US president Joe Biden vowed to defend Taiwan in the face of a potential Chinese aggression, in the latest sign of mounting military tensions between Washington and Beijing.
Biden’s comments were made during a wide-ranging televised town hall hosted by CNN in Baltimore, Maryland, which covered pivotal tax-and-spending negotiations on Capitol Hill, as well as rising prices including for energy.
“I don’t want a cold war with China. I just want to make China understand that we are not going to step back, we are not going to change any of our views,” Biden said.
When asked if the US would come to Taiwan’s defence in the event of a Chinese attack, he responded: “Yes, we have a commitment to do that.”
Biden’s comments were slightly more explicit than similar ones he made last month about America’s resolve to defend Taiwan after its withdrawal from Afghanistan, which US officials were then forced to clarify.
The Taiwan Relations Act, passed when Washington normalised relations with Beijing in 1979, requires the US to help Taiwan defend itself but does not bind the two in a formal defence alliance. US officials believe this “strategic ambiguity” about what Washington would do in the event of a Chinese attack on Taiwan has helped keep the peace between the two adversaries.
After Biden’s remarks, a White House spokesperson said the “president was not announcing any change in our policy and there is no change in our policy”.
“The US defence relationship with Taiwan is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act. We will uphold our commitment under the act, we will continue to support Taiwan’s self-defence and we will continue to oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo,” the spokesperson added.
Kolas Yotaka, a spokesperson for Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s president, said “the Biden administration has been clear and consistent about its rock-solid support for Taiwan, and we appreciate that”.
Biden’s remarks come after also saying this week that he was concerned about China’s development of hypersonic weapons that could potentially be used to attack the US and its allies, following revelations in the Financial Times.
The town hall meeting was held at a crucial moment in Biden’s presidency, after a sharp drop in his approval ratings in recent months and on the eve of his departure for the G20 summit in Italy and the COP26 climate conference in the UK.
Senior White House officials are immersed in negotiations with certain Democrats to see if they can secure a spending package worth up to $2tn in investments in childcare, paid leave, education and measures to fight climate change. But the size of the bill has already been driven down from $3.5tn by resistance from moderate Democrats, and Biden said on Thursday that the duration of the paid-leave scheme would be cut from 12 weeks to four weeks.
Crucially, he conceded that he might fail to enact corporate tax rate increases to fund his flagship spending plans, a big defeat for him after he had put a reversal of Donald Trump’s 2017 tax cuts on large businesses at the heart of his fiscal agenda.
“I don’t think we are doing to be able to get the vote,” Biden said on Thursday evening, when asked about the corporate tax increases. The opposition to corporate tax increases was driven by resistance from Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, whose support is essential to any deal, and who is also averse to individual tax rate increases in the package.
But people familiar with the talks say that other potential tax increases, both on corporations and the wealthiest Americans, remain on the table, so paying for the spending without adding to US deficits should not be in question. Among the alternative options being discussed are a surtax on share buybacks and a wealth tax on billionaires.
Biden also addressed high inflation and rising petrol prices, which are increasingly turning into political liabilities. He blamed Opec countries for failing to boost production sufficiently, despite American pressure.
“We’re about $3.30 a gallon in most places now when it was down in the single digits — I mean single digits. Dollar plus. And that’s because of the supply being withheld by Opec,” Biden said. “And so there’s a lot of negotiation, there’s a lot of Middle Eastern folks who want to talk to me. I’m not sure I’m going to talk to them. But the point is it’s about gas production.”
Additional reporting by Tom Mitchell in Singapore and Edward White in Seoul