White House says Biden gave hypothetical response and announced no change in policy toward Taiwan

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In an interview with CBS’ 60 Minutes that aired Sunday, Biden reiterated an earlier pledge to defend Taiwan in the event of an invasion, though he indicated that “US men and women” would be involved in the effort . The comments marked another example of the president appearing to be venturing beyond the longstanding United States policy of “strategic ambiguity” on the issue.

White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told CNN’s Phil Mattingly during Tuesday’s White House press briefing that Biden had answered a “hypothetical question” in 60 Minutes, adding, “If the President of the United States wants to announce a policy change, he will. He didn’t.”

Sullivan reiterated that the White House remains committed to the “one China” policy and said Biden has “reaffirmed those fundamental commitments on every occasion he has spoken about in Taiwan — including in this interview, in which he specifically and firmly and unequivocally affirmed and reaffirmed the One China Policy.”

As part of the “One China” policy, the US recognizes China’s position that Taiwan is part of China, but has never officially recognized the Communist Party’s claim to the self-governing island of 23 million people. The US is supplying Taiwan with defensive weapons but has deliberately remained ambiguous about whether it would intervene militarily in the event of a Chinese attack.

In the “60 Minutes” interview, Biden reiterated his commitment to the “One China” policy. But when asked if US forces would defend the island, he said: “Yes, if indeed there was an unprecedented attack.”

Biden’s comments on “60 Minutes” weren’t the first time he went beyond the longstanding US approach in defending Taiwan. Recently, during a visit to Tokyo in May, Biden said the US would intervene militarily if China tried to take Taiwan by force.

“He was asked a question – a hypothetical question in this interview. He was asked a very similar question in Tokyo in May,” Sullivan said Tuesday. “He gave a similar response to the 60 Minutes interview in May in Tokyo. After that response in Tokyo, someone specifically said to him, ‘Did you just announce an important policy change? And he said, “No, I didn’t.” I answered a hypothetical question. I have not announced any change in policy.'”

Asked by Mattingly whether Biden is sending an explicit message to China by answering a hypothetical question on the subject, Sullivan said, “The president is a direct and straightforward person. He answered a hypothesis.”

Increased tensions

The president’s comments to CBS — along with repeated attempts by the White House to downplay his comments — come amid rising tensions between China and Taiwan.

Taiwan is less than 177 kilometers off the coast of China. For more than 70 years, the two sides have been governed separately, but that hasn’t stopped China’s ruling Communist Party from claiming the island — although it has never controlled it.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping said a “reunification” between China and Taiwan was inevitable and refused to rule out the use of force. Tensions between Beijing and Taipei are at their highest in decades as the Chinese military holds major military exercises near the island.

Beijing on Monday was quick to condemn Biden’s comments, repeating its warning that China reserves the “option to take any necessary action” to defend its territorial integrity and sovereignty.

“The US statements seriously violate the one-China principle and the provisions of the three joint US-China communiqués. It is also a serious violation of the US side’s important commitment not to support Taiwan’s independence,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ning said in a briefing.

“It sent a serious wrong signal to the separatist forces of Taiwan independence. China expresses strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition, and has made serious reproaches to the US side,” Mao added.

Beijing also firmly opposed the visit of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taipei in August. Beijing responded to her trip by suspending any dialogue with the US on key issues from climate change to military relations, while conducting extensive military exercises in Taiwan.

On Tuesday, the US Navy said in a statement that a US warship, the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Higgins, has made a “routine transit across the Taiwan Strait.”

The U.S. ship conducted the transit “in cooperation with the Royal Canadian Navy’s Halifax-class frigate HMCS Vancouver,” according to U.S. Navy spokesman Lt. Mark Langford.

Tuesday’s transit marked the second time in just over three weeks that a US Navy warship had made the voyage.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, Senate Democrats are defending Biden after the “60 Minutes” remarks and Republicans are criticizing him.

Virginia Democratic Senator Tim Kaine told CNN that while US policy hasn’t changed, “We’re going to help Taiwan defend itself, and that’s our policy if it ever comes to that, and God willing, it never will, it never will But you see what we are doing to support Taiwan militarily, and we will continue to do so, and you need to know that if China takes an unwise move against you, the US will be there.

Under pressure to align with the historical position of strategic ambiguity towards Taiwan, Kaine asserted that it could be a calculated inconsistency for the president to say one thing and government officials to say the other.

However, Republicans argue that the inconsistency makes the US appear disorganized.

“It was our policy not to come out and say we’re going to go to war,” said James Inhofe, a member of the Senate Armed Services Ranking. “And the President made the statement that I believe his advisers disagreed with, but he repeats it over and over.”

“It just looks… sloppy,” said Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri. “To be honest, I find it embarrassing.”

Hawley then took the opportunity to urge greater investment to prepare the US for military involvement should the need arise.

“We must tell the American people the truth that we are unable to stop a Chinese invasion of Taiwan – China controls the Pacific,” he said. “So we need to put ourselves in a position to help the Taiwanese self-defense, and right now we’re not in that position, and it’s just time to be on par with the American people on that.”

CNN’s Manu Raju, Morgan Rimmer, Kevin Liptak, Brad Lendon, Ellie Kaufman and Barbara Starr contributed to this report.

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