Biden remarks on Taiwan leave administration scrambling

President BidenJoe BidenManchin to vote to nix Biden's vaccine mandate for larger businesses Congress averts shutdown after vaccine mandate fight Senate cuts deal to clear government funding bill MORE’s public remarks Thursday that the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense if it were attacked by China left White House officials scrambling to explain it did not represent a shift in U.S. policy.

The comments come amid historically high tensions with China over trade, human rights, technology, the coronavirus and the island-nation just 80 miles off its coast, which Beijing considers to be a part of its country.

Fears that China might invade Taiwan have been on the rise as Beijing has been flying military aircraft into Taiwan’s airspace on a near-daily basis. The heavy military presence has left China watchers recalculating over what Beijing’s aims might be with Taiwan.

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As a result, Biden’s  answer to a question at a CNN town hall about whether the U.S. would defend Taiwan if it were attacked by China — “yes, we have a commitment,” the president said  — was major news and led to a predictably tough response from China.

“When it comes to issues related to China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and other core interests, there is no room for China to compromise or make concessions, and no one should underestimate the strong determination, firm will and strong ability of the Chinese people to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told The Associated Press.

The White House on Friday sought to walk back Biden’s comments.

“He wasn’t announcing a change in policy nor have we changed our policy,” White House press secretary Jen PsakiJen PsakiOvernight Health Care — Presented by March of Dimes — Biden's winter COVID-19 strategy Biden lays out multi-pronged plan to deal with evolving pandemic White House defends travel ban on African countries MORE told reporters. “We are guided by the Taiwan Relations Act.” 

Under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, the U.S. is committed to providing Taiwan with arms for its defense. The law does not commit the U.S. to sending troops to Taiwan to defend it.

Defense Secretary Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinOklahoma sues to exempt National Guard from Pentagon vaccine mandate Overnight Defense & National Security — Quick vote on defense bill blocked again Marine Corps say 92 percent of active-duty service members vaccinated as deadline passes MORE on Friday dodged questions about Biden’s remarks, and about whether the U.S. would defend Taiwan from a military attack by China.  

“Nobody wants to see cross-strait issues come to blows, certainly not President Biden, and there’s no reason that it should,” Austin said from NATO headquarters in Brussels.

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Austin also said the U.S. remained committed to the Taiwan Relations Act and the “One China” policy.

Under that policy, the U.S. recognizes Beijing as the legitimate governing body of China but does not recognize China as being the sovereign power over Taiwan. The U.S. does not support Taiwan’s membership in international forums.

Biden has focused much of his foreign policy around China as he faces criticism from Republicans that he has not been tough enough with Beijing.

U.S. and Chinese officials have tentatively planned for Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping to hold a virtual bilateral engagement by the end of the year — their first one-on-one meeting since Biden took office. 

Even with all the problems between the U.S. and China, Taiwan occupies a central spot. It is an issue long seen as one that could lead to a real military conflict.

“This is really the only issue that our two countries could go to war over. It is really, truly dangerous,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund.

She said the virtual summit is an important opportunity for the president to clarify his remarks toward Taiwan with the Chinese leader in an effort to offset tensions. 

The Biden administration in August approved a $750 million arms package to Taiwan, viewed as part of a continuation of a more robust American defense commitment to Taiwan that took place under the Trump administration, which authorized more than $7 billion in military sales.

Thursday wasn’t the first time Biden has suggested the U.S. would come to Taiwan’s aid militarily.

Following the approval of the arms package in August, Biden offered similar comments to ABC News, prompting a separate response from the White House clarifying that U.S. policy to Taiwan and China had not changed. 

Col. Joseph Felter (Ret.), who served as U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Oceania during the Trump administration, said the “strategic ambiguity” at the heart of U.S. policy toward Taiwan allows for a ratcheting up of U.S. rhetoric without changing the American military position. 

“It’s not a binary thing — we either have strategic ambiguity or we don’t — it’s better measured on a spectrum. It can be modulated, dialed up and down,” he said. “Based on China's actions, maybe we’re communicating a little more strongly our commitment to Taiwan's defense.” 

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations who served as director of policy planning for the State Department under then-President George W. Bush, welcomed Biden’s rhetoric, but argued the Biden administration needs to do more to bolster U.S. military presence in the region and deepen coordination with allies. 

“The rhetoric is a small piece of a much larger policy,” Haass said. “What the focus needs to be on is how we build capability and how we raise costs to China if it is tempted to act.” 

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Some lawmakers think Congress should have a more robust discussion on U.S. policy toward Taiwan.

Rep. Elaine LuriaElaine Goodman LuriaAbortion rights group endorsing 12 House Democrats Group aligned with House GOP leadership targeting nine Democrats on spending vote The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Rising prices undercut Biden agenda MORE (D-Va.), vice-chair of the House Armed Services Committee and a 20-year Navy veteran, put her support behind Republican calls to discuss broadening the president’s authority on directing military support for Taiwan. 

“If the president’s hands remain legally tied in preventing Chinese military action against Taiwan, then an even larger conflict with China is most certainly assured — resulting in potentially disastrous loss of life on both sides and plunging the global economy into recession for a generation,” she wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post.

“The time for this debate in Congress is now, not when conflict occurs.”

In February, Senator Rick Scott (R-Fl.) introduced the Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act, which would authorize the president to respond with armed force to defend Taiwan from an invasion. 

Luria called this legislation a “starting point for debate, not a finished product.”

Likewise, Rep. Ami BeraAmerish (Ami) Babulal BeraMajor abortion rights group names new president Democrats call for removing IRS bank reporting proposal from spending bill Biden remarks on Taiwan leave administration scrambling MORE (D-Calif.), chair of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, Central Asia and Nonproliferation, said during a defense event hosted by Politico that he favored more “clarity” in how the U.S. is deterring China in the Taiwan strait. 

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“I use the term ‘strategic deterrence,’ but deterrence only if there’s clarity in that deterrence,” he said. “And often, we just talk about the military and deterrence. There’s economic, as well. What kind of multilateral sanctions would be placed on China should they invade Taiwan? What else would happen in the region?”

Senator Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.), a member of Senate committees on foreign relations and appropriations, told The Hill that he has requested the Biden administration to give Congress an updated threat assessment.

“China’s rapid buildup of nuclear and conventional military capabilities is increasingly probing for weakness and opportunity in the defense of Taiwan, and the United States cannot operate from any position other than strength,” he said.  

--Updated on Oct. 24 at 5:30 a.m.