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Biden says the U.S. would intervene to defend Taiwan if China staged an attack

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Biden has once again said that the U.S. military would be called on to defend Taiwan in the event of an attack from China. In an interview with CBS's "60 Minutes," Biden gave the firmest commitment yet when asked if U.S. forces would defend the island.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "60 MINUTES")

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Yes, if, in fact, there was an unprecedented attack.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

It's not the first time he's made a comment like this, but it takes on greater meaning as tensions between these two superpowers, China and the U.S., have heightened in recent months.

MARTIN: We've got NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez with us this morning.

Franco, what more did the president say to CBS?

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: You know, Rachel, it was part of a lengthy interview that he gave to "60 Minutes" while he was at the Detroit Auto Show last week. I was actually on the trip. You know, they spoke about a number of topics, including inflation and U.S. support for Ukraine. But Biden made it clear that he saw things differently in regard to U.S. support for Taiwan than he did support for Ukraine, where, as we know, he's said repeatedly that U.S. forces would not fight Russian troops on Ukraine's soil. You know, here's more of his discussion with "60 Minutes" host Scott Pelley.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "60 MINUTES")

SCOTT PELLEY: So unlike Ukraine, to be clear, sir, U.S. forces, U.S. men and women, would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion.

BIDEN: Yes.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, he was asked more than once about this, and he was pretty unequivocal.

MARTIN: But this has happened before, right? It's not the first time Biden said the U.S. military would come to Taiwan's defense. And then every time he does it, the White House responds quickly, saying that this is not a reflection of a new policy. How is - how are White House staffers, I guess, responding to the president's remarks?

ORDOÑEZ: Right. It has happened several times, and the White House told me the same last night - very quickly, I'll add - that policy toward Taiwan hasn't changed. Officially, U.S. policy maintains diplomatic relations with China rather than Taiwan, though there are, obviously, robust unofficial relations with Taiwan. You know, I will add that the Beijing government has responded. The Chinese foreign ministry said that China has lodged a formal complaint with the United States and also warned Washington against sending the wrong signals to what Beijing calls Taiwan independence separatists.

MARTIN: I mean, in a relationship like this, Franco, a geopolitical relationship, every word matters, every message. Anything could be misinterpreted. What do you think is especially significant about what he said?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, you know, for decades, the U.S. has officially maintained a, quote, "strategic ambiguity" policy toward Taiwan, keeping up friendly relations with the island without those formal diplomatic relations. But comments like Biden's send really confusing signals, and, as we know, it keeps happening, stoking a lot of controversy and sharp responses from Beijing. It's also about the timing. Tensions between the two nations are its highest in years. Beijing was angry and cut off some bilateral relations, including climate talks, after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's recent visit to the island. You know, it just is getting to a point where leaders have grown very worried about mistakes happening that could lead to things spiraling out of control.

MARTIN: NPR's Franco Ordoñez. Thank you so much, Franco. We appreciate it.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARY LATTIMORE'S "SOMETIMES HE'S IN MY DREAMS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.