US seeks to contain Beijing anger after Biden vows Taiwan defense
The White House said it was still guided by the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, in which Congress required the United States to provide the island weapons for its own defense but was ambiguous on whether the United States would intervene militarily.
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“We will uphold our commitment under the act to support Taiwan’s self-defense, and we will continue to oppose any unilateral changes in the status quo,” the spokesperson said.
Biden, asked at a CNN televised forum Thursday night if the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense if China invaded, replied, “Yes. “
“We have a commitment to that,” he said.
The Taiwan Relations Act was passed when the United States switched recognition from Taipei to Beijing and committed Washington to maintain de facto diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
Pentagon chief sidesteps issue of US ‘commitment’ to defend Taiwan
“As we’ve done over multiple administrations, we will continue to help Taiwan with the sorts of capabilities that it needs to defend itself,” Austin said at NATO headquarters.
“And so, we’ll stay focused on those things. And I won’t engage in any hypotheticals with respect to Taiwan,” he told reporters,
Late Thursday Biden sparked a new firestorm in Washington-Beijing relations by saying the United States had an agreement to help defend Taiwan, a US ally that China considers its own territory.
At a CNN town hall, Biden was asked whether the US would come to Taiwan’s defence if China invaded. He replied, “Yes.” He said, “Yes,” adding that he had a commitment to do so. “
The comment sparked a sharp retort from Beijing. Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for the foreign ministry, said that Washington should “act and speak cautiously” on Taiwan.
Austin said the United States is committed to the official “One-China” policy, in which Washington accepts that Beijing governs China.
But that does not prevent the United States from providing aid to Taiwan, including potent military hardware.
Asked if Biden’s comments raised the spectre of NATO being dragged into a US conflict with China, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg sought to avoid exacerbating the conflict.
“I would not speculate about a hypothetical situation,” he said.
“I think what is important now is to reduce tensions in the area. He said that if I start to speculate, I believe I will actually contribute to the contrary.
“So we should solve all disputes and differences and disagreements in the region by political and diplomatic means. “
The United States 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. He replied, “Yes.” “We have made a commitment to do 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 spokesman 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 NATO 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. “
– New firmness? –
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 spokesman 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.
“The US government has demonstrated, through actual actions, their rock solid support for Taiwan,” Presidential Office spokesman Xavier Chang said in a statement.
Biden made similar remarks in August during an interview with ABC, insisting that the US would always defend key allies, naming Taiwan among them, despite the withdrawal from Afghanistan in the face of the victorious Taliban.
Biden’s remarks were unlikely to come out of ignorance. The veteran politician himself was serving on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1979 and voted to approve the Taiwan Relations Act.
Richard McGregor, a senior fellow for East Asia at the Lowy Institute, said Biden may have wanted to show greater firmness.
“I suspect Biden was not trying to announce any change. He said that it was either loose language or a slightly more serious tone, which was deliberately chosen because Beijing has been increasing the pace of its military harassment against Taiwan recently.” he told AFP.
– Warplane incursions –
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.
At Thursday’s live town hall, Biden was also asked by an audience member whether the United States would be able to keep up with China’s rapid military development.
Biden responded with “Yes. “
“Don’t worry about whether… they’re going to be more powerful,” he said. China, Russia and the rest know that we have the strongest military in history. “
Biden’s comments come in the wake of a Financial Times report that China has tested a state-of-the-art hypersonic missile with nuclear capacity that flew around the planet before landing, albeit not on target.
What is the US policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’ towards Taiwan?
But what is strategic ambiguity and why would a solid commitment to Taiwan’s defense be risky?
– Rival Chinas –
Taiwan and China split in 1949 when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists fled to the island to set up a separate authoritarian government after losing a civil war on the mainland to Mao Zedong’s communists.
Both sides claimed to represent China and for the first three decades, the conflict remained hot with China regularly shelling Taiwanese islands close to the mainland.
A detente set in, followed by a tacit agreement in 1992 where both sides settled on there being “one China” but agreed to disagree on what that meant.
Since then, a more distinct Taiwanese identity has emerged that sees the island as a de facto independent state with a separate destiny from the Chinese mainland.
President Tsai Ing-wen from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party is loathed by Beijing because she regards Taiwan as a de facto independent nation, not part of “one China. “
Taiwan’s opposition KMT party now favors closer ties with China and sticks to the “1992 consensus.”
– Diplomatic switch –
In the aftermath of China’s civil war most nations — including the United States — recognized Chiang’s Republic of China over Mao’s People’s Republic of China.
But that began to change in the 1960s and 70s when it became increasingly clear the nationalists would never return to power on the mainland and relations needed to be forged with communist China.
Countries began switching diplomatic recognition to Beijing, which Washington did in 1979.
But it has maintained a carefully calibrated and deliberately opaque stance towards Taiwan and what should happen to it.
The military element of the US approach is known as “strategic ambiguity. “
– How does being ambiguous keep the peace? –
In the run-up to the 1979 diplomatic switch, the US did not make Taiwan a treaty ally like Japan and South Korea where US troops would come to the defense in the event of an attack.
But it did not entirely abandon Taiwan either.
Congress passed an act that mandated the sale of weaponry to Taiwan to adequately defend itself.
The US also never ruled out coming to the aid of Taiwan.
The policy was designed to enforce peace by keeping both sides guessing.
Beijing could not be sure if an invasion would trigger all-out war with the US.
And Taiwan would avoid formally declaring independence — a red line for Beijing — because it couldn’t guarantee the US would come to its defense.
– One China policy –
The US also maintained a similarly opaque political approach to Taiwan.
Known as the “One China policy” it recognized the PRC as the sole legitimate government of China.
But it deliberately took no position on Taiwan beyond saying the island’s future should be decided by Taiwan’s people and that no change to the status quo should be made by force.
That position is distinctly different from Beijing’s “One China principle” which maintains that Taiwan is an inalienable part of the PRC to be one day reunited with the mainland.
– Does ambiguity still work? –
There are serious discussions among experts as to whether strategic ambiguity has teeth in an era when China is run by its most authoritarian leader in a generation and has modernized its military to a point where it might be able to pull of an invasion of Taiwan.
Under President Xi Jinping, China has become palpably more aggressive to Taipei in recent years, and he has made taking the island a core promise as he seeks to engineer a third term next year.
Xi also faces pressure from hardliners who see Taiwan’s continued independence from the mainland as a slap in the face to the Chinese Communist Party.
Military drills simulating an invasion have been ramped up while Chinese fighter jets and bombers now routinely fly into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone.
For decades, no-one believed China had the military capability for an amphibious invasion of Taiwan. Officials in Taiwan now believe it is possible.
A growing number of US experts argue Washington should switch to “strategic clarity” — making explicit to Beijing that the US military would respond to an invasion of Taiwan, although Washington would still not take a stance on the island’s status.
Those who advocate a continuation of “strategic ambiguity” argue a cast-iron commitment to come to Taiwan’s defense could be disastrous, because it might just be the excuse Beijing would use to justify an invasion.
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