The top Asia official on the White House’s National Security Council said Monday that President Biden’s recent comments on defending Taiwan “speak for themselves” and rejected the characterization that the White House walked them back.
“I do not believe that it is appropriate to call the remarks that came from the White House today as walking back the president’s remarks,” said Kurt Campbell, the NSC’s coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs.
“The president’s remarks speak for themselves. I do think our policy has been consistent and is unchanged and will continue,” Campbell added.
White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan on Tuesday also claimed that Biden’s comments were not a change in policy and tried to downplay them, saying the president was only answering a “hypothetical question.” But Biden’s comments were the most explicit he’s made on the issue.
When asked in an interview with 60 Minutes if the US would defend Taiwan if China attacked, Biden replied, “Yes, if in fact there was an unprecedented attack.” When asked if that meant US men and women would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion, he answered, “Yes.”
The comments marked the fourth time of his presidency that Biden pledged to defend Taiwan despite the long-standing US policy of strategic ambiguity on the issue. After the interview aired, a White House spokesperson claimed that US policy toward Taiwan hasn’t changed.
“The President has said this before, including in Tokyo earlier this year. He also made clear then that our Taiwan policy hasn’t changed. That remains true,” the spokesperson said.
The statement was notably less of an attempt at a walk back than previous clarifications from the White House concerning Biden’s pledges to defend Taiwan. In May, the last time Biden said the US would defend Taiwan, the White House walked his comments back, saying that he meant the US would provide Taiwan with weapons, not send troops.
Biden’s comments and the lack of clarity from the White House mark a significant shift away from the US policy of strategic ambiguity for Taiwan despite Campbell’s claims otherwise. Under the policy, the US does not officially say one way or the other if it would intervene to defend Taiwan. This is meant to deter either side from changing the status quo across the Taiwan Strait.
The policy was established after the US severed diplomatic ties with Taipei in 1979 to normalize relations with Beijing. China has lodged a complaint to the US over his comment, saying it “will not tolerate any activities aimed at secession.”