© Youtube/creenshot/White House
White House Press Sec. Jen Psaki
US officials scrambled on Friday to clarify that Washington's policy toward Taiwan had not changed, after an apparent gaffe by US President Joe Biden Thursday night when he said on CNN that the United States would come to the island's defence in the event of an attack by China.

"There is no change in our policy," White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said at a briefing, as she fielded numerous questions about whether Biden's comments signaled an end to Washington's long-held position of "strategic ambiguity".

Asked by CNN's Anderson Cooper whether the US would come to Taiwan's defence if mainland forces attacked, Biden said: "Yes, we have a commitment to do that."

The US does not maintain official diplomatic relations with Taiwan, but is required by the Taiwan Relations Act to support the self-governed island's efforts to defend itself, including through arms sales. China regards Taiwan as a renegade province, destined for eventual reunification with the mainland, by force if necessary.

The Taiwan Relations Act does not, however, include a commitment to intervene militarily if China seeks to annex Taiwan by force. The US has for decades followed a policy of "strategic ambiguity", in which it does not indicate whether it would take military action in Taiwan's defence.

Psaki said that the US would continue to abide by the principles of the act, reiterating one of its clauses that Washington:"would regard any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific and of grave concern to the United States.
"The president was not announcing any change in our policy, nor has he made a decision to change our policy."
Psaki dodged a question about whether Biden had misspoken or if he was signaling a hardening of his administration's position on Taiwan.

Earlier on Friday, Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said that China's ambitions and actions posed "challenges to the rules-based international order", but stressed that the US remained committed to a "One China" policy, which allows Washington to acknowledge that Beijing considers Taiwan to be a part of China.

Austin, who was in Brussels for a Nato meeting, said:
"Nobody wants to see cross-strait issues come to blows, and certainly not President Biden. And there's no reason that it should."
Some supporters of a stronger, more explicit US commitment to Taiwan's defence have pounced on Biden's Thursday remarks as a signal that his administration was abandoning strategic ambiguity. That strategy is intended to dissuade Taipei from unilaterally declaring independence while discouraging Beijing from seeking to annex the island by force.

Representative Mike Gallagher, a Wisconsin Republican, said in a statement:
"Strategic ambiguity no longer serves the national interest. It is clear that President Biden agrees. It is time to move past academic debates over the nature of our commitment to Taiwan and get down to the hard work of defending it against the Chinese invasion that looks increasingly likely."
But as US officials on Friday sought to walk back Biden's comments, others criticized what they viewed as "mixed messages" from the administration. Senator James Risch of Idaho, the lead Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said:
"Words are important, and we can't be careless in how we talk about an issue that is so vital to US interests and the security of the Indo-Pacific. We must act decisively on our commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act that bolster deterrence in the Indo-Pacific.

"That means we must get asymmetric capabilities to Taiwan more quickly, increase training and exchanges that demonstrate readiness, sustain our own capacity to resist force and coercion in the Western Pacific and not abandon long-held US nuclear declaratory policy that has served us well for decades."
The sharpest response to Biden's comments came from Beijing. Foreign Ministry Spokesman Wang Wenbin chastised that the US was
"sending the wrong signals to the 'Taiwan independence' separatist forces. No one should underestimate the resolve, the will and the ability of the Chinese people to defend their national sovereignty and territorial integrity."
About the Author:
Owen Churchill joined the Post in 2018 after several years working as a reporter and editor in China. He covers US-China relations, human rights, and China's influence overseas. A co-founder of the Shanghai-based news outlet Sixth Tone, he is an alumnus of SOAS in London and Fudan University in Shanghai.