WASHINGTON, D.C. (AFP) — The United States (US) on Friday sought to prevent an escalation with China, saying there was no change in Taiwan policy after President Joe Biden promised to defend the island from attack by Beijing.
Tensions have soared in recent months as Beijing steps up air incursions near Taiwan, a self-ruling democracy that the growing Asian power has vowed one day to take over, by force if necessary.
At a CNN televised forum in Baltimore on Thursday evening, Biden was asked whether the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense if China invaded. “Yes,” he responded. “We have a commitment to that.”
Biden’s statement appeared at odds with the long-held US policy of “strategic ambiguity,” where Washington helps build Taiwan’s defenses but does not explicitly promise to come to the island’s help in the event of war.
The United States clarified Friday that it was still guided by the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, in which Congress required the United States to provide weaponry to “enable Taiwan to maintain sufficient self-defense capabilities.”
“The president was not announcing any change in our policy and there is no change in our policy,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters, reiterating earlier White House comment.
“We will uphold our commitments under the act, we will continue to support Taiwan’s self-defense and will continue to oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo,” Price said.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, on a visit to North Atlantic Treaty Organization headquarters in Brussels, declined to discuss “hypotheticals” but said the United States “will continue to help Taiwan with the sorts of capabilities that it needs to defend itself.”
Beijing said that Biden’s comments risked “damaging Sino-US relations,” warning Washington on Friday to “act and speak cautiously on the Taiwan issue.”
“China has no room for compromise on issues involving its core interests,” foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at a press briefing.
The US should not underestimate China’s “staunch determination, firm will and strong ability” to defend against what it sees as threats to its sovereignty, Wang added.
Price declined to reply to Wang’s remarks, saying, “We have been nothing but clear when it comes to where we stand.”
Strategic ambiguity is designed to deter a Chinese invasion but also discourage Taiwan from formally declaring independence — something Beijing regards as a red line.
Biden’s comments were welcomed by Taiwan, which has pushed to bolster international alliances to protect itself from Beijing.
China has ramped up economic, diplomatic, and military pressure on Taiwan since the 2016 election of President Tsai Ing-wen, who views Taiwan as already sovereign and not part of “one China.”
Military pressure has escalated in the last year with China sending waves of fighter jets and nuclear-capable bombers into Taiwan’s air defense zone.
According to an AFP tally, more than 800 flights have been made into the zone since September last year — 170 just this month.
Defending Taiwan, one of Asia’s most progressive democracies, has become a rare bipartisan issue in Washington’s otherwise deeply polarized landscape.