By David Brunnstrom and Trevor Hunnicutt
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – US President Joe Biden said US forces would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion, his clearest statement yet on the issue, which is sure to anger Beijing.
When asked in a CBS 60 Minutes interview aired Sunday whether U.S. forces would defend the self-governing island claimed by China, he replied, “Yes, if indeed there has been an unprecedented attack.”
When asked if he meant that US forces – American men and women – would defend Taiwan as opposed to Ukraine in the event of a Chinese invasion, Biden replied, “Yes.”
The interview was only the last time Biden appeared to go beyond long-declared US policy toward Taiwan, but his statement about the use of US troops to defend the island was clearer than previous ones.
The United States has long maintained a policy of “strategic ambiguity,” not making clear whether it would respond militarily to an attack on Taiwan.
Asked for comment, a White House spokesman said US policy toward Taiwan has not changed.
“The President has said this before, including earlier this year in Tokyo. At the time, he also made it clear that our Taiwan policy had not changed. That remains true,” the spokesman said.
The CBS interview with Biden was conducted last week. The President is in the UK for Queen Elizabeth’s funeral on Monday.
In May, Biden was asked if he was willing to make a military commitment to defend Taiwan and replied, “Yes… That’s the commitment we made.”
In the 60 Minutes interview, Biden reiterated that the United States does not support Taiwan’s independence and remains committed to a “one China” policy in which Washington officially recognizes Beijing, not Taipei.
Biden’s comments are sure to anger Beijing, which was greatly angered by a visit by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan in August.
That visit prompted China to conduct its largest-ever military drills around Taiwan, and China has protested moves by US lawmakers on progressive legislation that would increase US military support to Taiwan.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has vowed to bring democratically-ruled Taiwan under Beijing’s control and has not ruled out the use of force.
There was no immediate response to a request for comment from the Chinese Embassy in Washington.
In a July call with Biden, Xi warned against playing with fire on Taiwan, saying, “Those who play with fire will perish.”
Asked last October whether the United States would defend Taiwan, to which the United States is legally obligated to provide the means to defend itself, Biden said, “Yes, we are committed to it.”
At the time, a White House spokesman said Biden was not announcing a change in US policy, and some pundits called the comment a “blip.”
Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the United States’ German Marshall Fund, said if Biden makes such pledges, he needs to make sure he can support them.
“If President Biden plans to defend Taiwan, he should ensure that the US military is capable of doing so,” she said. “Rhetorical support that is not backed up by real capabilities is unlikely to strengthen deterrence.”
Biden’s Asia Czar, Kurt Campbell, has in the past opposed any move toward “strategic clarity” over Taiwan, saying such an approach has “significant downsides.”
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom, Costas Pitas, Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by Gerry Doyle and Lincoln Feast.)