Biden sparks fresh confusion over U.S. policy toward Taiwan

U.S. President Joe Biden reignited confusion about his administration’s approach toward Taiwan hours after a lengthy virtual summit with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, providing an early test of whether the countries can move past the issue after a generally positive meeting.

Speaking to reporters in New Hampshire on Tuesday, Biden said that Taiwan “makes its own decisions,” and that the self-governing island is “independent.”

Hours later, Biden waded back into the issue, saying “we are not encouraging independence” and emphasizing again that historic U.S. policy toward the island democracy remains in place.

“We’re not going to change our policy at all,” Biden told reporters. “We’re encouraging them to do exactly what the Taiwan Act requires,” he added, an apparent reference to the Taiwan Relations Act governing American policy. “That’s what we’re doing. Let them make up their mind. Let them make up their minds, period — Taiwan.”

Biden’s choice of words is likely to raise alarms in Beijing, which considers Taiwan part of its territory and has threatened to invade if it seeks independence. Biden had earlier assured Xi in their talks that he supports a “one China” policy and isn’t changing U.S. strategy, according to a White House statement.

The delicate diplomacy around U.S.-Taiwan-China relations is similar to the fine-tuned choreography of Israeli-Palestinian ties. But with the U.S. and China, the world’s two biggest economies involved.

For decades, American policy has been guided by a set of diplomatic agreements including the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act and other accords that form the foundation for the U.S. relationship with China. As part of the U.S.’s “one China policy,” Washington regards Beijing as the “sole legal government of China,” without clarifying its position on Taiwan’s sovereignty.

Supporting Taiwan’s independence would contradict those agreements, even though U.S. policy allows for weapons sales to the island to foster its self-defense.

Some on the political right have praised Biden for being more direct about U.S. support for Taiwan, but the back-and-forth comments have made it difficult to discern whether there is specific strategy at play or whether the controversy stems from miscommunication.

The president on Monday told Xi that the U.S. opposes any unilateral effort “to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait” — comments directed at China after it stepped up military flights into the island’s air defense identification zone in recent months.

Biden also reminded Xi during the summit talks on Monday that he voted as a senator to support Taiwan’s self-defense when the two discussed the island, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Tuesday.

“The two leaders spent a good amount of time on the question of Taiwan,” Sullivan said at a Brookings Institution event on Tuesday.

Chinese readouts of the leaders’ meeting on Monday night said Biden was opposed to Taiwan’s independence and said Xi warned that those playing with fire around Taiwan “would inevitably burn themselves.”

Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry accused Beijing of “purposely” mischaracterizing Biden’s statements.

It’s not the first time Biden’s Taiwan comments have generated confusion. The president said in a CNN town hall last month that the U.S. would defend Taiwan if the island’s status quo was changed unilaterally, even though the U.S. has deliberately never said whether it would use its military in case of Chinese attack. Hours later the White House said Biden had only been reiterating a longstanding, and still unchanged, policy.

It wasn’t immediately clear how the president’s comments would be received in Beijing. U.S. officials said the 3 ½-hour discussion between Biden and Xi on Monday night was candid and respectful.

“It was a good meeting,” Biden said. “We’ve got a lot of follow-up on, we set up four groups, we’re going to get our folks together on a whole range of issues. I’ll have more to report to you in the next two weeks.”

As anticipated, the conversation between Biden and Xi was mostly aimed at setting the rules of engagement between the world’s two largest economies, in an effort to avoid unintended military conflict or economic damage.

The leaders also discussed how their countries “can work together to ensure global energy supply and price volatility do not imperil the global economic recovery,” Sullivan said. “The two presidents tasked their teams to coordinate on this issue expeditiously.”

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