By Michael Martina and David Brunnstrom
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden will send a delegation of former senior defense and security officials to Taiwan on Monday, a senior official of his administration said, a sign of support for the island claimed by China after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The visit, led by one-time chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen, comes at a time when Taiwan has stepped up its alert level, wary of China taking advantage of a distracted West to move against it.
Beijing claims the democratically governed island as its own and has vowed to bring it under Chinese control, by force if necessary.
Mullen, a retired Navy admiral who served as the top U.S. military officer under former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, will be accompanied by Meghan O’Sullivan, a former deputy national security advisor under Bush, and Michele Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense under Obama, according to the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Two former National Security Council senior directors for Asia, Mike Green and Evan Medeiros, will also make the trip, which is intended to “demonstrate our continued robust support for Taiwan,” the official told Reuters.
The delegation is expected to arrive in Taiwan on Tuesday afternoon and stay until Wednesday evening, during which time they plan to meet Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng and other senior officials.
Taiwan’s presidential office confirmed the visit and meeting with Tsai, saying that its timing during the Ukraine crisis showed Taiwan-U.S. ties were “rock solid”.
The U.S. official declined to say whether the timing of the visit was influenced by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Taiwan said last week that former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who served under former President Donald Trump, would visit from March 2-5 and meet Tsai.
The Biden administration has declined to comment on Pompeo’s visit, calling him a private citizen.
Referring to the delegation led by Mullen, the senior administration official said: “The selection of these five individuals sends an important signal about the bipartisan U.S. commitment to Taiwan and its democracy, and demonstrates that the Biden administration’s broader commitment to Taiwan remains rock solid.”
The official added that Washington would regard “any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific.”
“The United States will maintain the capacity to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security or the social or economic system of the people of Taiwan,” the official said.
Mullen’s delegation marks the first public visit of a group of former officials to Taiwan at Biden’s behest since April 2021, when former U.S. Senator Chris Dodd and former Deputy Secretaries of State Richard Armitage and James Steinberg traveled there and met with Tsai, who Beijing accuses of seeking independence.
The latest trip comes days after a U.S. warship sailed through the sensitive Taiwan Strait, the waterway between China and Taiwan. The U.S. military described its passage as routine but Beijing said it was “provocative.”
The White House on Sunday called on China to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
But Beijing has largely steered clear of criticizing Moscow after Russian President Vladimir Putin and China’s leader Xi Jinping announced an enhanced strategic partnership aimed at countering U.S. influence just weeks before the invasion.
Under long-standing U.S. policy, Washington has only unofficial relations with Taipei and recognizes Beijing diplomatically. However, U.S. law requires it to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself and the Biden administration has vowed to continue Trump’s and Pompeo’s policy of stepping up engagement with the island.
Russia’s attack on Ukraine has given added impetus to a growing debate about the longstanding and controversial U.S. policy of “strategic ambiguity,” under which Washington refuses to say explicitly whether it will defend Taiwan militarily in the event of Chinese attack.
Some U.S. lawmakers, including the Democratic chairman of the influential House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff, have urged greater clarity about the U.S. “obligation” to defend Taiwan amid stepped up Chinese military pressure, but proponents of existing policy say this could worsen the risk of conflict.
China’s ambassador to Washington said in January the two super powers could end up in a military conflict if Washington encourages Taiwan’s independence.
(Reporting by Michael Martina and David Brunnstrom; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Taipei; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Hugh Lawson)