Bali, Indonesia
CNN
 — 

When President Joe Biden first declared that the United States had an obligation to protect Taiwan should China move on it, his words were written off by some as a casual, if unfortunate, mischaracterization of American policy.

The fourth time Biden made the same statement, it was evident he wasn’t simply speaking out of hand.

Self-governing Taiwan has emerged as the sorest subject in an increasingly frosty relationship between Washington and Beijing. It is certain to be one of the more contentious points of discussion between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping when they meet here Monday for their first face-to-face encounter since Biden took office.

Senior US administration officials said Biden would be “honest” in voicing his views on Taiwan when he meets Xi, a signal the conversation would not gloss over the two men’s deep disagreements.

For his part, Xi is fond of using a specific metaphor to warn Biden against overstepping: “Those who play with fire will perish by it,” he told the US president over the telephone in July as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was preparing to visit Taiwan with a congressional delegation.

That trip, which the Biden administration quietly sought to dissuade Pelosi from taking, prompted a steep decline in relations between the US and China. In response, Beijing launched military drills around the island and shut off nearly all communication with US officials, including through military channels meant to prevent unintentional conflict.

Pelosi’s visit and the ensuing furor from China highlighted concerns within Biden’s administration over Beijing’s designs on Taiwan. Even before the speaker touched down in Taipei in August, Beijing had stepped up its rhetoric and aggressive actions toward the island, including sending warplanes into Taiwan’s self-declared air defense identification zone several times.

US officials have expressed concern that those moves could be precursors to even more aggressive steps by China in the coming months meant to assert its authority over the island. Under Biden, the US has sent defensive weapons to Taiwan it hopes will create a massive stockpile in the event China moves on the island.

Biden’s repeated statements on the American obligation to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion have done little to lower the temperature. The latest came during an interview on CBS’ “60 Minutes” in September.

Biden was asked whether “US forces, US men and women, would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion,” a prospect US officials privately fear is becoming more likely.

“Yes,” he responded.

Each time Biden vows direct US military involvement should China attempt to take Taiwan by force, the White House has quickly clarified that no US policy has changed. But it has also not denied that Biden’s remarks contain little of the ambiguity that has long been the guiding principle toward Taiwan.

Taiwan lies fewer than 110 miles (177 kilometers) off the coast of China. For more than 70 years, the two sides have been governed separately, but that hasn’t stopped China’s ruling Communist Party from claiming the island as its own – despite having never controlled it.

Xi has said that “reunification” between China and Taiwan is inevitable and has refused to rule out the use of force. Tensions between Beijing and Taipei are at the highest they’ve been in recent decades, with the Chinese military holding major military drills near the island.

Under the “One China” policy, the US acknowledges China’s position that Taiwan is part of China but has never officially recognized the Communist Party’s claim to the self-governing island of 23 million. The US provides Taiwan with defensive weapons but has remained intentionally ambiguous on whether it would intervene militarily in the event of a Chinese attack.

Biden repeated his commitment to those policies in the “60 Minutes” interview.

“We agree with what we signed on to a long time ago. And that there’s ‘one China’ policy, and Taiwan makes their own judgments about their independence. We are not moving – we’re not encouraging their being independent. … That’s their decision,” he said.

But asked if US forces would defend the island, he said they would: “Yes, if in fact there was an unprecedented attack.”

It was the fourth time he’d made such a remark since taking office. He said while visiting Tokyo earlier this year that the US would intervene militarily if China attempts to take Taiwan by force. And he told a CNN town hall in 2021 that the US would protect the island in the event of a Chinese attack.

“Yes, we have a commitment to do that,” he said.

Whether Biden makes a similar statement when he sits down with Xi on Monday remains to be seen. Asked during a news conference ahead of his trip whether he would reiterate his commitment to defend Taiwan militarily directly to his counterpart, Biden demurred.

“I’m going to have that conversation with him,” he said.

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