Officials in the administration of President Joe Biden keep insisting that nothing about the United States' policy toward Taiwan has changed, but the president's own repeated statements that the U.S. would defend the self-governing island in the event of an attack by China are making those assurances difficult for many to accept.
In an interview Sunday night with the CBS News program "60 Minutes," Biden, for the fourth time since taking office in 2021, said that the United States would respond militarily to a Chinese attempt to take over Taiwan by force.
China claims Taiwan as part of its territory, and Chinese President Xi Jinping has made "reunification" of the island with the mainland a major goal of his government. China maintains that Taiwan is part of One China, despite the fact that the island has been self-governing since 1945.
For decades, the U.S. has tried to pursue a course of "strategic ambiguity" with regard to Taiwan. Relations between Washington and Taipei have been friendly, and the U.S. has for years sold military equipment to the Taiwanese government. At the same time, successive U.S. administrations have said they agree with the "One China" policy, with the caveat that any disagreement between Taiwan and China must be resolved without the use of force.
Prior U.S. presidents have attempted to create uncertainty about how the U.S. would react to Chinese military action against Taiwan, though without creating specific obligations.
'60 Minutes' exchange
Asked in the Sunday interview what Chinese leader Xi Jinping ought to understand about the United States' commitment to Taiwan, Biden said, "We agree with what we signed onto a long time ago. And that there's 'One China' policy, and Taiwan makes their own judgments about their independence. We are not moving - we're not encouraging - their being independent. That's their decision."
Interviewer Scott Pelley followed up, asking, "But would U.S. forces defend the island?"
Biden replied, "Yes, if in fact there was an unprecedented attack."
Pelley then asked, "So, unlike Ukraine, to be clear, sir, U.S. forces - U.S. men and women - would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion?"
"Yes," the president said.
White House officials later told reporters that there had been no change in U.S. policy toward Taiwan.
Chinese officials responded angrily to Biden's comments, saying that they had made "stern representations" to U.S. officials in their wake.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said Monday, 'We are willing to do our best to strive for peaceful reunification. At the same time, we will not tolerate any activities aimed at secession."
'There is only one China in the world, Taiwan is part of China, and the government of the People's Republic of China is the only legitimate government of China,' Mao said.
Several experts contacted by VOA said that China's angry response aside, Biden's comments probably did little to change Beijing's expectations about what would happen in the event of a conflict over Taiwan.
"Beijing already has priced in an expectation of American involvement in any cross-Strait conflict that it initiates against Taiwan," Ryan Hass, a senior fellow and the Chen-Fu and Cecilia Yen Koo chair in Taiwan Studies at the Brookings Institution, told VOA. "President Biden's comments validate assumptions. They do not alter expectations in Beijing of how America would respond in case of conflict."
In an email exchange with VOA, Manjari Chatterjee Miller, a senior fellow for India, Pakistan and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, agreed that Biden's repeated statements that the U.S. would support Taiwan militarily likely align with Beijing's assumptions about U.S. intentions.
"I think Beijing has long been suspicious of the U.S. commitment to 'strategic ambiguity,' so in a sense, President Biden's remarks are simply a confirmation of its long-held suspicions," Miller said. "U.S.-China relations have been on a downward spiral for a while, and this highlights for China the importance of the [People's Liberation Army] planning for a Taiwan contingency."
Concerns about miscalculations
Miller said she is concerned that Biden's repeated statements on Taiwan might lead to a reaction from Beijing.
"The first time the president made a statement such as this on Taiwan, his aides walked it back," she said. "But this is the third or fourth such statement. Yet U.S. policy on China has not officially changed, and the United States apparently continues to support One China. This confusion and lack of clarity on the U.S. government's stance means that there is now further uncertainty in what is already a very rocky bilateral relationship."
She continued, "To add to this uncertainty, President Xi has prioritized reunification with Taiwan, which means that there could be a reputation cost to him personally if the Chinese government is seen as not pushing back. So, I worry, not so much about a Chinese preemptive action on Taiwan, but a potential miscalculation on Beijing's part given that heightened uncertainty that could muddy its judgment."
Bonnie S. Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, told VOA that she had focused on a different aspect of the president's comments in the "60 Minutes" interview: his assertion that "Taiwan makes their own judgments about their independence."
Glaser pointed out that historically, U.S. presidents have said they do not support Taiwan's independence, and Biden reiterated that point Sunday. However, his addition of the suggestion that it is "their decision" could be seen by China as the real change in policy. The president made similar comments in November.
"I think that this is something that could truly lead the Chinese to decide to go to war, because they believe that the United States would actually support an independent Taiwan," she said.
"As [Biden] keeps saying these things over and over again - and particularly these comments about letting Taiwan decide if it wants to go independent - I think that it's destabilizing," Glaser said. "I think the world wants us to have a clear and consistent policy. We need to deter, not provoke, China. And I'm not convinced what the Biden administration is doing is contributing to deterrence."