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Biden says his Taiwan comments don’t reflect a change in U.S. policy after drawing ire from China

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U.S. President Joe Biden speaks during a joint news conference with Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida after their bilateral meeting at Akasaka Palace in Tokyo, Japan, May 23, 2022. 

Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

President Joe Biden insisted Tuesday that the U.S. hasn’t modified its strategic policy on Taiwan, a day after he angered Beijing when he said his administration can be willing to make use of military force to defend the island.

Biden met with leaders from Japan, India and and Australia at their second so-called Quad Leaders’ Summit, which wrapped up Tuesday in Tokyo.

The U.S. president startled lots of the delegates when he suggested Monday that the U.S. could put American troops in Taiwan should China invade. When asked by a reporter if he “was willing to become involved militarily to defend Taiwan,” Biden said “yes.”

Those remarks got here as a surprise to world leaders as a departure from a long time of U.S. policy that warned China against using force in Taiwan — but opted to stay vague in regards to the extent to which it will defend the island.

The president clarified his statement after wrapping up talks with global leaders in Tokyo on Tuesday.

“The policy has not modified in any respect,” he said when asked if his earlier comments signaled an end to the U.S. approach of strategic ambiguity American diplomats have followed for a long time. “I stated that once I made my statement yesterday.”

Biden’s initial declaration, made during his first trip to Asia as president, enflamed tensions between the U.S. and the communist Chinese government, which believes that Taiwan is part of its territory and can’t exist as a sovereign nation.

Despite Biden’s second-day clarification, it stays unclear whether the president’s comments were a gaffe or intentional. Nevertheless, the White House was quick to supply a moderating message in an email to CNBC.

“Because the President said, our policy has not modified. He reiterated our One China Policy and our commitment to peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” a White House official told CNBC in an email.

The One China policy holds that the communist People’s Republic of China is the only real legal government of China and acknowledges unofficial relations with the people of Taiwan.

“He also reiterated our commitment under the Taiwan Relations Act to offer Taiwan with the military means to defend itself,” the White House official added.

Chinese communist leaders, nevertheless, weren’t convinced.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin warned on Monday that “nobody should underestimate the strong resolve, determination and capability of the Chinese people in safeguarding national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

“Nobody should stand in opposition to the 1.4 billion Chinese people,” he added.

This is not the primary time White House aides have attempted to temper remarks made by the president.

Biden in March sparked a political firestorm when he said in Poland that Russian President Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power.” Later that day, a White House official attempted to make clear that Biden “was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia, or regime change.”

Former Defense Department analyst Dewardric McNeal insisted the president’s comment were no mistake.

CNBC Politics

Read more of CNBC’s politics coverage:

“This WAS NOT a gaffe or a misspeak on President Biden’s part — his view will not be the view of his advisors,” McNeal, a CNBC contributor, wrote Tuesday morning. “This was a really intentional statement that was meant to send a signal not ONLY to Beijing but in addition to Taipei,” the capital of Taiwan.

The promise of U.S. military intervention would also supersede the provisions of the U.S.-China Taiwan Relations Act, which has guided geopolitical policy in Asia since 1979.

The act obligates the U.S. “to take care of the capability of the USA to withstand any resort to force or other types of coercion that may jeopardize the safety, or the social or financial system, of the people on Taiwan.”

While the law doesn’t compel Washington to make use of the U.S. military to guard Taiwan from a Chinese invasion, it’s long been viewed as an imprecise pledge to take care of the present order on the self-governing island.

“Biden desires to make it clear to the world, that US commitments mean something,” McNeal added.

McNeal, now a policy analyst at Longview Global, said that Biden likely believes lots of the assumptions that underpinned the U.S. “strategic ambiguity” policy are questionable.

A few of those assumptions, he explained, included the notion that China’s military capabilities wouldn’t outpace that of Taiwan and that discussions between Beijing and Taipei would result in peaceful resolution.

While the U.S. president should still consider within the One China policy insofar because the communist party’s control over China, Biden’s remarks may reflect a desire to modernize the policy of “strategic ambiguity” to account for those outdated assumptions.

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