US President Joe Biden has again said the US would defend Taiwan in the event of an attack by China.
Asked in a CBS interview if US troops would defend the island, Mr Biden said: “Yes, if in fact, there was an unprecedented attack.”
The remarks prompted the White House to clarify that US policy had not changed.
Washington has long maintained a stance of “strategic ambiguity” – it does not commit to defending Taiwan, but also does not rule out the option.
Taiwan is a self-ruled island off the coast of eastern China that Beijing claims as part of its territory.
Washington has always walked a diplomatic tightrope over the issue.
On the one hand it adheres to the One China policy, a cornerstone of its relationship with Beijing. Under this policy, the US acknowledges that there is only one Chinese government, and has formal ties with Beijing rather than Taiwan.
But it also maintains close relations with Taiwan and sells arms to it under the Taiwan Relations Act, which states that the US must provide the island with the means to defend itself.
Taiwan responded to Mr Biden’s remarks on Monday by welcoming the “US government’s rock-solid security commitment to Taiwan”. Taipei said it would continue to deepen its “close security partnership” with Washington.
Only earlier this this month, the US agreed to sell $1.1bn (£955m) in weaponry and missile defence to Taiwan, provoking anger from China.
Beijing is yet to respond to Mr Biden’s latest remarks, broadcast in a CBS 60 Minutes interview on Sunday. But China has previously condemned such comments from Mr Biden pledging US military action.
“Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory… The Taiwan question is purely China’s internal affair that brooks no foreign interference,” a foreign ministry spokesman had said in May.
That was in response to Mr Biden’s comments in Tokyo in May when he said “Yes” when asked if the US would defend Taiwan. The White House had quickly issued a follow up saying there was no departure from US’ long-standing policy.
This time too the White House issued a statement, downplaying the president’s comments: “The President has said this before, including in Tokyo earlier this year. He also made clear then that our Taiwan policy hasn’t changed. That remains true.”
It’s the third time since October last year that President Biden has gone further than the official stance.
But in the interview on Sunday, Mr Biden reiterated that the US was not encouraging Taiwan independence.
“There’s a One China policy and Taiwan makes their own judgements on their independence. We are not moving, not encouraging their being independent – that’s their decision,” he said.
Tensions between US and China have ramped up after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a controversial visit to the island in August – a trip Mr Biden had said was “not a good idea”.
Beijing responded with a five-day military blockade around Taiwan. The US claims China shot missiles over the island, but Beijing did not confirm this. Taiwan said the missiles China fired flew high into the atmosphere and posed no threat.