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Biden says the U.S. would be willing to intervene militarily to defend Taiwan

President Joe Biden speaks during a news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at Akasaka Palace, Monday, May 23, 2022, in Tokyo.
Evan Vucci
President Joe Biden speaks during a news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at Akasaka Palace, Monday, May 23, 2022, in Tokyo.

Updated May 23, 2022 at 8:33 AM ET

SEOUL — President Biden said Monday that the U.S. would defend Taiwan if it was attacked by mainland China, while insisting that America's policy toward the island had not changed.

Biden, asked at a press conference in Tokyo if the U.S. would intervene military to defend Taiwan, said, "that's the commitment we made." Speaking alongside Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, he added that the U.S. maintains a "one China policy," recognizing Beijing as the government of China, but said that the idea that Taiwan can be "just taken by force ... is just not appropriate."

China considers the self-ruled island part of its territory, and its Foreign Ministry swiftly rejected Biden's remarks as interference in its internal affairs.

"When it comes to issues related to China's sovereignty and territorial integrity and other core interests," ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters, "there is no room for China to compromise or make concessions."

The White House walked back similar remarks by Biden last year, which appeared to undercut America's long-standing policy of "strategic ambiguity," that is, not telegraphing how Washington might respond to an invasion of Taiwan.

"I think it is unlikely that allies will perceive this as a gaffe, even as the White House insists that there has been no change in policy," said Corey Wallace, an expert on Japanese politics at Kanagawa University, near Tokyo.

"Greater U.S. commitment or involvement with regards to Taiwan will certainly be appreciated by Kishida and others in the Japanese government," Wallace added.

Tokyo's previous reticence about speaking out on Taiwan has melted away as Beijing has turned up the heat on the island, and Japanese officials have publicly called for Tokyo to join Washington in defending Taiwan.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has amplified the concerns over Taiwan, as Tokyo fears Russia's moves could embolden Beijing.

A joint statement by Biden and Kishida included a long list of concerns about China's actions, from its upgrading its nuclear arsenal and human rights issues in China's far-west Xinjiang region, to the "non-transparent" signing of a security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands.

Biden also unveiled a new trade agreement dubbed the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF). The pact, signed by the U.S. and 12 Asian nations, aims to secure industrial supplies, cut carbon emissions and combat corruption.

Japan has made clear that it would prefer that the U.S. join a trade pact which then-President Trump abandoned in 2017. Originally called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the remaining nations rebranded the TPP and ratified it without the U.S. in 2018.

While Biden promised the IPEF would bring "concrete benefits" to its members, the response from some nations has been tepid because it provides no additional access to U.S. markets and is seen as another effort to cut China out of regional trade pacts and supply chains.

Despite its reservations, though, Japan sees the IPEF as a plus, said Wallace, because it could serve as a "strategic foundation for continuing U.S. commitment to Asia by deepening U.S.-Japan economic linkages."

Biden also received strong backing for the IPEF, and America's policy toward Asia in general, from South Korea's government.

President Yoon Suk Yeol, who was inaugurated less than two weeks ago, hailed the U.S. and South Korea's military alliance and shared values at a joint press briefing with Biden over the weekend.

"We advocate democracy, human rights and freedom," Yoon said.

Yoon's rhetoric on the campaign trail had signaled a harder line on China, but that has yet to materialize. But the tougher stance he promised on North Korea did seem to take shape during Biden's visit.

The two nations pledged to discuss expanding military exercises intended to deter North Korea, as well as repositioning military hardware, some potentially nuclear-armed, to the Korean Peninsula or closer to it.

Seoul and Washington had both expressed concerns that North Korea might detonate an atomic bomb or test launch an intercontinental ballistic missile while Biden was in town, but it didn't happen.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.