Taiwan says U.S. commitment is 'rock solid' after Biden remark on China's Xi

Flags of Taiwan and U.S. are placed for a meeting in Taipei, Taiwan March 27, 2018. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu/File Photo

WASHINGTON/TAIPEI, Oct 6 (Reuters) - Taiwan's Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday Washington had reassured them that its approach to the island had not changed, a day after President Joe Biden said that he and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to abide by the "Taiwan agreement."

The Foreign Ministry said it had sought clarification from the United States about Biden's comments and were reassured the commitment to Taiwan was "rock solid" and that Washington will continue to help Taiwan maintain its defenses.

"Facing the Chinese government's military, diplomatic and economic threats, Taiwan and the United States have always maintained close and smooth communication channels," it said.

In his comments on Tuesday evening, Biden appeared to refer to a 90-minute call he held with Xi on Sept. 9 and the long-standing policy under which Washington officially recognizes Beijing rather than Taipei, as well as Taiwan Relations Act.

"I've spoken with Xi about Taiwan. We agree ... we'll abide by the Taiwan agreement," Biden told reporters. "We made it clear that I don't think he should be doing anything other than abiding by the agreement."

The comments sent Taiwanese officials in search of explanations for what signal Biden was sending at a time of high tensions between Taipei and Beijing. One Taiwanese official messaged a Reuters reporter to ask what Biden meant.

Taiwan's defense minister, Chiu Kuo-cheng, was asked by reporters in parliament if he had any further information about the Biden remark and he said he "didn't know" about it.

In Paris, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated on Wednesday that the U.S. commitment to Taiwan is rock solid and they are concerned about what they described as China's provocative military activity in the region.

China claims Taiwan as its own territory, which should be taken by force if necessary. Taiwan says it is an independent country and will defend its freedoms and democracy.

Beijing has dramatically ramped up military flights into Taiwan's air defense identification zone over the past year.

Taiwan has reported 148 Chinese air force planes in the southern and southwestern part of its air defense zone over a four-day period beginning on Friday, the same day China marked a key patriotic holiday, National Day.

The Taiwan Relations Act makes clear that the U.S. decision to switch official diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taiwan in 1979 rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means.

While the act binds the United States to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself, Washington acknowledges China's stance that the island belongs to it and that there is "one China," and takes no position on Taiwan's sovereignty.

Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, and China's top diplomat Yang Jiechi began talks in Switzerland on Wednesday, in a bid to improve communication despite a deepening strategic rivalry and tensions over hotspots including Taiwan.

Biden's September call with Xi marked their first talks in seven months.

China has become increasingly nationalistic and assertive under Xi, who is poised to break with precedent and secure a third five-year term next year and is widely seen to be the country's most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.

Beijing has also made territorial claims in the South China Sea and is engaged in a rapid modernization of its military. Its crackdown on Hong Kong, once considered a possible model for a "one country, two systems" arrangement under which Taiwan would peacefully join with China, has made a military resolution appear more likely if Beijing were ever to act on its commitment to reunite Taiwan with the mainland.

Bonnie Glaser, a Taiwan expert at the German Marshall Fund, said the spike in military activity is "destabilizing, but not alarming" and "undoubtedly intended to intimidate Taiwan."

U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price on Sunday urged China to stop its military activities near Taiwan.

"The United States is very concerned by the People's Republic of China's provocative military activity near Taiwan, which is destabilizing, risks miscalculations, and undermines regional peace and stability," Price said in a statement.

Reporting by Ben Blanchard in Taipei and Jeff Mason in Washington; Writing by Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall

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