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US President Joe Biden has said his country would intervene militarily if China attempts to take Taiwan by force, a warning that appeared to deviate from the deliberate ambiguity traditionally held by Washington.

The White House quickly downplayed the comments, saying they don’t reflect a change in US policy.

It’s the third time in recent months that Biden has said the US would protect Taiwan from a Chinese attack, only to have the White House walk back those remarks.

US President Joe Biden, left, and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida shake hands during the Japan-US summit ahead of the Quad meeting in Tokyo. (Getty)

“You didn’t want to get involved in the Ukraine conflict militarily for obvious reasons. Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?” a reporter asked.

“That’s the commitment we made.”

“We agree with the One China policy. We signed on to it, and all the attendant agreements made from there, but the idea that it can be taken by force, just taken by force, is (just not) appropriate,” he said.

Under the “One China” policy, the US acknowledges China’s position that Taiwan is part of China, but has never officially recognised 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.

Biden’s strong warning was made right on China’s doorstep during his first trip to Asia as President.

The visit is aimed at uniting allies and partners to counter China’s rising influence.

Chinese naval forces have held military exercises in the Taiwan Straits. US President Joe Biden repeated his warning that the US would militarily intervene if China attacked Taiwan. (China Ministry of Defence)

It also came a day before Biden is scheduled to attend the second in-person summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) – an informal grouping between the US, Japan, Australia and India that has alarmed Beijing.

Several of Biden’s top administration officials were caught off-guard by the remarks, several aides told CNN, adding that they were not expecting Biden to be so unequivocal.

In a statement following Biden’s comments, a White House official said the US’ official position remained unchanged.

“As the President said, our policy has not changed. He reiterated our One China policy and our commitment to peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. He also reiterated our commitment under the Taiwan Relations Act to provide Taiwan with the military means to defend itself,” the official said.

Marles ducks question on Taiwan

Acting Prime Minister Richard Marles has ducked a question about a military intervention in Taiwan, following Biden’s comments.

Marles was non-committal when asked about it on Today.

“I think it’s important that when we are talking about those sort of questions we don’t walk down the paths of ifs,” Marles said.

“What matters is America has made a statement about its presence in the region.”

Marles did say that Biden’s statement was “important”.

“What it means in respect of removing strategic ambiguity is important,” he said.

“What I find encouraging about it is that it is a statement of American presence in the Pacific.”

Taiwan’s armed forces have been on high alert amid rising tensions with China. (AP)

China expresses ‘firm opposition’ to comments

Within hours, China had expressed 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,” Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said.

“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.”

The island territory of Taiwan has been claimed by China since 1949. (Nine)

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.”

Taiwan lies fewer than 177km off the coast of China.

For more than 70 years the two sides have been governed separately, but that hasn’t stopped China’s ruling Communist Party from claiming the island as its own – despite having never controlled it.

US sends destroyer into Chinese-claimed territory

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