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President Biden's statement that the U.S. would defend Taiwan from an attack from China triggered a sharp response from Beijing. It also raises questions about whether this is changing U.S. policy and making a new commitment to Taiwan. Ivan Kanapathy, director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia on the National Security Council staff during the Trump administration, joins Nick Schifrin to discuss.
President Biden's statement that the United States would defend Taiwan from an attack triggered a sharp response from China. It also raises questions about whether the president is changing U.S. policy and making a new security commitment to Taiwan.
Nick Schifrin has the story.
Ladies and gentleman, the prime minister of Japan and the president of the United States.
In Tokyo's state palace today, a meeting of two historic allies and a president willing to confront Beijing on its most sensitive subject.
Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?
President Joe Biden:
That's the commitment we made.
Today's remarks repeat what President Biden said last October.
Anderson Cooper, CNN:
So are you saying that the United States would come to Taiwan's defense if China attacked?
Yes, we — yes, we have a commitment to do that.
That's not official U.S. policy. The Taiwan Relations Act obligates the U.S. to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability and maintain the capacity of the U.S. to resist any resort to force.
But despite U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan, the U.S. has been ambiguous whether it would intervene militarily, and the U.S. acknowledges that all Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait maintained that there is one China and Taiwan is a part of China, as Biden reiterated today.
We agree with the one China policy. We have signed on to it and all the attendant agreements made from there. But the idea that it can be taken by force, it will dislocate the entire region and be another action similar to what happened in — in Ukraine. And so it's a burden that is even stronger.
China views Taiwan as a breakaway province and vows reunification. Beijing increasingly threatens Taiwan militarily, including flying 14 warplanes into the island's self-identified air defense zone just last week.
Today, Beijing heard President Biden's commitment and responded with anger.
Wang Wenbin, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman (through translator):
China expressed strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition to the U.S. remarks. Taiwan is an inalienable part of Chinese territory.
President Biden's primary message today, a new regional trade framework. Twelve countries signed on to the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework that aims to strengthen supply chains, expand clean energy, and crackdown on corruption.
But it does not go as far as the 2016 Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, which then-President Trump abandoned in his first week in office, and U.S. allies still prefer.
Fumio Kishida, Japanese Prime Minister (through translator):
Japan hopes to see the United States returned to the TPP from a strategic perspective.
For more on all this, we turn to Ivan Kanapathy. He served as director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia on the National Security Council staff during the Trump administration. He also served in the U.S. liaison office in Taiwan, known as the American Institute in Taiwan, where he was a military adviser to the Taiwanese government.
He is now with Beacon Global Strategies, an international consulting firm.
Ivan Kanapathy, welcome to the "NewsHour." Thanks very much.
Ivan Kanapathy, Beacon Global Strategies:
Thanks. Thanks. Good to be here.
It has been three times now that President Biden has reiterated this policy. And, three times, he or the White House has walked it back. So is it a change in policy?
So, it's not a formal change in what you might call a declaratory policy. It's not an executive order or formal declaration.
I think it's an indication of what the president thinks today or, when he says it, what he would do if Taiwan were attacked. And, frankly, that decision is his to make.
And so, in that sense, representing the United States, that's what he's letting the world know. And there's probably some good reasons for that.
How has Taiwan's thinking about how it would defend itself changed just in the last few months, as we have seen Ukraine defend itself from Russia?
So, I think, in Taiwan, there's been a little bit of an awakening. I think it's actually happened over a few years' time.
Some of the events in Hong Kong, for example, over the last couple years have driven a little bit more of a sense of urgency in Taiwan. And I think the example of Ukraine has only furthered that.
And so I spoke to a senior State Department official, who confirmed that the State Department has resisted some of Taiwan's requests for big ticket items, things like helicopters, and the U.S. is now pushing Taiwan to buy things, frankly, that we have heard about for the last few months in Ukraine, things like Stingers, things like Javelins.
Why are those smaller items more important?
Well, I think, from a U.S. government standpoint, we're looking — the belief is that Taiwan maybe has underinvested in those island defense capabilities.
And some of those larger platforms, while maybe more important for some more longer-term purposes, they are, as you would expect, quite expensive, and therefore not the most cost-effective way to provide deterrence.
And nor perhaps the best way to defend the island militarily, right?
That's right, yes.
The — some of those capabilities aren't going to just give you the bang for buck, and as we're seeing that in Ukraine. And this has been sort of a long-term back-and-forth, I would say, between the United States and Taiwan.
In Taipei, will President Biden's comments be reassuring? Or are they looking at the fact that U.S. did not send any soldiers into Ukraine, and they're actually more worried about what could happen?
Well, if you look at the polling, Nick, recently, I think, before Ukraine, this latest invasion, two out of three folks in Taiwan believed, expected, really the United States to come and defend militarily.
That has dropped now to one out of three. In some ways, there's a silver lining to that, because it creates, again, that sense of urgency in Taiwan and that realization that maybe they need to invest more in their own self-defense.
And, bottom line, when you hear President Biden say these words again, when Beijing hears President Biden say these words again, there is a sense here in D.C., Beijing, Taipei, that things are changing, right?
This is a significant policy moment for the U.S., right?
It's a significant policy moment, Nick, I think, in the sense that President Biden is, I think, reflecting the American people.
I think in 2021 was the first time that a majority of Americans polled actually said that they would support sending U.S. troops in to defend Taiwan. And, so, in that sense, it is a signal of a shift.
Of U.S. commitment to the island?
Let's talk about the economic framework that the president introduced today.
How important is it that these other 12 countries joined today, and especially India?
So, I think India is the most significant.
The administration has done a great job, I think, in the last few months getting these countries on board. You have got, I think, seven from the Southeast Asia region. You have got all U.S. allies from the region among these dozen countries.
But the truth is, it's just sort of the beginning. This is just the launch. And it's not clear what of substance will be within the framework. But there's potential there. And it's a good diplomatic signal.
How much does this framework mean to these countries, given that the executive itself, the president himself, cannot offer things like market access without congressional approval?
Well, that's going to be a challenge for the executive. But there isn't really a desire to offer market approval from frankly, Congress, i.e., the U.S., the United States democracy, as we see it.
We have gone down many roads, I think, over years, if not decades, in that direction. And, quite frankly, folks aren't too satisfied with the results. And so this takes things in a new direction, and hopefully in a positive one, but I think it'll be years before we can really make that assessment.
Ivan Kanapathy, thank you very much.
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Nick Schifrin is the foreign affairs and defense correspondent for PBS NewsHour, based in Washington, D.C. He leads NewsHour's foreign reporting and has created week-long, in-depth series for NewsHour from China, Russia, Ukraine, Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, Cuba, Mexico, and the Baltics. The PBS NewsHour series "Inside Putin's Russia" won a 2018 Peabody Award and the National Press Club's Edwin M. Hood Award for Diplomatic Correspondence. In November 2020, Schifrin received the American Academy of Diplomacy’s Arthur Ross Media Award for Distinguished Reporting and Analysis of Foreign Affairs.
As the deputy senior producer for foreign affairs and defense at the PBS NewsHour, Dan plays a key role in helping oversee and produce the program’s foreign affairs and defense stories. His pieces have broken new ground on an array of military issues, exposing debates simmering outside the public eye.
Tommy Walters is an associate producer at the PBS NewsHour.
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