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Biden takes aggressive posture toward China on Asia trip

The president warns that the U.S. would defend Taiwan militarily in case of an attack by China, drawing a direct analogy to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida talks to President Biden at Akasaka Palace in Tokyo on May 23. (Evan Vucci/AP)
10 min

TOKYO — President Biden on Monday signaled a more confrontational approach to China on multiple fronts, issuing a sharp warning against any potential attack on Taiwan at the same time his administration is embroiled in wide-ranging efforts to beat back aggression by another superpower, Russia.

Speaking to reporters during his first trip to Asia as president, Biden said the United States would defend Taiwan militarily if it came under attack by China — despite the U.S. policy of remaining vague on the subject — and that deterring Beijing from aggression in Taiwan and elsewhere was among the reasons it was critical to punish Russian President Vladimir Putin for his “barbarism in Ukraine.”

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Asked if the United States would defend Taiwan militarily if it is attacked by China, Biden said, “Yes, that’s the commitment we made.”

He added: “We agree with the ‘One China’ policy ... but the idea that it can be taken by force, just taken by force, is just not appropriate. It would dislocate the entire region and be another action similar to what happened in Ukraine. And so it’s a burden that’s even stronger.”

President Biden said on May 23 he would be willing to use military force to defend Taiwan, capping a series of critical comments about China while in Asia. (Video: Reuters)

A White House official said Biden’s comments simply reiterated a pledge made through a 1979 law that the United States would provide Taiwan with the military means for self-defense. Biden has also previously made similar comments, only to have his aides walk them back. But in the current context — a presidential visit to Seoul and Tokyo and the West’s urgent confrontation with Russia over Ukraine — the words had a more powerful resonance and prompted reactions by various countries in the region.

The United States has long maintained a policy of strategic ambiguity toward Taiwan, meaning it is deliberately unclear what it would do if it comes to defending Taiwan. The “One China” policy is a long-standing bit of diplomatic legerdemain under which the United States recognizes China’s position that there is only one Chinese government, but does not accept Beijing’s view that Taiwan is under its rightful control.

The White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to clarify Biden’s comments, said the U.S. stance has not changed.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin played down the president’s comments as unremarkable, saying Biden had merely reiterated existing policy including the “One China” policy. Biden restated “our commitment to peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” Austin said, while highlighting “our commitment under the Taiwan Relations Act to help provide Taiwan the means to defend itself.”

He added, “I think the president was clear on the fact that the policy has not changed.”

But given that Russia’s contention that Ukraine is simply a renegade region echoes China’s position on Taiwan, the president’s comments Monday took on the tone of a global doctrine that autocracies should not be allowed to swallow up smaller nations by declaring them rebellious provinces.

“Russia has to pay a long-term price for that in terms of the sanctions that have been imposed,” Biden said during a news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at Akasaka Palace. “If in fact there’s a rapprochement met between … the Ukrainians and Russia, and these sanctions are not continued to be sustained in many ways, then what signal does that send to China about the cost of attempting to take Taiwan by force?”

The Biden administration later announced the outlines of a new trade framework that is meant to strengthen U.S. economic ties with Indo-Pacific nations other than China, and on Tuesday Biden will participate in a summit of the Quad, the partnership made up of the United States, India, Japan and Australia that is meant in part to counter China’s power globally.

Taken together, Monday’s rhetoric and accompanying events underscored the administration’s aggressive strategy to blunt Beijing’s rising influence. Though the president said he did not expect China to invade Taiwan, Biden said that China was “already flirting with danger.”

Taiwanese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Joanne Ou said her agency “sincerely welcomed” Biden’s comments, but the Chinese ministry’s spokesman Wang Wenbin expressed his government’s “strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition” to them. Beijing claims Taiwan is an inalienable part of its territory.

“No one should underestimate the strong determination, firm will and formidable ability of the Chinese people,” Wang said at a regular press briefing, according to the state-run Global Times.

At Monday’s summit, Biden and Kishida also reinforced their commitment to the alliance and their cooperation on responding to the Russian war.

Japan has adopted a more proactive foreign policy since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which triggered a deep alarm that has accelerated Japan’s ongoing debate over defense and security policies amid China’s growing territorial threat.

Japan has been determined to show it can work with its Group of Seven counterparts to stand up to acts of force, out of fear that the lack of a strong response risks emboldening China’s growing assertiveness and the worsening of relations between China and Taiwan. Japan is now moving toward increasing its defense budget, which is a sensitive topic because of country’s militaristic past.

The world’s third-largest economy, Japan has taken uncharacteristically swift steps to join Western allies in financially pressuring Russia and aiding Ukraine. Last week, Tokyo committed an additional $300 million in short-term support to Ukraine, on top of the more than $200 million it had already pledged. Japan accepted more than 1,000 people fleeing Ukraine — an eye-popping figure for a country that has historically been unfriendly to refugees.

Kishida, elected prime minister in the fall, has received high marks at home for his decisions — 71.2 percent of the public supports his response to the Russian invasion, according to a survey released Sunday by Kyodo News, a Japanese outlet.

Part of the U.S.-Japanese response to China’s rise is the launch of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, the contours of a new agreement that is designed to be a bulwark against China. The administration says it improves on the political and substantive shortcomings of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, negotiated during the Obama administration when Biden was vice president.

The dozen countries in the new pact with the United States are Australia, Brunei, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. The countries account for 40 percent of global gross domestic product, according to the administration.

“It is by any account the most significant international economic engagement that the United States has ever had in this region,” Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said.

The intended audience of the announcement was clear, even though Biden, during the launch event Monday, did not specifically name China. The representatives from the other 12 nations were also careful not to single out the country in their own remarks.

Administration officials have pointed to economic data showing that the U.S. economy had grown faster than China’s for the first time in four decades as proof that partnering with the United States would be a more alluring option for other Indo-Pacific nations.

“Our view is that this is not about a zero-sum game with China,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said. “It’s not about forcing countries to choose. But it is about offering a value proposition that we think countries are taking extremely seriously.”

But many officials throughout Asia, including in Japan, are wary of the U.S. rollout of its new economic proposal. Japanese officials have said they are relieved to see the United States reassert itself economically in the Indo-Pacific region but remain frustrated about President Donald Trump’s 2017 pullout from the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Although it was Trump who formally withdrew the United States from that agreement, it also lacked support from both parties on Capitol Hill and would not have been ratified. It’s unclear whether Congress would have to greenlight any eventual agreements created through this new trade framework.

Standing next to Biden during Monday’s news conference at Akasaka Palace, Kishida repeatedly stressed Japan’s wish for the United States to rejoin the TPP. Meanwhile, many Asia-Pacific countries are already participating in a free-trade agreement involving China, called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

The framework released by the White House and the dozen other countries Monday does not include specific commitments or requirements of what each nation has to do to reap the benefits of the pact.

The administration has also faced questions about why Taiwan was excluded from the initial list of participating countries. Last week, a bipartisan majority of 52 senators wrote to Biden, pressing him to ensure the self-governing island and U.S. trading partner was a part of the new framework and said doing so was an economic and military imperative.

Excluding Taiwan “would significantly distort the regional and global economic architecture, run counter to U.S. economic interests, and allow the Chinese government to claim that the international community does not in fact support meaningful engagement with Taiwan,” stated the letter, which was written by the two leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Sullivan said the administration will pursue “deeper” bilateral trade relations with Taiwan rather than including it in Tuesday’s framework because doing so “puts us in the best position for us to be able to enhance our economic partnership with Taiwan and also to carry IPEF forward with this diverse range of countries.”

To bring countries from Southeast Asia, or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), fully on board, the United States must provide more specifics about its vision, said Fukunari Kimura, economics professor at Keio University in Tokyo and chief economist of the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia.

Market access — lowering the barrier for trade activity with the United States — was an important incentive to persuade Southeast Asian countries to join the TPP.

Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.), the U.S. ambassador to Japan under the Trump administration, also pointed to the lack of provisions in the new trade framework to boost market access, even as allies in the region are “eager to see more U.S. economic leadership.”

On Tuesday, Biden’s final day of his Asia trip, he is scheduled to spend much of the day meeting with other leaders from the Quad nations.

The four democracies share security and economic interests, but the grouping exists for reasons that mirror the purpose of Biden’s first Asia trip as president: to counter China’s growing military and economic might.

Speaking shortly after he was sworn in as Australia’s 31st prime minister, Anthony Albanese, who will participate in the Quad summit, said the meeting will send a message of “continuity in the way that we have respect for democracy and the way that we value our friendships and long-term alliances.”

Julia Mio Inuma in Tokyo, Lily Kuo in Taipei, Michael E. Miller in Sydney and Karoun Demirjian in Washington contributed to this report.