Quad leaders meet in Tokyo

By Jessie Yeung and Steve George, CNN

Updated 1013 GMT (1813 HKT) May 24, 2022
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2:04 a.m. ET, May 24, 2022

Analysis: Were Biden's comments on defending Taiwan a hidden message for allies in Asia?

Analysis from CNN's Senior Global Military Affairs Writer Brad Lendon

US President Joe Biden speaks during a joint news conference with Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at Akasaka Palace in Tokyo on May 23.
US President Joe Biden speaks during a joint news conference with Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at Akasaka Palace in Tokyo on May 23. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

US President Joe Biden's comment in Tokyo on Monday that Washington would intervene militarily if China attacks Taiwan sent shockwaves through the region.

That's because it appeared to be a marked change from a decades-old policy of "strategic ambiguity," under which the US has remained deliberately vague about whether it would come to the democratically ruled island's defense in the case of an attack by China.

The White House swiftly walked back the comments, saying they did not in fact reflect a change in policy — a move that suggested either Biden had misspoken or that his comments were misconstrued.

But at least one analyst who spoke to CNN wonders if the apparently mixed messages are part of a deliberate plan by the White House to communicate its support to allies in the region while avoid crossing China's red lines.

Corey Wallace, assistant professor at Kanagawa University in Japan, pointed out that this was the third time in recent months that Biden had said the US would protect Taiwan from a Chinese attack — and the third time his comments had been hastily reeled in.

“While each time White House officials appear to walk back the statements, after a while you wonder if that is the plan,” Wallace said.

The fact that Biden continues to make such statements may indicate a pattern — and be a way of communicating different messages to different audiences, he added.

“It is also plausible that there is some messaging there for allies in Asia, even as they preserve plausible deniability with (China),” he said.

The US' policy of "strategic ambiguity" is designed to avoid antagonizing China, which is adamant the democratically self-ruled island of Taiwan is part of its territory, despite never having ruled it.

Beijing has pointedly not ruled out taking the island by military force, so it's not surprising that Biden's comments were celebrated in Taiwan.

Given the comments seemed to raise the possibility of a military clash between the US and China, it's also not surprising that China responded angrily — warning Washington that "those who play with fire will certainly burn themselves".

Asked on Monday at a news conference in Japan if Washington would come to Taipei’s aid in the event of a Chinese military move on the island, Biden had said, “That’s the commitment we made.”

He also compared a potential invasion of Taiwan by China to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, warning, “It will dislocate the entire region.”

Wallace, like other analysts, felt the reference to Ukraine was particularly provocative to China.

"[The] United States has not recognized Taiwan’s status as a sovereign country, and considers Taiwan’s status as ‘unsettled’ — quite different from how it views Ukraine,” Wallace said.

But again, while this appears to undermine the policy of "strategic ambiguity," there also appears to be a get-out clause.

“Biden could probably spin this as meaning an invasion of Taiwan would be like Ukraine in terms of unsettling the security environment,” Wallace said. 

Watch Biden's comments on Taiwan:

12:44 a.m. ET, May 24, 2022

The war in Ukraine has turned a spotlight on Taiwan, with tensions looming over the Quad summit

From CNN's Maegan Vazquez, Kevin Liptak and Brad Lendon

A Taiwan Navy Tuo Chiang-class corvette shoots decoy flares during a military exercise off the shore in Keelung, Taiwan, on Jan. 7.
A Taiwan Navy Tuo Chiang-class corvette shoots decoy flares during a military exercise off the shore in Keelung, Taiwan, on Jan. 7. (I-Hwa Cheng/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Tensions in the Taiwan Strait loom over the Quad summit in Tokyo today.

Relations between Beijing and Taipei are at the lowest point in decades, with the Chinese military in recent months sending record numbers of warplanes near the self-governing democratic island.

And US President Joe Biden's comments on Monday — suggesting the United States would be willing to defend Taiwan militarily if China attacks — quickly caught Beijing's attention.

"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."

Ukraine comparisons: Some experts have drawn parallels between China-Taiwan tensions and the ongoing war in Ukraine following Russia's Feb. 24 invasion.

In March, Taipei's foreign minister warned that Beijing was closely watching Ukraine to evaluate its own strategy toward Taiwan.

"When we watch the events in Ukraine evolving ... we are also watching very carefully what China may do to Taiwan," Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said.

Beijing claims Taiwan as its own, despite the island never having been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party — and has not ruled out taking it by force.

"The danger will be that the Chinese leaders think that the Western reaction to the Russian aggression is weak and not coherent, and not having any impact. The Chinese might take that as a positive lesson," Wu said.

China-Russia ties: China has repeatedly refused to condemn Russian actions in Ukraine or impose sanctions on Moscow. Earlier this month, China's Foreign Ministry criticized the UN for adopting a resolution on Russian abuses in Ukraine, accusing the body of "double standards" and of tolerating aggression by some nations while condemning others.

12:42 a.m. ET, May 24, 2022

Human Rights Watch: The Quad has its hands full with crises in Asia

Police use water cannon to disperse student protestors in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on May 19.
Police use water cannon to disperse student protestors in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on May 19. (M.A.Pushpa Kumara/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

In a statement last week, Human Rights Watch urged the Quad leaders to “address human rights crises and democratic backsliding in Asia.”

“The Quad needs to place Asia’s massive human rights and humanitarian crises at the heart of its discussions and decisions,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at HRW. “Genuine security in the region depends on people in Asia being able to fully exercise their fundamental human rights and democratic freedoms.”

The statement highlighted several pressing issues in the region:

  • Myanmar: HRW urged Quad leaders and other partners in Southeast Asia to “pressure the junta to end its abuses” and impose sanctions on oil and gas revenues. The Myanmar military took power in a coup last February that led to months of protests and a brutal crackdown — upending a decade of tentative democratic and economic reforms.
  • Afghanistan: HRW also urged the Quad to press the Taliban, which seized control of Afghanistan last August. Despite pledging to protect the rights of girls and women, the Taliban has since stripped away many of their freedoms, banning girls from attending school, ordering women to cover their faces in public, and prohibiting all dramas, soap operas and entertainment shows featuring women.
  • North Korea: The Quad should integrate any human rights issues into their future negotiations with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and discuss providing support to the country amid its ongoing Covid-19 outbreak, the statement said.
  • Sri Lanka: HRW urged the Quad to support economic programs in the crisis-hit nation, which has been battling an economic downspin for months. Protests have been continuing since March, with people calling for the president’s resignation as they face shortages of food, fuel and other basic supplies.
  • The Quad: The group is not exempt from criticism, with “many deficiencies in their own records,” said HRW, which urged the four countries to address their “serious human rights issues.”
12:33 a.m. ET, May 24, 2022

All four Quad countries have had recent disputes with China

A Chinese air strip is visible beside structures and buildings on Mischief Reef in the Spratly group of islands in the South China Sea, March 20, 2022.
A Chinese air strip is visible beside structures and buildings on Mischief Reef in the Spratly group of islands in the South China Sea, March 20, 2022. (Aaron Favila/AP)

The Quad has increasingly been seen as a counterweight to China's growing reach in the region, with all four nations experiencing turbulent relations with Beijing over the past few years.

  • India and China have had frosty relations since May 2020, when soldiers from both sides were involved in a bloody clash along their disputed Himalayan border that left at least 20 Indian and four Chinese troops dead.
  • Australia and China have been involved in a series of trade spats since Canberra called for an independent investigation into the origins of Covid-19. Military tensions also spiked last November when Australia said it was entering a pact with the US and the UK to acquire nuclear-powered submarines. Most recently, China struck a security pact with the Solomon Islands, a tiny nation in the Pacific — raising alarm in Australia, which potentially faces the prospect of Chinese ships docking in an area Canberra regards as its backyard.
  • Japan and China remain at odds over disputed islands in the East China Sea. Although the territorial dispute stretches back more than a century, China has increased its presence around the islands, especially in recent decades. Japan has also previously expressed concern over tensions in the Taiwan Strait, emphasizing the importance of peace in the region in a joint statement with the US this week.
  • The US and China have also experienced a steadily deteriorating relationship, exacerbated by a trade war, pandemic finger-pointing, military saber-rattling over Taiwan and diplomatic spats. These tensions have only been heightened after US President Joe Biden said Monday that the US would defend Taiwan militarily if China attacked — which the White House walked back afterward.

China's response: The strategic location of each of the Quad nations — at different corners of the Indo-Pacific and with China in between them — has rattled Beijing, which fears the potential for military encirclement. It has condemned the bloc as an anti-China "clique" that is emblematic of a "poisonous" Cold War mentality.

Heightening these tensions, China has reiterated its territorial claims and taken a harder line in response to perceived challenges. In recent years, China has built up its military positions in the South China Sea, despite a UN tribunal dismissing its territorial claims in the waterway. It has also ramped up threats against Taiwan — a self-governing island the Chinese Communist Party sees as part of its territory despite never having ruled it — and has sent fighter jets into its air defense zone.

12:22 a.m. ET, May 24, 2022

"Pawns of US hegemony:" Beijing lashes out at the Quad before key summit

From CNN's China Reporter Nectar Gan

Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi attends a news conference in Beijing on March 7. 
Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi attends a news conference in Beijing on March 7.  (Li Xin/Xinhua/Getty Images)

Alarmed by the growing ties between the Quad countries, Beijing will be closely watching the summit in Tokyo today.

In the lead-up to the meeting, China's Foreign Ministry lashed out at the group for "destabilizing" the region, while putting the blame squarely on Washington.

"The Indo-Pacific strategy cooked up by the United States, in the name of 'freedom and openness,' is actually keen on forming cliques," Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Sunday as US President Joe Biden wrapped up his trip to Seoul and headed to Tokyo.
"It claims that it intends to 'change China's surrounding environment,' but its purpose is to contain China and make Asia-Pacific countries serve as 'pawns' of US hegemony."

On Monday, Biden suggested the US would be willing to defend Taiwan militarily if China attacks.

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. The US provides Taiwan defensive weapons but has remained intentionally ambiguous on whether it would intervene militarily in the event of a Chinese attack.

Wang called US moves on Taiwan and the South China Sea — where Beijing's territorial claims have brushed up against Washington's insistence on free and open waters —  "particularly dangerous," claiming they are aimed at destabilizing the region.

"Facts will prove that the so-called 'Indo-Pacific strategy' is, in essence, a strategy to create division, provoke conflict and harm peace. No matter how it is packaged or named, it is doomed to fail," he said.

Economic plan: Wang also commented on the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) — Biden's economic plan for countering China in Asia — saying while Beijing is happy to see proposals conducive to regional cooperation, it is opposed to attempts to create division.

"The gigantic market of 1.4 billion people in China will continue to be fully open to other countries in the region, and this mutually beneficial and win-win path will become even broader," he said.
"Anyone attempting to isolate China with some framework will only isolate themselves. Rules made up to exclude China are bound to be abandoned by developments of our time."
12:07 a.m. ET, May 24, 2022

Biden says "strategic ambiguity" toward Taiwan hasn't changed

The four leaders' announcement of the Quad Fellowship, a new scholarship program offered to students of the member nations, was waylaid somewhat when reporters in the room posed a different question: What did Biden mean about Taiwan?

US President Joe Biden sent shockwaves through the region yesterday, when he said the United States would intervene militarily if China attacked the self-governing democratic island —  appearing to shift from the deliberate ambiguity traditionally held by Washington.

The White House later walked back his comments, and said the US' official position remained unchanged.

After Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida finished speaking about the Quad Fellowship, there was a stretch of quiet as the four leaders posed for photos — before CNN's Jeremy Diamond asked, "Mr. President, is the policy of strategic ambiguity towards Taiwan dead?"
After a beat, Biden responded: "No."
"Could you explain?" Diamond prodded.
"No," Biden repeated.

Another reporter asked if Biden would send troops to Taiwan in the event of an attack — to which the President responded, "The policy has not changed at all and I stated that when I made my statement."

Diamond can be heard pushing Biden to explain what he meant by intervening militarily —  but an event moderator then declared the event over, with the four leaders leaving shortly after.

12:05 a.m. ET, May 24, 2022

Leaders announce new Quad Fellowship for 100 students from four member nations

US President Joe Biden, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese listen to Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announce the Quad Fellowship, during the Quad Leaders Summit in Tokyo, on Tuesday.
US President Joe Biden, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese listen to Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announce the Quad Fellowship, during the Quad Leaders Summit in Tokyo, on Tuesday. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

The four leaders have emerged from their closed-door meeting, and just announced a new initiative to reporters: The Quad Fellowship.

The fellowship will sponsor 100 American, Japanese, Indian and Australian students to study a graduate degree in STEM fields in the US, with applications now open until June 30 this year.

"(I wish) this fellowship will become a bridge that connects our four nations, and that empowers us to lead and to grow so that we can resolve any challenges in the Indo-Pacific and around the world," said Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

The four leaders posed for photos and shook hands before leaving the media area.

11:42 p.m. ET, May 23, 2022

Quad to unveil new initiatives include scholarships and sharing of space data

The Quad is unveiling a number of new initiatives at today's summit in Tokyo, including an educational program and cooperation in outer space. Here are the main announcements to note:

  • The Quad Fellowship: This new program will sponsor 100 students from the four countries to study graduate STEM degrees in the United States. Applications for the fellowship and its scholarships are now open, and will close on June 30 this year. The first class of fellows will begin their studies in autumn 2023.
  • The Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA): This major maritime initiative focuses on providing the four countries — and their regional partners — with a faster and clearer picture of what's happening in their waters.
  • The vaccine partnership: The Quad has collectively provided 257 million Covid-19 vaccine doses to the Indo-Pacific, according to a White House statement. The bloc will continue to provide doses to the region, and support a $100 million facility to boost the Indian health care sector.
  • Space cooperation: The four nations are also committing to sharing space-based Earth observation data, which include US programs on oceanic and atmospheric monitoring, flood mapping, and land imaging.

Other announcements include stronger efforts to address climate change and critical emerging technologies, strengthen regional supply chains, build the four nations' cybersecurity capabilities, and launch an infrastructure coordination group.

12:00 a.m. ET, May 24, 2022

The Quad leaders are now meeting behind closed doors

From CNN's Kevin Liptak

U.S. President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese attend the Qua summit in Tokyo on May 24.
U.S. President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese attend the Qua summit in Tokyo on May 24. (Kyodo/AP)

After concluding this morning's opening remarks, the four Quad leaders are now holding a closed-door meeting at Kantei Palace, the summit venue in Tokyo.

A senior US official said the collective will announce new initiatives as part of their meeting, including on maritime awareness and Covid-19 vaccines.

And US President Joe Biden will likely speak to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi about how to strengthen bilateral ties — perhaps hoping to wean New Delhi off its reliance on Russian arms. India is the only Quad nation that has not condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

If today's summit is like past meetings, the leaders will have "very direct very candid conversations," the official. "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."