As he concluded his debut tour of Asia, President Joe Biden used Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to send an unmistakable message to China: A similar breach of international order would generate a fierce US response.
Speaking to a high-level summit here of Indo-Pacific leaders, Biden underscored the grave consequences of a war that continues to grind forward, despite withering sanctions from a mostly-united West. The message, delivered in a region watching closely for signals of how the US may respond to aggression from China, was one of resolve.
“We’re navigating a dark hour in our shared history,” Biden said as he sat facing the leaders of India, Australia, and Japan.
Biden warned that Russian President Vladimir Putin is “trying to extinguish a culture,” pointing to Russia’s targeting of Ukrainian schools, churches, and museums. And he said the conflict had touched the entire world.
“This is more than just a European issue,” he said. “It’s a global issue.”
The war in Ukraine served as an uneasy backdrop to Biden’s trip in Asia, which ended Tuesday when Air Force One departed Japan to begin the lengthy journey home. The conflict has consumed his time and attention, even as he worked to reaffirm his goal of reorienting US foreign policy toward the Pacific.
At the same time, Biden is hopeful the US-led response to the war — which has included partners like Japan and South Korea, which he visited this week — and Russia’s stumbles on the battlefield will be viewed as a cautionary tale in Beijing.
Biden attempts to clean up his warning to China over Taiwan
On Monday, Biden offered his most explicit warning to China, saying the US would be willing to respond militarily if the country invades the self-governing island of Taiwan. Biden’s statement loomed over his final day in Tokyo, where he was meeting with the leaders of Japan, India and Australia as part of a revitalized Quad Leaders’ Summit.
While acknowledging the US still agrees with the “One China” policy, Biden said on Monday that the idea of Taiwan being taken by force “is (just not) appropriate.”
A day later, Biden told reporters the US policy of “strategic ambiguity” had not changed. But he did not offer any qualifications on his earlier statement, saying only the US stance remains the same.
“The policy has not changed at all and I stated that when I made my statement,” Biden said at an event with Quad leaders.
Several of Biden’s top administration officials had been caught off-guard by the remarks on Monday, multiple aides told CNN, adding that they were not expecting Biden to be so unequivocal. The White House quickly downplayed Biden’s comments, saying they don’t reflect a change in US policy. It’s the third time in recent months — including during a CNN town hall in October — that Biden has said the US would protect Taiwan from a Chinese attack, only to have the White House walk back those remarks.
Under the “One China” policy, the US acknowledges China’s position that Taiwan is part of China but has never officially recognized Beijing’s claim to the self-governing island of 23 million. The US provides Taiwan defensive weapons but has remained intentionally ambiguous on whether it would intervene militarily in the event of a Chinese attack.
China angered by Biden’s Taiwan comment
Tensions between Beijing and Taipei are at the highest they’ve been in recent decades, with the Chinese military sending record numbers of warplanes near the island.