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People cross a street in Keelung, Taiwan, on May 23.ANN WANG/Reuters

The United States would intervene militarily to prevent a Chinese takeover of Taiwan, President Joe Biden said Monday in Tokyo, departing from Washington’s long-standing “strategic ambiguity” on the issue.

At a joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Mr. Biden was asked if the U.S. would use force to defend Taiwan if it were attacked by China.

“Yes,” he said. “That’s the commitment we made.”

Mr. Biden accused China of “flirting with danger” by conducting repeated flybys near Taiwanese airspace and compared any potential military action against Taiwan with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Washington’s responsibility to act in defence of Taiwan was “a burden that’s even stronger” than any desire to assist Kyiv, Mr. Biden added.

After his comments Monday, the White House put out a statement saying its policy toward Taiwan has not changed.

“He reiterated … our commitment to peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” the statement said. “He also reiterated our commitment under the Taiwan Relations Act to provide Taiwan with the military means to defend itself.”

Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Beijing was “strongly dissatisfied with and firmly opposed” to Mr. Biden’s remarks.

“Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory,” Mr. Wang told reporters. “The Taiwan question is purely China’s internal affair and brooks no interference from any outside forces.”

He warned that China “has no room for compromise” on the issue and that other parties should not “underestimate the strong resolve, determination and capability of the Chinese people in safeguarding national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Washington’s position on Taiwan has long been complicated and confusing – often deliberately.

After the Chinese Civil War, when the defeated Nationalists retreated to Taiwan, the U.S. continued to recognize the now Taipei-based Republic of China. This continued until the late 1970s, when, after years of rapprochement, Washington established diplomatic ties with Beijing and cut them with Taipei.

U.S. lawmakers later passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which commits the U.S. to supporting Taiwan’s “sufficient self-defence capability” and classifies any effort to determine the island’s future by force a “threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific” and a “grave concern to the United States.”

Whether that extends to intervening militarily, however, has never been clearly defined – a position known as “strategic ambiguity.” The fear in the past was that committing to defending Taiwan could encourage the island to declare formal independence from China, which might prompt Beijing to invade.

Mr. Biden himself voted on the legislation as a senator and once criticized president George W. Bush for appearing to suggest that the U.S. would fight on Taiwan’s behalf. But in recent years, Mr. Biden has been less than ambiguous in his own statements on the matter.

In August last year, he conflated U.S. commitments to Taiwan with Washington’s responsibilities to defend other members of NATO. These comments were walked back by the White House, only for the President to essentially repeat them during a televised town hall two months later.

Mr. Biden’s apparent willingness to commit to defending Taiwan is in keeping with shifting views in Japan, where the war in Ukraine has supercharged growing concerns about China.

Last year, Japan included Taiwan in its annual defence review for the first time, and Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi said “the peace and stability of Taiwan are directly connected to Japan.”

A Chinese invasion of Taiwan could involve strikes against U.S. bases in Japan, as well as severe disruption to shipping and the economy in general across East Asia, hurting Japan even if it attempted to stay out of the conflict.

Writing last month, former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe urged Washington to abandon “strategic ambiguity.”

“The policy of ambiguity worked extremely well as long as the U.S. was strong enough to maintain it, and as long as China was far inferior to the U.S. in military power. But those days are over,” Mr. Abe said.

“The U.S. policy of ambiguity toward Taiwan is now fostering instability in the Indo-Pacific region, by encouraging China to underestimate U.S. resolve, while making the government in Taipei unnecessarily anxious.”

Mr. Biden would appear to agree – even if the White House insists he does not.

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