President Joe Biden attends a joint press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, not pictured, following their bilateral summit at the Akasaka State Guest House in Tokyo on May 23, 2022.
Nicolas Datiche—Pool/Getty Images
May 23, 2022 1:06 PM EDT

If you want to know when a President goes off-message, look at his aides. And Joe Biden’s national security advisers were all fidgets and carpet-stares when their boss stated Monday that his government would defend Taiwan in the event of aggression from Beijing, which considers the self-ruling island its sovereign territory. Since 1979, the cornerstone of U.S.-China relations has been the One China policy—under which Washington acknowledges Beijing’s claim over Taiwan while not endorsing it.

The U.S. President was in Tokyo alongside Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida ahead of a meeting of the Quad security pact, a strategic dialogue between leading Asia-Pacific democracies—the U.S., Australia, India and Japan. Biden was asked by a reporter whether he was willing to get militarily involved if China invaded Taiwan—and said yes.

“America is committed to a one-China policy but that does not mean China has the jurisdiction to use force to take Taiwan,” Biden said. He added that U.S. resolve to defend Taiwan was “even stronger” after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24.

Read More: The U.S. Risks Catastrophe If It Doesn’t Clarify Its Taiwan Strategy

Of course, it always seemed unsatisfactory that official U.S. policy toward one of Asia’s most combustible geopolitical hotspots was “strategic ambiguity.” The U.S. currently recognizes only one Chinese government and does not have formal diplomatic relations with Taipei. But the U.S. still maintains unofficial ties (including a de facto embassy), stations troops on the island and is obliged by an act of Congress to regularly provide Taiwan with weapons it needs for self-defense. Whether the U.S. would send troops to defend the island’s 23 million inhabitants in the event of conflict has never been confirmed.

Biden’s comments in Tokyo could appear to be a shift towards “strategic clarity,” though clarity doesn’t necessarily translate to security for Taiwan. In any case, Beijing is furious with Biden’s remarks. Foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said the Taiwan issue was “a purely internal affair” and “on issues touching on China’s core interests of sovereignty and territorial integrity, China has no room for compromise or concession.”

Taiwan split politically from the mainland in 1949 following the Chinese Civil War, when the routed Nationalists of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek fled to the island. But despite the absence of any formal peace accord, relations improved over the past three decades as business ties flourished.

Victor Gao, an international relations expert in Beijing and former translator to reformist mainland leader Deng Xiaoping, says that Biden’s words risk reigniting that frozen conflict.

“If the United States says it wants to defend Taiwan… then China will abrogate diplomatic relations with the U.S. to start with, and then China will engage in this unfinished Civil War,” Gao tells TIME. “And eventually, after the war is over, the United States will need to kneel down on the ground to beg for re-recognition by the People’s Republic [of China].”

The End of Strategic Ambiguity?

Histrionics aside, which side would prevail in a hot conflict is a matter of some contention, though Washington risks losing the moral high ground if Beijing can justifiably claim that the U.S. unilaterally altered the status quo, says Oriana Skylar Mastro, a fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and non-resident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “There’s a lot of countries in the region that would think that the United States unnecessarily provoked some sort of conflict,” she says.

White House officials have already begun walking back any inference that Biden’s remarks reflect a change in U.S. policy, just as they did when Biden made similar comments in August and October. National Security adviser Jake Sullivan has repeatedly said strategic ambiguity was the safest option. But the frequency of these supposed gaffes raises the prospect that they are a strategic gambit to boost deterrence messaging while avoiding any overt change in policy.

Wen-Ti Sung, a political scientist based in Taiwan for the Australian National University, says that Biden’s comments could be a smart ploy to reveal to other countries the shifting underlying sentiment and strategic calculus in the U.S. undergirding its Taiwan and China policies.

“It preserves plausible deniability while increasing deterrence,” he says. “As it signals a change in the likely U.S. substantive policy response in cross-Strait contingency without openly changing the U.S. declared policy of strategic ambiguity.”

Biden’s comments also provide a morale boost to Taiwan, where faith in the U.S. has been shaken by the president’s refusal to send troops to Ukraine. Recent polling reveals that half the islanders don’t believe the U.S. would come to their aid if China attacked. In addition, Sung says the island felt abandoned following reports that it was being left out of the initial phase of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, a new regional trade grouping proposed by the White House.

It’s not exactly unheard of for Biden to find himself in a verbal tangle at the podium. Still, the frequency of his statements in support of Taiwan—combined with the fact that in Japan he answered a direct question on defending the island with an unambiguous “yes”—doesn’t leave his personal feelings in much doubt, regardless of official U.S. policy.

Biden’s assertiveness on the matter also sets an uncompromising tone before the Quad summit with the leaders of India, Japan and Australia. Australia has just elected a new Labour government whose China policy is being developed. An increasingly self-confident Japan, meanwhile, which has sights set on playing a larger regional defense role, still needs careful coaxing to further engage in Indo-Pacific security.

“The bottom line is if Japan fights [alongside] the United States, we win every single time against China,” says Mastro. “That solves all our operational problems. [However,] Japan is never going to fight a high intensity conflict alongside the United States in defense of Taiwan.”

Of course, a fierce reaction from Beijing towards the Quad could prompt Japan’s defensive posture to change. But given the stakes of a hot war between the nuclear powers, it’s a conflict all sides will be desperate to avoid. Even a swift U.S. victory with minimal loss of life would be largely pyrrhic, given the decimation wrought to global supply chains, especially the semiconductors vital to countless industries whose production Taiwan dominates.

Even so, the rhetoric is already heating up. Some Chinese policymakers have started referring to the Quad as “Asian NATO.” Quoted by China’s state news wire Xinhua, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Tuesday’s Quad meeting was an attempt by Washington “to form small cliques in the name of freedom and openness” in order to “contain China.”

“The so-called Indo-Pacific Strategy is, in essence, a strategy of creating division, inciting confrontation and undermining peace,” he said. “No matter how it is packaged or disguised, it will inevitably fail in the end.”

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Write to Charlie Campbell at charlie.campbell@time.com.

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