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On May 23, 2022, during a press briefing between American president Joe Biden and Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo, a reporter asked Biden whether the United States (U.S.) will militarily intervene if China were to attack Taiwan. “Yes … That is a commitment we made,” the president answered.
Considering the U.S.’ traditionally ambiguous policy on Taiwan, Biden’s answer was very clear. Although the U.S. views Taiwan as part of China, it wants the two entities to remain separate from each other and opposes their reunification. The U.S. also holds unofficial relations with and sells arms to Taiwan to deter China from taking over the island. Yet, prior to Biden’s remark, the U.S. had not explicitly stated that it would come to Taiwan’s defence in case of a Chinese invasion.
While Biden took an important step to deviate from this ambiguity, the White House immediately retracted his statement and emphasized that America’s Taiwan policy remains the same. One day after, Biden himself stated, as if to correct the mistake, that the American position on Taiwan “has not changed at all.”
With the tension between China and Taiwan rising unchecked, a Chinese invasion of the island has become a distinct possibility. But the inconsistency in Biden’s and the State Department’s statements hints at the possibility that the U.S. does not have a clear stance on such an invasion. So is now the time for the U.S. to abandon ambiguity and put forward a clear plan of action towards Taiwan?
The Rising Tension between China and Taiwan
For Beijing, Taiwan is an inalienable part of China, and reunifying with it is “an unshakable commitment of the Communist Party of China,” stated President Xi Jinping. Nonetheless, Taiwan, which is currently recognized by the United Nations as only a territory and excluded from its agencies, rejects China’s claims of sovereignty. “We do not have a need to declare ourselves an independent state … We are an independent country already and we call ourselves the Republic of China (Taiwan),” said President Tsai Ing-wen.
China claims to be pursuing peaceful reunification and promising, as in Hong Kong, to grant Taiwan a degree of autonomy under a “one country, two systems” principle. But with China’s crackdown on Hong Kong’s freedoms and suppression of its democracy, Taiwan has taken this promise with a grain of salt. “The path that China has laid out offers neither a free and democratic way of life for Taiwan, nor sovereignty for our 23 million people,” stated Tsai.
In recent years, however, China has sought more aggressive measures to achieve reunification. Beijing has demanded some multinational companies, including hotel chains, airlines, and fashion brands to stop referring to Taiwan as a country, something with which the companies have complied.
But more coercive are the cyber attacks and military activities that China has been undertaking to compel Taiwan to accept reunification. In October 2021, China sent nearly 150 warplanes into Taiwan’s air defence zone in just four days, including 12 nuclear-capable bombers. These incursions have become a routine that China practices as a show of force, which Taiwan sometimes responds to by sending combat jets to warn away the Chinese aircraft.
Biden’s answer in Tokyo further fueled this tension. While welcomed by Taiwan, Biden’s statement was met with outrage in China. “We deplore and reject the US’ remarks … The Taiwan issue is purely China’s internal affair, which won’t stand for any foreign interference,” expressed Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin.
Although it was retracted, Biden’s declaration is worrying because it explicitly commits American forces to the defence of Taiwan, something that possibly can, if this tension continues to escalate, drag the country into a war with a major power like China. It is here, when war is on the table, where ambiguity proves to be useful.
The U.S.’ Strategic Ambiguity
In recent history, the U.S. has not supported Taiwan’s independence, instead acknowledging under the One-China Policy that “there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China” and that the People’s Republic of China is “the sole legal government of China.”
This policy is at odds, however, with the Taiwan Relations Act, through which the U.S. holds unofficial relations with Taiwan and maintains its self-defence capability through arms sales. The Act also states that the U.S. will “maintain [its] capacity to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion” that would threaten Taiwan’s security, but it provides no guarantee that it will commit its forces to defend the island.
The U.S. adopted what is referred to as “strategic ambiguity” in the 1970s to deter China from invading Taiwan, and Taiwan from declaring independence. But with the rising tension over Taiwan, it is unclear if the U.S. will directly intervene to defend the island or, as with Ukraine, just provide military support. Critics argue that this ambiguity could drive China to become more assertive about reunification and move forcefully to take Taiwan, something that is clearly seen in the deployment of warplanes into the island’s air defence zone. Hence, strategic ambiguity may no longer act as a sufficient deterrent, so should the U.S. abandon this policy?
Is it Time for More Clarity?
Some experts like Richard Hass and David Sacks, the president of and a research fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations respectively, advocate for a shift towards what they call “strategic clarity.” This policy makes it explicit that if China were to attack Taiwan, the U.S. would use all necessary means, including military force and economic sanctions, to defend the island.
For this strategy to succeed, the U.S. should make “sizable investments in [its] capabilities to enable a defense of Taiwan” and devote “diplomatic efforts that would signal to China the economic and political costs it would suffer if it acted aggressively,” argued Hass and Sacks.
Yet this policy, although clearer, is not necessarily deterring either. When the U.S. adopted strategic ambiguity, its military was stronger than China’s. Today, however, “China’s military is catching up with the U.S.” said Meredith Oyen, an expert on U.S.-China relations. China has the largest air force in the Asia-Pacific region, and the largest navy and fighting force in the world. Given these capabilities, strategic clarity might not be intimidating for China, but rather provocative.
During the Shangri-La Dialogue security summit in Singapore last month, China’s defence minister Wei Fengher conveyed a firm message to his American counterpart Lloyd Austin as a response to Biden’s answer in Tokyo: “If anyone dares to split Taiwan from China, the Chinese army will definitely not hesitate to start a war no matter the cost.”
This sharp tone and defiance of a hegemonic power like the U.S. show that China will react to strategic clarity with determination, not fear. Thus, instead of being a deterrence policy, strategic clarity could heighten the tension over Taiwan and draw the U.S. into a war with China.
This policy could also result in a change in the status quo by Taiwan, which may consider this policy as a security assurance and ultimately take the risk of declaring independence, a step that China will “resolutely smash,” and, in return, obligate the U.S. to intervene to defend the island.
Moreover, through strategic clarity, the U.S. would be committing its forces to a possible war whose end result is obscure. This would be a return to the Cold War era, where the U.S. sent its forces to fight in many long, inconclusive conflicts mainly to contain Communism. Thus, without a guaranteed outcome that the American intervention will save Taiwan from a Chinese takeover, “a confrontation with China would be an enormous drain on the U.S. military,” stated Oriana Mastro, an expert on China’s military and security policy.
More importantly, the people of Taiwan would find themselves caught in the crossfire between two superpowers, and the loss of life, given the devastating capabilities of modern weapons, would be extreme. At the end of such a war, Taiwan might be independent, but at what cost to the people? All in all, strategic clarity is not a viable policy the U.S. should adopt while the tension over Taiwan is rising.
As the future of Taiwan hangs in the balance, it is difficult to determine which strategy – if either – the U.S. should seek to prevent the takeover of the island. Ambiguity today can pave the road for China to take over Taiwan. If this happens, the U.S. would appear unable to live up to its commitments about preserving the rules-based international order and upholding values of sovereignty and self-determination. This will lead the U.S.’ allies in the Asia-Pacific region to lose faith in American security pledges and start relying on their own capabilities to meet China’s expansionist goals.
Strategic clarity, on the other hand, could either provoke China to invade Taiwan or be taken as a guarantee by the island to declare independence, which China will certainly not tolerate.
In both cases, the U.S. will draw itself into a costly war that it has been trying, through strategic ambiguity, to prevent since the 1970s.
Between extreme action and passive inaction, there does not seem to be a more balanced alternative that solves this dilemma. That is why it might be better, at least in the short run, to leave things the way they are rather than adopt a new policy and risk altering the status quo.
Nonetheless, China has made it clear that it will sooner or later reunify with Taiwan. When that happens, it will be up to the American president, whether Biden or his successors, to choose between clarity and ambiguity, and whether to commit American forces to defend Taiwan or not.
Edited by Esmé Graziani