The implication of U.S. Strategic Ambiguity and China’s growing military capabilities for Taiwan

Written by Joseph Bosco.

Image credit: 10.10 總統出席「中華民國中樞暨各界慶祝109年國慶大會」by 總統府/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s brave and calmly inspirational president recently addressed the rising military threat from Communist China. She noted that Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong now puts Taiwan “on the front lines of freedom and democracy.” Recognizing that what is at stake is not only Taiwan’s own political independence and security, but a major front in China’s existential challenge to the rules-based, Western values-oriented international order, Tsai pledged that Taiwan would carry its share of the democratic burden.

She noted the increases in Taiwan’s military budget, including purchases of defensive weapons from the United States, as a reflection of the reality that “strength can be correlated with deterrence.”

The acquisition of weapons systems and military hardware not only enhances material defensive capabilities but also conveys will, the overarching psychological component of all political struggles. China focuses intensively on that aspect of confrontation, drawing both on Sun Tzu’s teachings in the art of war and on more than a century of Communist doctrine and practice starting with Vladimir Lenin. It hopes to coerce Taiwan into submission and to intimidate Washington into letting it happen (Non-communist totalitarians such as Hitler have used the same techniques).

Unfortunately, some voices in Taiwan and the United States have cast doubt on Taiwan’s resolve to stand up to a Chinese attack, no matter how many American weapons systems it buys. Several years ago, at a Washington conference on Asian security, a military officer from Taiwan reacted to American criticism of Taiwan’s level of defence spending. He argued that Taiwan could never hope to match China’s overwhelming and growing advantage in military capability. To be sure, without the assurance of timely American intervention, Taiwan would be futile to resist a Chinese attack. Furthermore, he pointedly noted, no such U.S. commitment to directly defend Taiwan currently stands.

Former President Ma Ying-jeou recently emphasized that point by quoting Chinese military officials on attacking Taiwan: “The first battle is the final battle.” President George W. Bush’s statement in April 2001 that Washington would do “whatever it took” to defend Taiwan was quickly extinguished by the foreign policy establishment and never repeated. Instead, both Taipei and Beijing are left with Washington’s “strategic ambiguity” as most succinctly articulated in the Clinton administration: We might or might not come to Taiwan’s defence, “depending on the circumstances.” 

That middling posture — half deterrence, half defeatism — was reflected in Clinton’s on-again, off-again deployment of U.S. aircraft carriers to the region when China fired missiles toward Taiwan to protest the country’s first direct presidential election. The ships headed for the Taiwan Strait but turned away when Beijing threatened a “sea of fire.” A traumatized Clinton official later described the episode as “our own Cuban missile crisis — we had stared into the abyss.”

Clinton explained in his memoir that the United States was not committed to directly defend Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), only to provide it with defensive weapons.

However, the TRA also states Congress’s intention “to maintain the capacity of the United States 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.”

In light of Beijing’s escalation of both rhetoric and military activities directed at Taiwan, Congress is now urging whichever administration takes office in January to demonstrate that the United States does possess the capacity and the resolve to defend Taiwan. This is to avoid the last-minute scrambling that occurred after North Korea’s sudden invasion of South Korea.

Republican and Democratic members of the House and Senate have introduced the Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act to eliminate any Chinese doubt that the United States has both the ability and the resolve to defend Taiwan. President Trump and former vice president Joe Biden — separately or jointly — should declare their support for the bipartisan legislation which would serve as a congressional authorization to use military force if necessary. Otherwise, as Ma warned, once a Chinese attack starts, there is no time to debate pros and cons of resistance: “Taiwan would have no chance to wait for the U.S. military to assist.” 

U.S. strategic clarity could help alleviate his trepidation, which some in Taiwan have called defeatism that weakens Taiwan morale and tempts China — the opposite of Tsai’s peace-through-strength message. However, there are Americans who prefer continuing ambiguity, asserting that it has managed to preserve the status quo—except that it hasn’t.

While there has been no cross-Strait war yet, China is advancing inexorably in that direction. Beijing does not just want Taiwan to stop moving away from China; it wants it to move affirmatively toward it. That is why its 2005 Anti-Secession Law threatens war if Taiwan takes too long to accept “peaceful” unification — and why Henry Kissinger warns Taiwan, “China will not wait forever.” 

Ambiguity advocates also offer contradictory rationales for keeping it. On the one hand, they warn that a clear U.S. commitment to Taiwan would increase the likelihood China would attack it — as if Beijing is perversely looking for an opportunity to get into a war with America. On the other hand, they say our allies would not support us, and we would not undertake the mission alone, so China would see it as an Obama-like “red line” it could cross without risk. However, China’s increasingly aggressive behaviour is motivating America’s allies, friends, and security partners to cast a wary eye toward China and grasp the revived advantages of collective security led by the United States.

Finally, opponents of strategic clarity argue that Taiwan matters more to China than it does to the United States, so we cannot risk World War III over it. Thus, the task of American leaders is to convince Chinese civilian and military hardliners that the costs and risks of conflict with the U.S. would be catastrophic for China, destroying all they have spent 70 years building up.

Meanwhile, aside from the intrinsic worth of 23 million Taiwanese living in a democracy, Americans need to be reminded that there are broader geostrategic concerns at stake. Indeed, it needs to be remembered that On Dec. 7, 1941, when Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbour from aircraft carriers in the Pacific, the attack on the Philippines was launched from the ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier, Formosa.’ Hence, U.S. regional credibility and global security are very much linked to Taiwan’s fate.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a non-resident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute. This article is based on the piece published by The Hill

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