Speaking to a high-profile summit here of Indo-Pacific leaders, Biden emphasized the dire consequences of a war still moving forward, despite the withering of sanctions from the often united West. The message, delivered in a region closely watched for signs of how the United States would respond to China’s aggression, was one of determination.
“We are going through a dark hour in our shared history,” Biden said, seated facing the leaders of India, Australia and Japan.
Biden warned that Russian President Vladimir Putin is “trying to stifle a culture,” noting Russia’s targeting of Ukrainian schools, churches and museums. He said the conflict has touched the whole world.
“This is more than just a European issue,” he said. “It is a global issue.”
The war in Ukraine served as a turbulent backdrop for Biden’s trip in Asia. The conflict exhausted his time and attention, even as he worked to reassert his goal of reorienting US foreign policy toward the Pacific.
Meanwhile, Biden is hoping for a US-led response to the war — which included partners like Japan and South Korea, which he visited this week — and will view Russia’s battlefield stumbles as a cautionary tale in Beijing. .
A day later, Biden told reporters that the US policy of “strategic ambiguity” had not changed. But he did not offer any conditions to his previous statement, saying that only the US position remained the same.
“The policy hasn’t changed at all, and I mentioned that when I made my statement,” Biden said at an event with Quartet leaders.
The comment, quickly retracted by the White House aide, sent a shock wave in both Washington and Beijing as Chinese government spokesmen issued sharp warnings about Biden’s speech, and the president’s top military officials had to spend much of Monday trying to explain. The president’s apparent disregard for US strategy toward Taiwan.
Beijing has also criticized the Quartet as the “Indo-Pacific NATO”, accusing it of “outstanding the Cold War mentality” and “stoking geopolitical rivalry”.
Ahead of Tuesday’s talks, a senior US administration official stressed that the assembly is not an official coalition bloc, without a central secretariat or headquarters.
“The goal here is not to create a lot of formal structures. The goal is to find ways to work together on issues of interest to the region,” the official said, adding that it was too early to discuss expanding the gathering beyond the current four participants.
However, Biden and other leaders are expected to unveil new initiatives on marine information sharing, Covid vaccines, and climate as part of their meeting. Biden aides view the Quartet as a critical component of a foreign policy strategy that places a heavy emphasis on developing relations in Asia.
“I think we were all impressed by how comfortable the leaders were with each other and how comfortable they were to have very serious talks,” the official said.
Biden was also planning a one-on-one meeting with the prime ministers of India and Australia on Tuesday before returning to Washington. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese became Australia’s leader just two days ago, and US officials have been pleased with his desire to make his first job order at the top of the quartet.
Talks with India’s Narendra Modi are likely to be more difficult as he resists US pressure to condemn Russia over its war in Ukraine. India relies on Moscow for the majority of its arms purchases, a historic partnership it does not wish to break.
“The president is well aware that countries have their own history. They have their own interests, they have their own views, and the idea is to build on commonalities,” the senior official said.
While Biden acknowledged that the United States still agreed with the “one China” policy, he said Monday that the idea of taking Taiwan by force “is not (only) appropriate.”
Several Biden aides told CNN that several top Biden administration officials were taken aback by the remarks, adding that they did not expect Biden to be so clear. The White House quickly downplayed Biden’s comments, saying they did not reflect a change in US policy. It’s the third time in recent months — including during CNN’s town hall in October — Biden said the United States would protect Taiwan from a Chinese attack, only for the White House to back off on those statements.
Under the “one China” policy, the United States recognizes China’s position that Taiwan is part of China but has never formally recognized Beijing’s claim to the self-governing island of 23 million people. The United States provides Taiwan with defensive weapons but has been intentionally ambiguous about whether it would intervene militarily in the event of a Chinese attack.
Tensions between Beijing and Taipei are at an all-time high in recent decades, as the Chinese military has sent record numbers of warplanes near the island.
Biden’s comments quickly caught the attention of the Chinese government, with China expressing “strong dissatisfaction and strong opposition” to Biden’s remarks, saying that it would not allow any outside power to interfere in its “internal affairs”.
“On issues concerning China’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and other core interests, there is no room for compromise,” said Wang Wenbin, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman.
“We have urged the US side to seriously abide by the one-China principle…be careful in words and deeds regarding the Taiwan issue, and not send any wrong signal to the pro-Taiwan separatist and independence forces – so it will not cause serious damage to the situation across the Taiwan Strait and Sino-US relations.” “.
Chinese Taiwan Affairs Office spokesman Zhou Fenglian added: “We urge the United States to stop saying or doing anything that violates the one-China principle and the three China-US joint communiques… Those who play with fire will surely set themselves on fire.”
The visit comes later in Biden’s presidency than he might like, according to officials, who say Covid restrictions and other crisis draw have made it difficult to schedule the trip. He is the third consecutive US president to attempt to refocus foreign policy on Asia, although overlapping events often get in the way.
However, there is currently no Asian counterpart to NATO, which provided a critical structure for the Western response to Russian aggression. China has been working hard over the past years to develop the countries of the region while displaying its regional strength.
Biden took several steps to counter those moves—revitalizing the Quartet; sharing sensitive technology for US nuclear-armed submarines with Australia for the first time; Last week, it hosted a summit of Southeast Asian leaders at the White House to discuss trade and security.
However, it is not clear that these steps have done much to contain China’s ambitions. Some analysts have pointed to similarities between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and concerns about Taiwan’s future.
CNN’s Kevin Liptak, Donald Judd and Nectar Gann contributed to this report.