Strategic Ambiguity or Strategic Clarity? Us Policy Towards the Taiwan Issue

Written by T.Y. Wang.

Image credit: Between Chinas by Stuart Rankin/Flickr, license CC BY-NC 2.0

The Taiwan Strait has been widely viewed as a dangerous flashpoint for conflict. The popular Economist magazine recently characterised it as “the most dangerous place on earth” that could lead to a direct military conflict between the United States and China. During the past several decades, Washington’s policy of strategic ambiguity has worked remarkably well for maintaining peace and stability between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. A debate is underway if Washington should change its long-standing ambiguous approach by making a more explicit commitment to Taiwan security. Why is there a call for clarity? What is the logic behind Washington’s policy of strategic ambiguity? And is there a need for adjustment?

The Logic of Strategic Ambiguity

Treating the island as a renegade province, Chinese leaders have always considered Taiwan’s unification with the Chinese mainland a sacred mission. To force Taipei to accept its unification proposal known as the “one country, two systems,” Beijing has relentlessly isolated the island country in the international community and threatened it with the use of military force. To demonstrate their determination to protect China’s territorial integrity, Beijing leaders have deployed hundreds of short-range missiles on the coast facing Taiwan. In 2000, a white paper was issued by China’s State Council declaring three conditions, known as “the three-ifs,” under which Beijing would launch military attacks against the island. The Chinese government also adopted a strict Anti-Secession Law in 2005 that effectively pre-authorised military action should Taiwan take concrete steps toward formal independence. China’s military threats to Taiwan are real and cannot be underestimated.

For the past four decades, Washington has adopted an ambiguous policy to deter both sides of the Taiwan Strait from taking unwanted actions. Indeed, the effect of deterrence is accomplished by the deterring state’s threat of taking actions that will potentially deny the target state’s expected gains or punish it to the extent that the costs of the unwanted acts exceed the gains it hopes to acquire. To be effective, the deterring state needs to show that it 1) possesses sufficient retaliatory capability to deny the fruits of unwanted actions; and 2) has the resolve to use the force so that the target state is persuaded that the threats are credible. However, suppose the target state sees that compliance with the demands would ultimately lead to being deprived of its prized possessions. In that case, there is little incentive to comply and may choose unwanted actions. Both credible threat and convincing assurances from the deterring state thus play an essential role in deterrence diplomacy.

Washington’s deterrence policy was most apparent from 2000 to early 2008 when Chen Shui-bian was Taiwan’s president. Even before the 2000 presidential election, Chinese leaders tried to disrupt Chen’s rising momentum by issuing a series of stern warnings to Taiwanese voters. However, Chinese leaders’ sabre-rattling backfired, and the election result was a bitter surprise to them. After the election, Beijing furthered its efforts to isolate Taiwan internationally and intensified its military threats against the island citizens. The Chen administration also adopted many policies to strengthen the Taiwanese identity on the island and promote the island’s status as an independent political entity distinct from China. As Beijing’s leaders viewed Taipei’s policies as part of a process of “creeping independence” which had to be stopped, cross-Strait tension was high.

Knowing that Beijing was willing to “shed blood” to defend China’s “territorial integrity” if it deemed necessary, the Bush administration had to emphasise America’s commitment of “no use of force or threat to use force against Taiwan”. To raise Beijing’s expected costs of using military means for unification, Washington was involved in Taiwanese defence reform, sending American officers to observe military exercises, conduct capability assessments, and provide large quantities of weaponry to Taipei. To discourage Taipei from taking any move that Beijing could deem provocative, Washington also made it clear that its security commitment to Taiwan was not unconditional. A clear message was sent to Taipei that the United States might not intervene in a cross-Strait conflict should Taipei make “statements or actions that would unilaterally alter Taiwan’s status.” Through a web of incentives and disincentives, the policy of strategic ambiguity acts like a double-edged sword that has calmed the tense cross-Strait relations during the period 2000 – 2008. Moreover, it has maintained peace and stability between China and Taiwan for many decades.

Why the Call for Change?

If Washington’s policy has been effective, why is there a call for change? The answer lies in the fact that China is rising and has become increasingly aggressive in its behaviour. Since the late 1980s, China has experienced rapid economic expansion. With its enormous economic resources, Beijing has launched an effort to modernise its military. As China’s military expenditure is about 20 times larger than Taiwan’s, the cross-Strait military imbalance is clearly visible. In addition to acquiring new weapon systems, the PLA has also developed anti-access area denial capabilities, which have been concentrated around Taiwan, aiming to deter US military operations in the region. Meanwhile, Beijing in recent years has aggressively expanded its military presence in the South China Sea, engaged in border disputes with India, constructed military outposts in Bhutan, and built “re-education camps” in Xinjiang. These activities show that Chinese leaders are willing to defy international opinions and forcefully assert their growing power inside and beyond the countries boundaries.

After Chinese leaders negated their promises of a “high-degree of autonomy” to Hong Kong people under the “one country, two systems” plan, it is believed that Taiwan is their next target. Since Taiwan’s incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen took office in 2016, Beijing has furthered its effort to isolate Taipei internationally. It has escalated its belligerent movements by repeatedly dispatching naval vessel and military aircraft circulating the island. This has led to the warning from US Navy Admiral John Aquilino that China could be prepared to take Taiwan by force within the next six years.

Strategic Clarity?

Some in the United States believe that ambiguity is unlikely to deter an increasingly assertive and threatening China toward Taiwan. Instead, they maintain, “[t]he time has come for the United States to introduce a policy of strategic clarity: one that makes explicit that the United States would respond to any Chinese use of force against Taiwan.” In particular, no response to a Chinese military invasion of a democratic Taiwan would damage Washington’s reputation as the guardian of democracy and create the perception that the U.S. is not a reliable partner. If American allies in the region conclude that Washington can no longer be counted on, they would be likely to accommodate Beijing’s demands as a result. Alternatively, some in the region may band together to balance a rising China, leading to tension and instability in one of the most dynamic areas of international commerce. Both would threaten America’s interests in the region and hurt Washington’s global leadership. Beijing’s forceful takeover of Taiwan would also mean that China could then project its naval power beyond the first island chain, directly threatening the maritime security of the US and its allies.

Beijing’s revisionist behaviour, therefore, needs a non-ambiguous and robust response. The Biden administration’s policy should move to the clarity end of the spectrum, making it evident that the US is committed to its long-standing pledge that cross-Strait disputes must be resolved peacefully. Because the essence of the Taiwan issue is not primarily about territorial conquest but about identity and “national rejuvenation,” the threshold of a credible deterrence is thus very high. Washington’s verbal commitment must be coupled with such concrete actions as strengthening its retaliatory force in the region, expanding cooperation with Taiwan’s military, providing needed weaponry to Taipei, and coordinating with regional allies to prepare a Taiwan contingency.

With that said, a successful deterrence policy also depends on Washington’s convincing assurance to Beijing that it would not support Taiwan’s pursuit of independence. Because Chinese leaders have always suspected that the US has a hidden agenda to undermine their cause of unification, the defence cooperation between Washington and Taipei is precisely the action that may be interpreted as confirming a covert US policy of supporting Taiwan independence.If Chinese leaders believe that America’s policy will ultimately lead to Taiwan’s permanent separation from China, they will have little incentive to comply with Washington’s demands. Thus, the Biden administration also needs to clarify that its policy aims to protect Taiwan’s vibrant democracy and the well-being of its people but does not support Taiwan’s de jure independence.

T.Y. Wang is University Professor and Chair of the Department of Politics and Government, Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois, USA. He is the co-editor of the Taiwan Voter. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2017) (with Christopher Achen). His most recent publication is “COVID-19 and the Anatomy of the Rally Effect in Taiwan.” Asian Survey v. 61, no. 3 (May/June 2021) (with Su-feng Cheng).

This article was published as part of Taiwan’s Security & China-US Rivalry special issue. All articles in the special issue can be found here.

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