical question from 60 Minutes,” adding: “When the president of the United States wants to announce a change in policy, he will. He hasn’t.”
Sullivan reiterated that the White House stands behind the “One China” policy and said that Biden “has reiterated those fundamental commitments every time he has spoken in Taiwan — including this conversation, where he specifically and emphatically and unequivocally reinforced and reiterated the One China policy.”
Under the “One China” policy, the US accepts China’s position that Taiwan is part of China, but has never officially accepted the Communist Party’s claim to the 23 million-strong autonomous island. The US provides defensive weapons to Taiwan, but has been deliberately ambiguous about whether it will intervene militarily in the event of a Chinese attack.
Biden reiterated his commitment to the “One China” policy in the “60 Minutes” interview. But when asked if US forces will defend the island, he said: “Yes, in fact if there was an unprecedented attack.”
Biden’s comments to “60 Minutes” weren’t the first time he went further than the long-held U.S. approach to Taiwan defense. Recently, during a visit to Tokyo in May, Biden said that the US would intervene militarily if China tries to take Taiwan by force.
“He was asked a question — a hypothetical question in this interview. He was asked a very similar question in Tokyo in May,” Sullivan said Tuesday. “He gave a similar answer to his ’60 Minutes’ interview in Tokyo in May. After that answer in Tokyo, someone said to him specifically, ‘Have you just announced any major political changes?’ And he said, ‘No, I haven’t. I’ve answered a hypothetical question. I haven’t announced any policy changes.’
Asked by Mattingly in response to a hypothetical question about whether Biden is giving an explicit message to China, Sullivan said: “The president is a fair and honest person. He answered a hypothetical.”
The president’s comments to CBS — along with repeated attempts by the White House to downplay what he said — have heightened tensions between China and Taiwan.
Taiwan is less than 110 miles (177 kilometers) off the coast of China. The two sides have been ruled separately for more than 70 years, but that hasn’t stopped the Chinese Communist Party from claiming the island for its own — although it has never controlled it.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping has said a “reunification” between China and Taiwan is inevitable and has refused to rule out the use of force. Tensions between Beijing and Taipei are at their highest in decades as China’s military conducts major military exercises near the island.
Beijing quickly condemned Biden’s comments on Monday and reiterated its warning that China reserves the “option to take all necessary measures” to defend its territorial integrity and sovereignty.
“The US remarks seriously violate the one-China principle and the provisions of the three US-China communiqués. It is also a serious violation of the US’s important commitment not to support Taiwan’s independence,” China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Spokesman Mao Ning said in a speech.
“It has sent a serious wrong signal to the separatist forces of Taiwan independence. China expresses its strong displeasure and firm opposition and has made serious representations in support of the US,” Mao added.
Beijing was also vocal about US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei in August. Beijing responded to his trip by suspending all talks with the US on key issues, from climate change to military relations, while conducting major military exercises around Taiwan.
The US ship did so “in collaboration with Royal Canadian Navy Halifax-class frigate HMCS Vancouver,” according to US Navy spokesman Lt. Mark Langford.
Tuesday’s passage was the second time a US Navy warship made the trip in just over three weeks.
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, Senate Democrats are defending Biden after the “60 Minutes” remarks and criticizing Republicans.
Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia, told CNN that while US policy has not changed, “We will help Taiwan defend itself, and that is our policy if it ever comes to that and God willing, it never does, it never does. But you. See what we are doing in terms of providing military support to Taiwan and we will continue to do so and they need to know that the US will be there should China make any unreasonable move against them.”
Pressed on how that fits with his historic position of strategic ambiguity toward Taiwan, Kaine claimed that the president saying one thing and administration officials saying another could be a calculated inconsistency.
Republicans, however, argue that the inconsistencies make the US appear disorganized.
“Our policy has been not to come out and say we’re going to war,” said Senate Armed Services Committee member James Inhofe. “And the president, I think his advisers disagree, but he repeats it over and over again.”
“It just looks … out of shape,” said Sen. Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri. “I think it’s embarrassing, frankly.”
Hawley then used the opportunity to push for greater investment in preparing the US to intervene militarily if necessary.
“We have to tell the truth to the American people, which is that we are not in a position to stop a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. We are not. So we have to, because it is in our direct national security interests not to have it. China controls the Pacific,” he said. “So we have to put ourselves in a position where we can help the Taiwanese defend themselves, and we’re not in that position now and it’s just time to get even with the American people.”
CNN’s Manu Raju, Morgan Rimmer, Kevin Liptak, Brad Lendon, Ellie Kaufman and Barbara Starr contributed to this report.