The response from U.S. President Joe Biden came firm and clear. Would the United States get involved militarily to defend Taiwan, a move it has avoided so carefully in Ukraine?
"Yes," Biden said bluntly in Tokyo on Monday. The reporter who asked the question, not quite believing her ears, says "You are?"
"That's the commitment we made. That's the commitment we made," he repeated.
With that statement, Biden ensured that today's unveiling of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, his signature commercial pact in Asia, would be overshadowed by defense. A country accused of presenting "all guns and no butter" delivered a large shipment of both.
It's the second time recently that Biden has spoken off the cuff about a U.S. military response to an invasion of Taiwan and replied in much the same way. During a town hall event last October, he was asked if the United States would come to Taiwan's defense if it was attacked by China. "Yes," Biden replied. "We have a commitment to that."
It is a change in tack. U.S. presidents always dodge the question of whether the U.S. military would defend Taiwan. They hide behind "strategic ambiguity," fudging that they uphold the "One China policy," which is deliberately vague.
China insists on the "One China principle," one key word of difference, stating that the Beijing government is the only legitimate government in China, which includes Taiwan. On the U.S. side, the "One China policy" recognizes the Beijing government as the legal government of China, but only "acknowledges" China's position that China also includes Taiwan, without agreeing that it's true.
Confused? You should be. It allows the United States to keep Beijing sweet while maintaining unofficial relations with Taiwan. The U.S. stance was first stipulated in 1972, when then-president Richard Nixon used the "One China policy" as a way to say "You sort this one out" to the Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait while doing business with both.
But Biden was very clear. The United States military would defend Taiwan if China invades it. Or in diplomat-speak, "any unilateral effort to change the status quo using force."
It has become a more pressing issue after Russia invaded Ukraine, which Russian President Vladimir Putin says should be part of Russian soil. White House officials scurried today just as they did back in October to walk back Biden's comments on Taiwan, asserting that there's no change in U.S. policy. But you could say that under Biden, it is becoming more clear. A Chinese military invasion would be met with a U.S. military response.
Not surprisingly, Beijing was furious in its response to Biden's statement. "The Taiwan question is purely China's affair," a foreign affairs spokesman said. "There is no room for compromise or concession."
China urges the United States to stand by the "One China principle," using that word of difference again, and to "refrain from sending wrong signals to Taiwan separatist forces to avoid causing grave damage to bilateral relations."
Biden first hinted at this change last August, when the United States withdrew from Afghanistan. He promised "we would respond" to an attack against a fellow member of NATO, adding "same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with Taiwan." Taiwan had never before been presented with the same kind of promise of defense as those other allies.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, speaking alongside Biden today, was also asked how his country would respond if China invades Taiwan. He beat around the bush, like leaders always do. Japan is equally ambiguous on the status of Taiwan.
"We asserted the importance of peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait, and the peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue," Kishida said, adding that there is no change in the "fundamental position" of the United States and Japan.
"In Asia, we are against any unilateral effort to change the status quo using force," Kishida added. "In Asia, peace and stability must be upheld and defended."
That last word, "defended," may also represent a very subtle shift by Japan, since we are parsing sentences today. Japan is increasing its "self-defense" forces, having agreed to a pacifist constitution after World War II that forbids it fighting a war. But it has 105 U.S. fighter jets on order, the F-35 Lightning, and in March launched the first of 22 new Mogami class stealth frigate ships as it beefs up its capability to respond to threats overseas.
Kishida told Biden that Tokyo is ready to take a more robust defensive stance, including the ability to retaliate. That will include a "considerable increase" in the Japanese defense budget, Kishida said.
As for the Framework...
Today was supposed to be the big unveiling of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity. It's a kind of Trans-Pacific Partnership-lite, after the U.S. withdrawal from the TPP trade deal in 2017.
The exact roster of the 13 participating nations was a secret until today. They are the United States and Japan, together with Australia, Brunei, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam.
The IPEF is so far light on trade, and light on detail. The framework looks to build on four pillars: the Connected Economy, concentrating on digitization, including cross-border standards for data flows; the Resilient Economy, improving supply chains; the Clean Economy focusing on clean energy and decarbonization; and the Fair Economy, to enact and enforce standards on taxation and transparency and against money laundering and bribery.
We will see where it heads. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan says not having trade in the agreement at all "is a feature of IPEF, not a bug." It's a deal intended to reflect a services-dominant, data-driven world.
While the United States says the IPEF is an open framework that other nations can join, it is presented as an alternative to Chinese interests in the region. It's also an attempt at economic reintegration with Asia after a period of withdrawal.
"Especially as businesses are beginning to increasingly look for alternatives to China, the countries in the Indo-Pacific Framework will be more reliable partners for U.S. businesses," U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo said in outlining the deal. She calls it a "turning point in restoring U.S. economic leadership in the region, and presenting Indo-Pacific countries an alternative to China's approach to these critical issues."
For now, though, negotiations are only just launching for the IPEF. There are no firm commitments or agreements, with today only the "starting gate," in the words of Raimondo.
Taiwan, pointedly, is not part of IPEF. The United States says it will deepen bilateral trade ties with the island instead.
Next up: The Quad Squad
There will also be a meeting on Tuesday in Tokyo of the leaders of the Quad, the "Asia Pacific democracies" partnership consisting of the United States, Japan, India and Australia. Biden will also meet one-on-one with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the new Aussie leader.
New Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, from the center-left Labor Party, has been swiftly sworn in so that he can fly to Japan to take part. It looks likely that Albanese will gain the 76 parliamentary seats necessary - the party is ahead in 78 races - for him to govern without forming a coalition. If not, he must make a deal with climate-minded independents and/or members of the Green Party for support.
Outgoing Liberal leader Scott Morrison had accused Albanese of being weak on China. Albanese will be accompanied in Tokyo by new Australian foreign minister Penny Wong, who is Malaysian Chinese by background. All eyes will be on how Albanese handles Australia's current antagonistic relationship with China and what he has called a Chinese Communist Party that is more "forward-leaning" and "aggressive."
"Butter and guns" were also both on display in Biden's two-day trip to South Korea, where he visited both a Samsung Electronics factory and the Osan Air Base. It was at Osan, now a U.S. Air Force base, where U.S. troops were first deployed in the Korean War, with "Task Force Smith" fighting the Battle of Osan in 1950 as their first engagement with North Korean troops.
New South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has agreed with Biden to explore ways to expand joint military exercises that always infuriate North Korea. The two presidents appear to be taking a tougher stance on North Korea, with Biden saying at the air base that they pledged "our readiness to take on all threats together."
Would Biden meet with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un? "That would depend on whether he is sincere, and whether he is serious," Biden said. We'll have to take the U.S. president at his word.