President Joe Biden has reiterated that the United States military would defend Taiwan if the Chinese military launched an invasion of the democratically-ruled island.
Appearing on CBS’ “60 Minutes” Sunday, Biden was asked whether “US forces, US men and women, would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion,” a possibility that US officials privately fear is increasingly likely.
“Yes,” Biden said.
It is not the first time that Biden has appeared to venture beyond the US approach of “strategic ambiguity” when it comes to the defense of Taiwan. More recently, during a visit to Tokyo in May, Biden said the US would intervene militarily if China tried to take over Taiwan by force.
The White House has been quick to play down Biden’s previous comments on Taiwan, reiterating that U.S. policy has not changed, and on Sunday, “60 Minutes” reported a similar response to Biden’s responses in his interview.
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 as its own, even though 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.
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 self-governing island. The US provides weapons for Taiwan’s defense, but has remained deliberately ambiguous about whether it would intervene militarily in the event of a Chinese attack.
Biden reiterated his commitment to those policies in the “60 Minutes” interview.
“We agree with what we signed a long time ago. And that there is a “One China” policy, and that Taiwan makes its own judgment about their independence. We do not move, we do not encourage them to be independent… That is their decision”, he said.
But when asked if US forces would defend the island, he said: “Yes, if it was a truly unprecedented attack.”
China has not responded to Biden’s comments since Monday morning. Earlier, Beijing expressed its “firm opposition” to similar comments made by the US president, and accused Washington of violating the “One China” principle.
Biden’s comments on Sunday are likely to renew speculation about possible changes in US Taiwan policy, but analysts said his choice of words left room for interpretation and were far from definitive.
Drew Thompson, a visiting senior fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore said, “We’re always tempted to read too much into the president’s statements,” but Biden’s approach didn’t really change.
Thompson, a former US Defense Department official, said the specific nature of any US defense does not necessarily mean American boots on the ground in Taiwan.
In the event of a Chinese attack on the island, the Pentagon would present Biden with “a range of options” for the deployment of US forces, he said.
These options include using US naval assets or air power in an offshore role, as well as US cyber assets to deter a potential Chinese invasion, or simply a US show of force in the region.
Biden’s latest remarks could further strain US-China relations, following US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei in August. Beijing responded to his trip with unprecedented military exercises across the island.
The issue of Taiwan was also one of the main topics of discussion at last week’s regional summit meeting between Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Uzbekistan, with the two men admitting that China’s sovereignty over the island is a non-negotiable “red line”.
Xi also said that he “appreciates Russia’s adherence to the ‘One China’ principle and insists that Taiwan is a part of China.”
Debate over the likelihood of a possible Chinese invasion has intensified in the wake of Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine, and many analysts have indicated that Beijing will likely monitor the situation in Europe closely.
The US intelligence community has made it clear that China is actively trying to build a military capable of taking control of Taiwan, despite US aid to the island.
Last week, CIA Deputy Director David Cohen said that while Xi has not decided to invade Taiwan, he wants China’s People’s Liberation Army to have the ability to take control of the island by force by 2027.
The U.S. intelligence community does not believe Beijing has made a decision on whether to proceed, Cohen said, adding that he believes Xi prefers control of Taiwan “through non-military means.”
The CIA official also said the agency is paying close attention to what lessons China is learning from the war in Ukraine.
“We are watching very carefully how the Chinese are understanding the situation in Ukraine: how the Russians have behaved, how the Ukrainians have behaved, and the implications of that for their plans in Taiwan,” Cohen said.