President Joe Biden said the US would defend Taiwan if China attacked, in an apparent departure from a long-held position.
“Yes, we have a commitment to do that,” he said when asked during a townhall if the US would defend Taiwan.
But a White House spokesman later told some US media outlets that his remarks did not signify a change in policy.
Taiwan reacted by saying Mr Biden’s statement would not change its own position with regards to China.
The US has a law which requires it to help Taiwan defend itself, but it has long been deliberately vague about what it would actually do if China were to attack Taiwan. This is known as its position of “strategic ambiguity”.
What did Biden and the White House say?
At a CNN town hall event, a participant referred to recent reports that China had tested a hypersonic missile. He asked Mr Biden if he could “vow to protect Taiwan”, and what he would do to keep up with China’s military development.
Mr Biden responded: “Yes and yes.” He added there was no need to “worry about whether they’re going to be more powerful”, because “China, Russia and the rest of the world knows we’re the most powerful military in the history of the world”.
He was then queried a second time by CNN anchor Anderson Cooper if the US would come to Taiwan’s defence in the event of an attack by China. Mr Biden replied: “Yes, we have a commitment to do that.”
A White House spokesperson later appeared to walk back Mr Biden’s comments, telling US media outlets that the US was “not announcing any change in our policy and there is no change in our policy”.
This is not the first time this has happened. In August, Mr Biden appeared to suggest the same stance on Taiwan in an interview with ABC News. The White House had also said then that US policy on Taiwan had not changed.
How have Taiwan and China responded?
Taiwan’s presidential office has said it would neither give in to pressure nor “rashly advance” when it gets support.
“Taiwan will show a firm determination to defend itself,” said presidential spokesperson Xavier Cheng, who also went on to acknowledge the Biden administration’s continued show of “rock-solid” support for Taiwan.
China has yet to respond to Mr Biden’s comments.
But earlier on Thursday, before Mr Biden’s town hall, China’s UN ambassador Zhang Jun accused the US of “taking dangerous actions, leading the situation in the Taiwan Strait into a dangerous direction”.
Tensions have been rising between Taiwan and China in recent weeks after Beijing flew dozens of warplanes into Taiwan’s air defence zone.
China and Taiwan: The basics
Why do China and Taiwan have poor relations? China and Taiwan were divided during a civil war in the 1940s. Since then Taiwan claims it is an independent country, but China sees it as a breakaway province that will be reclaimed at some point, by force if necessary
How is Taiwan governed? The island has its own constitution, democratically elected leaders, and about 300,000 active troops in its armed forces
Who recognises Taiwan? Only a few countries recognise Taiwan. Most recognise the Chinese government in Beijing instead. The US has no official diplomatic ties with Taiwan, but sells arms to it as part of its Taiwan Relations Act, which states that the US must provide the island with the means to defend itself