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Biden’s Taiwan comment sparks uncertainty over ‘strategic ambiguity’

By YUKIHIRO SAKAGUCHI, Nikkei staff writer

 

TOKYO — U.S. President Joe Biden’s assertion Monday that his government would use military force to defend Taiwan has set off speculation that Washington is reassessing its long-held policy of “strategic ambiguity” on the island.

 

Biden said “yes” when asked in a joint news conference here with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida whether the U.S. would get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if necessary, adding that “that’s the commitment we made.”

 

Critics have argued that Biden’s explicit refusal to send American troops to Ukraine encouraged Russian aggression and have made comparisons to Beijing’s threats to Taiwan.

 

Under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, the U.S. sells arms to Taipei to enable it to “maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.” But it has not stated whether it would deploy forces to defend the island against invasion — a stance known as strategic ambiguity.

 

Washington views this approach — deterring China while not supporting Taiwan’s unilateral independence — as helping to maintain a stable regional status quo.

 

Biden has seemed to break with this position before. In an interview last August, the president named Taiwan alongside Japan and South Korea when talking about Washington’s

commitments to responding to threats. Asked that October whether the U.S. would come to Taiwan’s defense if China attacked, Biden replied that “yes, we have a commitment to do that.”

 

The president’s third comment along these lines, coming against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, is difficult to dismiss as a slip of the tongue.

 

As with Ukraine, the U.S. has no formal obligation to defend Taiwan in the same way it does with Japan, South Korea and NATO members.

 

There are concerns that China may be emboldened if Washington is seen as reluctant to exercise its military power. Japan specifically worries that a weakening of American deterrence could destabilize the Indo-Pacific region, including Japan’s environs.

 

The White House rushed to downplay the policy implications of Biden’s comment after the news conference. “As the president said, our policy has not changed,” an official said in a statement. “He reiterated our One China policy and our commitment to peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. He also reiterated our commitment under the Taiwan Relations Act to provide Taiwan with the military means to defend itself.”

 

Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs thanked Biden and the U.S. government on Monday for “reaffirming their rock-solid commitment to Taiwan.”

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