The US has stressed that its position on Taiwan has not changed after President Joe Biden suggested his administration would defend the island against a military attack.
The US has long upheld a “strategic ambiguity” policy on Taiwan since it switched diplomatic recognition to mainland China in 1979. Consecutive administrations have since avoided any explicit commitments that it would intervene militarily to thwart an attempt by China to take Taiwan by force.
But President Biden’s Thursday interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos was unambiguous after confirming that Washington’s defence commitments towards Taiwan are equal to crucial agreements with Japan, South Korea and NATO allies.
“We made a sacred commitment to Article Five that if, in fact, anyone were to invade or take action against our Nato allies, we would respond,” he said in the interview when asked whether Afghanistan’s crisis would raise Taiwan’s concerns over the US security guarantees. “Same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with Taiwan,” he added.
This came after a series of articles in the Chinese media seizing on the administration’s handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan by stoking anxiety in Taiwan, saying, “you can’t count on the Americans.”
A State Department official said: “Our policy with respect to Taiwan has not changed.”
“The US defence relationship with Taiwan is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), as it has been for the past 40 years, and is based on an assessment of Taiwan’s defence needs and the threat posed by the PRC,” he added.
TRA is the law that underlines the US extensive – but not diplomatic – relations with Taiwan since America recognised mainland China.
Article Five is a crucial provision in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation that dictates that an attack on one member state should be considered an attack on all alliance members.
But Taiwan is not a NATO member and doesn’t have a defence treaty alliance with the US. However, Washington is still obliged, by law, to ensure Taiwan’s ability to defend itself. This includes providing the island with American advanced military equipment, technology and expertise to bolster its defences.
Since President Biden was sworn in in January, his administration has stepped up support for Taiwan, including issuing new guidelines allowing US officials to increase their direct engagement with Taipei. This month the administration approved its first arms sales to the island.
The State Department spokesman Ned Price brushed off suggestions that the US had abandoned the strategic ambiguity position, saying, “We will continue to support a peaceful resolution of cross-strait relations consistent with the wishes and best interests of the Taiwan people.”
China’s embassy in Washington and Taiwan’s representative office did not immediately respond to requests for comment by Reuters.
The US seems mindful of the high level of sensitivity around the Taiwan issue in Beijing, and its officials scrambled to water down Biden’s statements, with analysts saying it appeared he had misspoken.
The slightest gaffes from US officials about Taiwan usually trigger a fierce response from China’s officials and media – sometimes in the form of military drills.
This week, China launched large air and naval drills near the island’s shores to respond to “provocations” and “serious wrong signals” by the US and Taiwan.
Hu Xijin, the Editor of Global Times, a tabloid linked to the Chinese Communist Party, threatened “war” after a US republican senator mistakenly tweeted that the US has 30,000 soldiers station in Taiwan before deleting the tweet.
On Thursday, Price said China should stop its “military, diplomatic, economic pressure against Taiwan, and instead engage in meaningful dialogue.”
Experts remain divided on whether the US should give Taiwan more clear and direct security guarantees in light of Beijing’s escalated pressure on the island. However, Biden’s Indo-Pacific policy coordinator, Kurt Campbell, has appeared to reject this, saying in May there were “significant downsides” to such an approach.
Bonnie Glaser, a Taiwan expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, called Biden’s apparent mischaracterisation “unfortunate”.
“The US had an article five commitment to Taiwan from 1954 to 1979. The Biden administration isn’t considering returning to that commitment, as indicated by public statements by Kurt Campbell.”
China considers Taiwan as part of its territory and has threatened to unify the two sides by force, if necessary, which president Xi Jinping has described as a “historic mission”.
Additional reporting by Reuters