Biden says US forces to defend Taiwan in the event of ‘unprecedented attack’

A screen grab from the People's Liberation Army video shows a missile fired during a Chinese military exercise on Aug 4, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON – US military forces will defend Taiwan if there is “an unprecedented attack”, President Joe Biden said on Sunday, underscoring America’s commitment to the island as Chinese incursions mount near its shores.

Mr Biden, speaking in a 60 Minutes interview aired on CBS, distanced himself from the question of whether Taiwan is or should be independent, but followed up with a pledge when asked by interviewer Scott Pelley if US forces would “defend the island”.

“Yes, if in fact there was an unprecedented attack,” he replied, according to a transcript provided by the broadcaster.

Asked to clarify if he meant that unlike in Ukraine, US forces – American men and women – would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion, Mr Biden replied: “Yes.”

Still, he reiterated earlier in the interview that the United States’ “one-China” policy has not changed.

“We agree with what we signed on to a long time ago, and that there is (a) one-China policy,” said Mr Biden, adding that Taiwan makes its “own judgments” about its independence.

“We are not moving; we are not encouraging their being independent,” he said. “That is their decision.”

Mr Biden has made similar statements before, spurring outrage in Beijing by adding new chapters to Washington’s longstanding policy of “strategic ambiguity” when it comes to Taiwan.

In May, Mr Biden said “yes” when asked if the US was prepared to become “involved militarily” if it had to.

“That is the commitment we made,” he said then, before White House officials walked back his comments.

A White House official said on Sunday that Mr Biden made the same points before and stressed that US policy has not changed. The official was responding to the 60 Minutes interview on condition of anonymity.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ning urged the US to “fully understand the extremely important and highly sensitive nature of the Taiwan question and abide by the one China principle” at a Monday news briefing in Beijing.

Failing to do so, she added, could cause “further damage to China-US relations and peace and stability across the Strait”.

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Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry expressed its thanks to Mr Biden for his reaffirming of the “US government’s rock-solid security commitment to Taiwan”. 

Taiwan will continue to strengthen its self-defense capabilities and deepen the close security partnership between Taiwan and the United States, it said in a statement.

Beijing sees Taiwan as a renegade province to be reunified with the mainland, by force, if necessary.

In a phone call with Mr Biden in July, Mr Xi warned against playing with fire over
Taiwan, saying “those who play with fire will perish by it".

Washington cut formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 1979, switching recognition to Beijing as the sole representative of China, with the mainland becoming a major trading partner.

But at the same time, the US maintains a decisive, if at times delicate, role in supporting Taiwan.

Under a law passed by Congress, the US is required to sell Taiwan military supplies to ensure its self-defence against Beijing’s vastly larger armed forces.

But it has maintained what is officially called “strategic ambiguity” on whether it would actually intervene militarily. The policy is designed both to ward off a Chinese invasion and discourage Taiwan from ever provoking Beijing by formally declaring independence.

Since Mr Biden made his initial comments in May, tensions with China have flared after US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan.

The White House sought to manage the potential fallout from the visit, which saw China renew its military exercises and missile launches in the Strait of Taiwan. 

The US announced another round of weapons sales to Taiwan this month, totalling more than US$1 billion (S$1.4 billion).

“We have been adamant about being committed to Taiwan’s self-defence and moving that forward,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said last week.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a Bill on Wednesday to boost ties with Taiwan and give it more military hardware to deter a Chinese invasion, though the final legislation will need to address White House objections if it has any chance of becoming law.

Ms Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said if Mr Biden made such pledges he needed to ensure he could back them up.  

“If President Biden plans to defend Taiwan, then he should make sure the US military has the capability to do so,” she said. “Rhetorical support that isn’t backed up by real capabilities is unlikely to strengthen deterrence.”

Mr Biden’s Asia policy czar, Kurt Campbell, has in the past rejected any move to “strategic clarity” over Taiwan, saying there were “significant downsides” to such an approach. BLOOMBERG, AFP, REUTERS

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