Asked by a member of the audience if the United States would commit to protect Taiwan in the event of a war, Biden appeared to respond affirmatively.
“Are you saying that the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense if China attacked?” host Anderson Cooper interjected.
“Yes. We have a commitment,” Biden quickly responded.
With those five words, the U.S. president initially appeared to have upset the obtusely worded but carefully managed American policy of “strategic ambiguity” toward Taiwan — basically a policy that deliberately makes unclear the answer to the question Cooper asked.
The remarks prompted responses from both Beijing and Taipei on Friday. However, the White House quickly clarified that “there is no change in our policy.” Most analysts believe simply that Biden misspoke.
“There has been no shift. The president was not announcing any change in our policy, nor has he made a decision to change our policy,” White press secretary Jen Psaki said at a briefing Friday.
Taiwan, a self-governing island that Beijing claims as its own, sits in an unusual place in U.S. foreign policy, without diplomatic recognition but working closely with Washington on many issues.
Biden is not the first U.S. leader to stumble when it comes to the norms of the U.S. relationship with Taiwan: Before he became president, Donald Trump sparked an international scandal by accepting a call of congratulations from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen after winning the 2016 election.