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White House says Biden was answering a hypothetical, not announcing a policy change on Taiwan

<i>Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images</i><br/>National Security Advisor
Getty Images
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
National Security Advisor

By Allie Malloy and Maegan Vazquez, CNN

The White House is once again downplaying an assertion by President Joe Biden that American military personnel would defend Taiwan in the event of an invasion by the Chinese military, saying he was answering a hypothetical question that was not a reflection of any official policy change.

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

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN’s Phil Mattingly during Tuesday’s White House press briefing that Biden had answered a “hypothetical question” on “60 Minutes,” adding, “When the President of the United States wants to announce a policy change, he will do so. He has not done so.”

Sullivan reiterated that the White House continues to stand behind the “One China” policy and said that Biden has “reiterated those basic commitments on every occasion that he’s talked about in Taiwan — including in this interview where he specifically and emphatically and unequivocally reinforced and reiterated the One China policy.”

Under the “One China” policy, the US acknowledges 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. The US provides Taiwan with defensive weapons, but has remained intentionally ambiguous on whether it would intervene militarily in the event of a Chinese attack.

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

Biden’s comments to “60 Minutes” were not the first time he’d gone further than the longstanding US approach when it comes to the defense of Taiwan. Recently, during a visit to Tokyo in May, Biden said the US would intervene militarily if China attempts to take Taiwan by force.

“He was asked a question — a hypothetical question in this interview. He was asked a very similar question back in Tokyo in May,” Sullivan said on Tuesday. “He gave a similar answer in Tokyo in May that he gave to the ’60 Minutes’ interview. After that answer in Tokyo, someone said specifically to him, ‘Have you just announced a major policy change?’ And he said ‘No, I have not.’ I have answered a hypothetical question. I have not announced a policy change.'”

Asked by Mattingly if Biden is delivering an explicit message to China by answering a hypothetical question on the matter, Sullivan said, “The President is a direct and straightforward person. He answered a hypothetical.”

Heightened tensions

The President’s comments to CBS — along with the White House’s repeated attempts to downplay what he said — come amid heightened tensions between China and Taiwan.

Taiwan lies fewer than 110 miles (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 as its own — despite having never controlled it.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping has said that “reunification” between China and Taiwan is inevitable and refused to rule out the use of force. Tensions between Beijing and Taipei are at the highest they’ve been in recent decades, with the Chinese military holding major military drills near the island.

Beijing on Monday had swiftly condemned Biden’s comments and repeated its warning that China reserves the “option to take all necessary measures” to defend its territorial integrity and sovereignty.

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

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

Beijing also strongly opposed US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei in August. Beijing responded to her trip by suspending all dialogue with the US across major issues, from climate change to military relations, while conducting extensive military drills around Taiwan.

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

The US ship conducted the transit “in cooperation with Royal Canadian Navy Halifax-class frigate HMCS Vancouver,” according to US Navy spokesperson 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 following the “60 Minutes” remarks and Republicans are criticizing it.

Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine told CNN that while US policy has not changed, “We are going to help Taiwan defend itself, and that is our policy should it ever come to that and God willing, it never, it never does. But you see what we’re doing in terms of providing military support to Taiwan and we’re going to continue it and they need to know that the US is going to be there should China make an unwise move against them.”

Pressed on how that aligns with the historic position of strategic ambiguity towards Taiwan, Kaine claimed that having the President say one thing and administration officials say another could be a calculated inconsistency.

Republicans, however, are arguing that the inconsistency makes the US appear disorganized.

“It’s been our policy not to come out and say we will go to war,” said Senate Armed Services Ranking Member James Inhofe. “And the President made the statement that I think his advisers, I believe, disagreed with, but he keeps repeating it over and over again.”

“It just looks … sloppy,” said Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley. “I think it’s embarrassing, frankly.”

Hawley then used the opportunity to push for greater investment in preparing the US to be involved militarily if necessary.

“We need to tell the truth to the American people, which is we are not in a position to stop a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. We’re not. So we need to be, because it’s in our direct national security interests not to have China control the Pacific,” he said. “So we’ve got to get in a position to be able to help the Taiwanese defend themselves, and right now we are not in that position and it’s just time to level with the American people about that.”

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

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