Joe Biden has said the US would intervene militarily to defend Taiwan if it came under attack from China, in an unusually forceful presidential statement in support of self-governing that drew a defiant response from Beijing.
Speaking in Tokyo on the second day of his visit to Japan, and against the backdrop of growing concern over Chinese military activity in the region, Biden said the US’s responsibility to protect the self-ruled island – which China considers a renegade province – was “even stronger” after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“That’s the commitment we made,” Biden said, after he told the Japanese prime minister, Fumio Kishida, that Washington backed Japan’s permanent membership of a reformed UN security council and Tokyo’s plans to beef up its security with record levels of defence spending, as it seeks to counter a nuclear-armed North Korea and an increasingly assertive China.
The US president said any attempt by China to use force against Taiwan would “just not be appropriate … it would dislocate the entire region and be another action similar to what happened in Ukraine”.
In Beijing, the foreign ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, said the Taiwan issue was “a purely internal affair for China”.
“On issues touching on China’s core interests of sovereignty and territorial integrity, China has no room for compromise or concession,” Wang said.
Wang said China would always defend its interests with the force of its 1.4 billion population. “No one should underestimate the firm resolve, staunch will and strong ability of the Chinese people in defending national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” he added.
The Chinese State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office said the US was “playing with fire”, state media reported. The US was “using the ‘Taiwan card’ to contain China, and will itself get burned,” said Zhu Fenglian, a spokeswoman for the office.
In accordance with Beijing’s “one-China principle” – or “one-China policy” in Washington – the US acknowledges Beijing’s position that there is only one Chinese government and does not have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan. But it maintains unofficial contact, including a de facto embassy, and supplies Taiwan with military equipment for self-defence.
“America is committed to a one-China policy but that does not mean China has the jurisdiction to use force to take Taiwan,” Biden said, adding: “My expectation is that will not happen.”
The president’s national security aides shifted in their seats and studied Biden closely as he responded to the question, with several looking down as he gave his answer on Taiwan’s defence. Within minutes, the state department began walking back the president’s comments.
Analysts say that Biden was unlikely to be announcing a new policy towards Taiwan during his trip to Japan, but Monday’s remark did provide a window into the president’s instincts in the event of a Chinese attack.
Taipei welcomed Biden’s remarks and thanked him for “reaffirming” Washington’s commitment. “The challenge posed by China to the security of the Taiwan Strait has raised great concern in the international community,” Taiwan’s foreign ministry said.
In August, a senior Biden administration official was forced to point out that US policy on Taiwan had not changed after the president appeared to suggest the US would defend the island if it were attacked, a deviation from a long-held US position of “strategic ambiguity”.
China’s growing influence in the region, including military drills near Taiwan and air and maritime activity around an island chain in the East China Sea administered by Japan, has emerged as a key theme of Biden’s visit, even overshadowing North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.
On Monday, Biden and Kishida committed to working closely in response to China’s “increasingly coercive behaviour that runs counter to international law”, according to a White House account of their meeting.
Later, Biden voiced support for Japanese plans to bolster its defences. Japan’s ruling party is considering calls for the country to acquire the ability to conduct a first strike against enemy bases if it believes it is in danger of imminent attack – a move that some say violates its “pacifist” postwar constitution.
“I applaud Japan’s determination to strengthen its defence – a strong Japan, and a strong Japan-US alliance, is a force for good in the world,” Biden said.
Kishida said he would “fundamentally” reinforce Japan’s defences, adding: “I have said all options are on the table, including the capability for Japan to carry out first strikes on enemy bases.”
In the afternoon, Biden was due to launch a regional trade pact designed to show the US’s commitment to the region and bring stability to commerce after disruption caused by the war in Ukraine.
The Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) will help the US and Asian countries work more closely on supply chains, digital trade, clean energy, worker protections and anticorruption efforts. But IPEF members will not negotiate tariffs or ease market access – a move that would be unpopular at home among voters who believe granting greater access to the US market would put American jobs at risk.
The pact, which is unlikely to include any binding commitments, is being seen as an attempt by the US to exert some economic influence in the region five years after Donald Trump pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. And it will not include the world’s second-biggest economy, China, which on Monday condemned Biden’s renewed focus on US military and economic involvement in the region as doomed to fail.
“The so-called Indo-Pacific Strategy is, in essence, a strategy of creating division, inciting confrontation and undermining peace,” China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, said, according to the state media outlet Xinhua. “No matter how it is packaged or disguised, it will inevitably fail in the end.”
Wang said Tuesday’s planned meeting in Tokyo between the leaders of the Quad countries – the US, Japan, India and Australia – was an attempt by Washington “to form small cliques in the name of freedom and openness”, while hoping “to contain China”.
North Korea continued to cast a shadow over Biden’s visit, even as he preferred to focus on trade and jobs. Asked on Sunday if he had a message for North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, Biden said only: “Hello … period.”