Written by Dean P. Chen.
In response to Beijing’s escalating coercive campaigns and military harassments of Taiwan, the Biden administration has primarily followed the Trump government’s pro-Taiwan stance. The U.S. State Department, in a statement on January 23, 2021, calling out China to “cease its military, diplomatic, and economic pressure against Taiwan,” reaffirmed that the U.S. commitment to Taiwan is “rock solid.”
In his first call with the PRC president Xi Jinping on February 10, 2021, President Biden raised concerns about China’s increasingly belligerent actions in the region, including Taiwan. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, in a similar vein, also underscored the Taiwan issue during the sharp exchanges with their Chinese counterparts at March’s Alaska meeting.
Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to dispatch warships to transit through the Taiwan Strait and enters a coast-guard cooperative arrangement with Taiwan. On April 9, 2021, the Biden administration issued new guidelines to liberalize contacts between American and Taiwanese officials further to encourage both parties to more freely interact with each other going forward.
On April 14, 2021, to commemorate the 42nd anniversary marking the passage of the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979, President Biden (who was one of the U.S. senators then voting for the act) sent a three-person “unofficial delegation” to Taipei, meeting with President Tsai Ing-wen and Taiwanese officials. It’s notable that the three envoys—former U.S. senator Chris Dodd and former deputy secretaries of state Richard Armitage and James Steinberg—were known for their longtime support of Taiwan and their close friendship with Biden. Thus, a White House official described their visit as representing a “personal signal” from the president, “sending an important signal about the U.S. commitment to Taiwan and its democracy.”
When the Japanese prime minister and South Korea’s president visited the White House, respectively, in April and May, their joint statements with Biden all underscored the importance of preserving “peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.” These can be construed as Washington’s desire to “multilateralize” the Taiwan Strait issue instead of making it a subsidiary to U.S.-PRC relations.
Ambiguity or Clarity
The aforementioned initiatives and moves suggest that the United States may be ending its decades-long Taiwan Strait approach, known as “strategic ambiguity”—a policy backed by President Biden when he was a ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Under strategic ambiguity, the U.S. aims at deterring both parties from unilaterally upsetting cross-strait peace and stability—for example, Taipei’s declaring de jure independence or Beijing’s coercing reunification—without giving a clear-cut answer to whether Washington would come to Taiwan’s defence if the PRC mounts an armed attack on the island democracy.
Richard Haass and David Sacks of the Council on Foreign Relations advocated last September, in a Foreign Affairs article, that strategic ambiguity “is unlikely to deter an increasingly assertive China with growing military capabilities. The 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.”
Many in America’s military establishment have echoed this sentiment, sounding the alarm that China is growing more militarily capable of invading Taiwan within the next six years. Yet, some detractors oppose a more explicit U.S. support of Taiwan, fearing that it could back Xi into a corner and push Beijing into action.
The “One-China” Hurdle
The deliberations, nonetheless, overlook the crux of the issue—what to do about the U.S. “one-China” policy that has been an integral tenet of strategic ambiguity over the past 42 years. Contrary to Haass and Sacks’ arguments, the notion of “one China” is fundamentally at odds with strategic clarity. Here is why.
While Washington has unequivocally stated that its “one-China” policy is different from Beijing’s “one-China” principle, under which the “Chinese Communist Party asserts sovereignty over Taiwan.” Thus, the American version recognizes the PRC as the sole legitimate Chinese government and “acknowledges the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China.”
The United States and Taiwan would maintain an “unofficial relationship” based on the three U.S.-PRC Joint communiqués of 1972, 1979, and 1982, the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, and President Reagan’s Six Assurances to Taiwan given in August 1982. All cross-strait resolutions must be attained through peaceful and consensual means, particularly getting assent from Taiwan’s democratic will.
Hence, this U.S. framework is shrouded by great complexities and contradictions. It is meant to sustain Taiwan’s security, democracy, and autonomy without providing the latter too much latitude in challenging China’s so-called territorial integrity. While easing the rules on U.S.-Taiwan official encounters, the Biden team responded that it would be implemented based on the “one-China” policy.
But, if Taiwanese public preferences (with 80 per cent currently advocating some form of permanent separation from the PRC) ultimately push for legal independence – due to China’s unrelenting coercive pressures, and if its democratically elected government obliges – would it be considered a unilateral provocation to regional stability? Would the United States come to Taiwan’s defence under such a scenario? By suggesting that Taiwan may be a Chinese territory under the “one-China” rubric, however evasively the term is defined, Washington ties its own hands and undercuts the legitimacy to forcefully come to the island’s rescue by repelling a Chinese attack.
Not Just Lip-Service
The debaters of strategic ambiguity, therefore, have reasoned in the wrong order. Unless the United States can decisively decide to do away with the “one-China” policy, strategic ambiguity inevitably remains irrespective of Beijing’s reactions. Their discussions, however imminent, are simply running in circles.
In recent years, confronting a rising and assertive PRC seems to become the front and centre element of U.S.-Taiwan relations. Yet, focusing and preoccupying solely on the China threats, while clear and present, may not be conducive to Taiwan’s wellbeing for the long haul. Ryan Hass, a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution, commented, “U.S. and Taiwan interests are best served by a Taiwan that is prosperous, vibrant, confident in its security, and treated with dignity and respect around the world. This is an affirmative view of the value of U.S.-Taiwan relations on its own merits, rather than as a tool to be wielded in competition with the mainland.”
One needs to pay attention to what the United States, under both Presidents Trump and Biden, has not done with Taiwan. Washington could do more to prioritize efforts to increase the attractiveness and competitiveness of Taiwan as an innovative economy and society. Such measures would include removing impediments to two-way trade, negotiating a bilateral investment agreement, and expanding joint scientific collaboration on cutting-edge issues, such as cancer research, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing. The COVID-19 pandemic and the U.S-PRC competitions over semiconductor chips have enhanced Taiwan’s global profile and strategic values, given the island’s command over the TSMC. Thus, these are certainly possible and mutually beneficial areas where the two sides could deepen their collaboration.
In addition, Taipei has long been enthusiastic at pushing for negotiations aimed at securing a U.S.-Taiwan Free Trade Agreement and Bilateral Investment Agreement. However, Washington’s response has been lukewarm at best, insisting that irritant issues like Taiwan’s removal of import restrictions on U.S. beef and pork products would be essential before carrying out any substantive talks on FTA and investment accord. The Tsai administration, in August 2020, obliged and lifted the ban on U.S. and foreign pork imports containing the feed additive ractopamine. That even sparked some political tensions and concerns within the island over whether it was safe for human consumption. Moreover, a referendum is planned to be held in late 2021 over the issue. U.S.-Taiwan FTA talks, however, remain a distant prospect, as the Biden White House is concentrating upon domestic economic revitalization and recovery from the COVID-19 crisis.
Furthermore, notwithstanding Taiwan’s stellar management in containing the spread of COVID, the situation exacerbated in mid-May 2021, with surging daily cases and deaths. One of the factors was Taiwan’s inadequate vaccine supplies and purchases. Though part of the deterioration was due to the island’s over-optimism given their relatively successful handling of the pathogen for the one year since the COVID outbreak in early 2020, China’s continued suppression of Taiwan’s international outreaches to obtain vaccines also played a prominent role. On June 3, 2021, Washington, with growing vaccine roll-outs and a more ameliorated situation in America, announced to share its first tranche of more than 80 million COVID vaccines with those worldwide in need, including Taiwan. Japan took the faster move by urgently and generously donating 1.24 million doses of COVID vaccines to Taiwan. The Biden initiative would be another great opportunity for the United States to bolster concrete and meaningful ties with Taipei and sending an unequivocal signal that the upgrades in U.S.-Taiwan relations are not merely perfunctory.
This article was published as part of a special issue on Taiwan’s Security & China-US Rivalry .