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President Biden says the U.S. will defend Taiwan if China invades

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

President Biden raised eyebrows in Tokyo today when he said at a press conference that the U.S. had a commitment to defend the self-governed island of Taiwan in case of an invasion by mainland China. China claims the island as its own and has threatened to invade Taiwan if it declares independence. NPR's Anthony Kuhn has been covering Biden's visit. He joins us from Seoul. Hi, Anthony.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hi, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: What exactly did Biden say?

KUHN: Well, the question a reporter put to him was that - President Biden did not want to get involved militarily in Ukraine, but is he willing to defend Taiwan against a Chinese invasion? And he said, yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We may. We are not - look. Here's the situation. We agree with the One China policy. We signed on to it and all the attendant agreements made from there. But the idea that it can be taken by force - just taken by force - is just not appropriate.

KUHN: But he also said there's been no change in official U.S. policy, and this is the third time Biden has made a statement like this.

PFEIFFER: Remind us. What is U.S. policy on this issue? And did Biden's remarks contradict that?

KUHN: Well, the One China policy Biden was talking about says that the U.S. recognizes Beijing and not Taipei is the legitimate government of China. The U.S. has unofficial relations with Taiwan. It does not have a mutual defense treaty with them. There's also the Taiwan Relations Act, and that says that the U.S. will provide arms for Taiwan's self-defense. And on top of that, there's also been a longstanding policy of strategic ambiguity. And what that means is that the U.S. will not say what it's going to do if China invades. And Biden's remarks do appear to contradict that policy. So I spoke to Steven Goldstein, who is director of the Taiwan Studies Workshop at Harvard, and he argues that strategic ambiguity has messages for both Beijing and Taipei.

STEVEN GOLDSTEIN: Each side is deterred from provoking a conflict, but each side is assured that its interests will not be damaged by their remaining peaceful.

KUHN: So, in other words, just don't change the status quo unilaterally, and the U.S. will support you. And that formula has worked for more than three decades. The danger now, though, Goldstein adds, is that both nations feel they can't back down.

PFEIFFER: As we mentioned, Biden made these remarks in Tokyo. And there is some significance to him saying that in that particular location.

KUHN: That's right. This was Biden's first trip to Asia since taking office. His predecessor, Donald Trump, wanted Japan and South Korea to pay more to base U.S. troops in their countries, or he suggested he could bring those troops home. So Biden went to Asia to reassure allies that the U.S. is not going to abandon them. And that's particularly important for Japan, which feels increasingly threatened by China. And the U.S. and Japanese militaries have reportedly now drafted operational plans to respond to a Taiwan invasion.

PFEIFFER: Anthony, how were Biden's remarks received around the region?

KUHN: Japan repeated the White House's position that there's no change in policy. China issued its standard rebuttal that the U.S. must not defend pro-Taiwanese, pro-independence forces and that this issue is about Chinese sovereignty and Beijing cannot compromise. And finally, a Taiwanese presidential spokesperson said that the U.S. has now shown its support for Taiwan, and the island's people will neither surrender to pressure nor act rashly.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR's Anthony Kuhn joining us from Seoul. Thanks, Anthony.

KUHN: Thank you, Sacha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.