A day later, Biden was expecting to hold “very direct, very candid” conversations with the leaders of the Quad, a collective that has drawn China’s ire as Biden’s attempt at building an “Asian NATO.” Ahead of the talks, a senior US administration official stressed the grouping is not a formal alliance 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 that are of interest to the region,” the official said, adding it was too soon to discuss expanding the grouping beyond the four current participants.
Still, Biden and the other leaders are expected to unveil new initiatives on maritime information sharing, Covid vaccines and climate as part of their meeting. And Biden’s aides view the Quad as a critical component to a foreign policy strategy that puts heavy emphasis on cultivating relationships in Asia.
“I think that we’ve all been impressed how comfortable the leaders are with each other and how comfortable they are having very, very serious conversations,” the official said.
Biden was also planning to meet individually with India and Australia’s Prime Ministers Tuesday before returning to Washington. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese became Australia’s leader only 2 days ago, and US officials have been cheered by his willingness to make his first order of business the Quad summit.
Talks with India’s Narendra Modi are likely to be more fraught as he resists US pressure to condemn Russia for its war in Ukraine. India relies of Moscow for the majority of its arms purchases, a historical partnership that it is reluctant to break.
“The President is very aware that countries have their own histories. They have their own interests, they have their own outlooks, and the idea is to build on the commonalities,” the senior official said.
While acknowledging the US still agrees with the “One China” policy, Biden said on Monday that the idea of Taiwan being taken by force “is (just not) appropriate.”
Several of Biden’s top administration officials were caught off-guard by the remarks, multiple aides told CNN, adding that they were not expecting Biden to be so unequivocal. The White House quickly downplayed Biden’s comments, saying they don’t reflect a change in US policy. It’s the third time in recent months — including during a CNN town hall in October — that Biden has said the US would protect Taiwan from a Chinese attack, only to have the White House walk back those remarks.
Under the “One China” policy, the US acknowledges China’s position that Taiwan is part of China but has never officially recognized Beijing’s claim to the self-governing island of 23 million. The US provides Taiwan defensive weapons but has remained intentionally ambiguous on whether it would intervene militarily in the event of a Chinese attack.
Tensions between Beijing and Taipei are at the highest they’ve been in recent decades, with the Chinese military sending record numbers of war planes near the island.
Biden’s comments quickly caught the Chinese government’s attention, with China expressing its “strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition” to Biden’s comments, saying it will not allow any external force to interfere in its “internal affairs.”
“On issues concerning China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and other core interests, there is no room for compromise,” said Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
“We urged the US side to earnestly follow the One China principle … be cautious in words and deeds on the Taiwan issue, and not send any wrong signal to pro-Taiwan independence and separatist forces — so it won’t cause serious damage to the situation across the Taiwan Strait and China-US relations.”
China’s Taiwan Affairs Office spokesperson Zhu Fenglian added, “We urge the US to stop saying or doing anything in violation of the one-China principle and the three China-US Joint Communiqués. … Those who play with fire will certainly burn themselves.”
The visit comes later in Biden’s presidency than he might have liked, according to officials, who say Covid restrictions and the pull of other crises made it difficult to schedule a trip. He is the third US president in a row to attempt a foreign policy refocus on Asia, though intervening events have often gotten in the way.
Yet there is not currently an Asian equivalent to NATO, which has provided critical structure to the Western response to Russia’s aggression. And China has been working hard over the past years to cultivate countries in the region as it flexes its regional power.
Biden has taken several steps to counter those moves — revitalizing the Quad; sharing, for the first time, sensitive US nuclear-armed submarine technology with Australia; and last week hosting a summit of Southeast Asian leaders at the White House to discuss trade and security.
Yet it’s far from clear those steps have done much to contain China’s ambitions. And some analysts have pointed to parallels between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and fears over the future of Taiwan.
CNN’s Kevin Liptak, Donald Judd and Nectar Gan contributed to this report.