White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Friday appeared to walk back President Joe Biden’s statement on Thursday that the United States was committed to defending Taiwan should it come under Chinese attack.

“The president was not announcing any change in our policy, nor has he made a decision to change our policy,” Psaki said during a White House news briefing. “Our defense relationship with Taiwan is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act.”

The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act states that the U.S. will provide arms for Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability. It does not say the U.S. would intervene militarily to protect Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki speaks during a press briefing at the White House, Sept. 1, 2021.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki speaks during a press briefing at the White House, Sept. 1, 2021.

Psaki’s statement stands in contradiction to Biden’s comment at a CNN town hall Thursday night. When asked if the U.S. would come to the defense of Taiwan, Biden said, “Yes, we have a commitment to do that.”

When asked by Muhabarishaji whether the president simply misspoke or is sending a signal to Beijing, Psaki reiterated that “his policy has not changed.” In what appeared to be an attempt to calm increased tensions following the president’s comment, she echoed Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s statement earlier Friday: “Nobody wants to see cross-strait issues come to blows, certainly not President Biden, and there’s no reason that it should.”

The conflicting statements may well be in line with Washington’s long-standing policy of “strategic ambiguity” on defending Taiwan. Still, Beijing, which considers Taiwan a breakaway province, warned Washington to refrain from encouraging its independence.

“We urge the U.S. to earnestly abide by the one-China principle and stipulations in the three China-U.S. joint communiques, be prudent with its words and actions on the Taiwan question, and avoid sending wrong signals to the ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces, lest it should seriously damage China-U.S. relations and peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin earlier Friday.

Wang reiterated that “there is no room for China to compromise or make concessions” when it comes to sovereignty and territorial integrity.

U.S.-China relations have been strained amid Beijing’s increased military activity in the Taiwan Strait and its recent hypersonic missile test.

FILE - Flags of Taiwan and US in place for a meeting between US and Taiwan legislators in Taipei, Taiwan March 27, 2018.

FILE – Flags of Taiwan and US in place for a meeting between US and Taiwan legislators in Taipei, Taiwan March 27, 2018.

Strategic ambiguity

This is not the first time Biden said the U.S. would defend Taiwan if necessary. During an August interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos, Biden said the U.S. made a “sacred commitment” to respond to action against NATO allies, “same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with Taiwan.”

The defense of Taiwan, unlike that of formal treaty allies Japan and South Korea, is not explicitly stated by the U.S. After each of Biden’s remarks on defending the island, his administration has walked it back.

While Biden may not intend to signal a change in the U.S. policy of strategic ambiguity toward Taiwan, his statements suggest that U.S. policy may have shifted informally toward a firmer commitment to Taiwan’s security.

The comments may be off the cuff, but they are telling, said Matthew Kroenig, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. “If China invaded Taiwan, it would be up to the president to make the final decision about what we should do, and it seems that Biden’s instinct is to defend Taiwan.”

Biden’s remarks may also be intended to signal that the U.S. military option is not off the table, said Max Bergmann, a senior fellow at Center for American Progress.

“I think it was a clear and smart warning sign from the president to China.”

FILE - Spectators wave Chinese flags as military vehicles carrying DF-41 ballistic missiles roll during a parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of Communist China in Beijing, Oct. 1, 2019.

FILE – Spectators wave Chinese flags as military vehicles carrying DF-41 ballistic missiles roll during a parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of Communist China in Beijing, Oct. 1, 2019.

Chinese hypersonic missile

The Financial Times recently reported that in late July, China conducted a test of a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile, stunning American officials. Beijing has denied the report, saying it carried out a routine test of a space vehicle, not a missile.

Hypersonic glide vehicles are launched from a rocket into the upper atmosphere before gliding to a target at speeds of more than Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound, about 6,200 kilometers per hour. This is slower than a ballistic missile but no less dangerous because its speed allows for a lower, adjustable trajectory that makes tracking these missiles difficult.

On Wednesday, when asked by Muhabarishaji whether he was concerned about Chinese hypersonic missiles, Biden answered “yes.”

U.S. officials have also stated concerns. Austin said earlier this week that Washington was closely watching China’s development of this advanced weapons system. And on Monday, Robert Wood, U.S. permanent representative to the Conference on Disarmament, said this type of technology is “worrisome” because the U.S. has not had to face it before.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Navy and Army tested hypersonic weapon component prototypes that the Pentagon called “successful.” But on Thursday, its booster rocket carrying a hypersonic weapon failed, people briefed on the test result told Reuters.

Analysts say that while China’s space activities are certainly a cause for concern, they reflect an already ongoing arms race.

“Beijing appears unwilling to accept a situation in which China lags in nuclear capabilities, which might impact both nuclear and conventional balances of power,” said Zack Cooper, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “This new capability could embolden China to take more aggressive actions in non-nuclear areas.”

Cooper noted the U.S. does not need to respond in kind since Washington already has robust capability to strike the Chinese homeland. But the administration must now seriously consider the possibility of Chinese strikes on the American homeland in a military conflict, particularly at a time when China is also ramping up other capabilities such as conventional as well as nuclear-armed submarines and nuclear-capable bombers.

“That is a new reality, and one with which we are still coming to grips,” Cooper said.

In light of this increased Chinese threat, some analysts say that Biden’s remarks on Taiwan are an effective deterrent.

“The most likely path to war is that (Chinese) Chairman Xi miscalculates; he assumes he can get away with attacking Taiwan without U.S. interference when in fact he cannot,” said Kroenig. “He (Biden) is making it clear to Xi that an attack on Taiwan would mean a big war with the United States and, therefore, not worth the effort.”

Carla Babb contributed to this report.

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