Time to be clear on Taiwan? ‘Strategic ambiguity’ faces test.

Susan Walsh/AP
President Joe Biden speaks as he meets virtually with Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Nov. 15, 2021. Some voices in Congress are calling on the Biden administration to declare openly that Washington would defend Taiwan in case of attack, which would mean abandoning the traditional U.S. policy of "strategic ambiguity."
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When President Joe Biden told a CNN town hall meeting in October that Washington had a commitment to defend Taiwan should China try to invade the island, it did not take long for the White House to issue a clarification. Official U.S. policy remains “strategic ambiguity,” which means uncertainty.

For 40 years that has meant Beijing has assumed Washington would fight for Taiwan, and thus concluded that using force would be unwise. And it has deterred Taiwan from declaring independence because the island state could not be sure of U.S. backing.

Why We Wrote This

For 40 years, Washington’s policy of strategic ambiguity has helped deter a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. As Beijing ramps up its rhetoric, is that subtle diplomatic posture still fit for purpose?

Now some in Congress think it’s time to come off the fence and make it clear to China that the United States would defend Taiwan, so as to present a more active deterrent. That’s because Chinese leader Xi Jinping has stepped up his rhetoric and said he would like to see “reunification” with Taiwan while he is in office.

But most China pundits disagree, seeing value in strategic ambiguity.

“You’re taking a policy that has worked well, and deterred both sides from making trouble for decades, and you’re going to change that,” says Dennis V. Hickey, a professor emeritus at Missouri State University. “I think that’s pretty risky.”

At a CNN town hall in late October, President Joe Biden was asked whether the United States would defend Taiwan if China attempted an invasion. His answer was simple. 

“Yes, we have a commitment to do that,” the president said. 

But official U.S. policy is a good deal less clear, as the White House clarified immediately afterward. That’s deliberate. For more than 40 years, the U.S. has adopted a position of “strategic ambiguity” toward Taiwan. The stance has helped keep the peace so far, but as China grows more powerful and more aggressive, some in Congress wonder whether the policy is obsolete.

Why We Wrote This

For 40 years, Washington’s policy of strategic ambiguity has helped deter a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. As Beijing ramps up its rhetoric, is that subtle diplomatic posture still fit for purpose?

What is strategic ambiguity?

It’s a guessing game. Officially, the U.S. won’t commit to defending or discarding Taiwan during any invasion by China. 

“We do not say that we will come to Taiwan’s defense, and we don’t say that we won’t come to Taiwan’s defense,” says David Sacks, a research fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

How did it become U.S. policy?

During the Chinese Civil War, the United States backed the losing side, the Nationalists, who fled to Taiwan and set up the Republic of China there.

Mao Zedong repeatedly threatened to “liberate” Taiwan and bombed islands off its coast. Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek wanted U.S. support to “rescue” the mainland. 

Meanwhile, the U.S. wanted to avoid war, says Dennis V. Hickey, a professor emeritus* at Missouri State University. America didn’t help Chiang attack the mainland, but it did sign a mutual defense treaty with Taiwan in 1954.

That treaty lapsed in 1979, when the U.S. switched its diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the Communist government in Beijing, and Congress enacted the Taiwan Relations Act. Strategic ambiguity was born.

The U.S. has two obligations to Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act: to sell it arms and to maintain the capacity to protect the island. In essence, it doesn’t have to defend Taiwan, but it can.

“The assumption is that China will continue to assume that the United States will come to Taiwan’s defense and it will plan accordingly. Given that variable, China will continue to decide that force is not its best bet,” says Mr. Sacks.  

At the same time, the ambiguity deterred Taiwan from declaring independence, which would have angered China, and risked a war without U.S. support.

Why do some in Congress want it to end?

Strategic ambiguity has kept the peace so far, but a smattering of voices on both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill, including Republican Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, think that a clearer U.S. commitment to Taiwan would work better in the future. “I think that removing the ambiguity would be good,” Senator Tillis said recently at Politico’s Defense Forum. 

He and some of his colleagues believe U.S. policy should be a more active deterrent, given that an increasingly powerful China is running more and more military exercises in Taiwan’s airspace and has grown more aggressive in its rhetoric. 

“In the past, Chinese leaders have said that they would engage in strategic patience, and they didn’t have a timeline for reuniting Taiwan with the mainland,” says Peter Mansoor, chair in military history at The Ohio State University.

But not Xi Jinping. The Chinese leader has said he wants reunification while he is in office, and China’s growing military prowess raises the chances he might try to achieve that. 

The U.S. has three options, says Professor Mansoor. The least likely is that it could leave Taiwan on its own. Or Washington could officially commit to defending Taiwan, and risk involvement in a war. Or it could continue with strategic ambiguity.

Professors Mansoor and Hickey support the third path, increasing arms sales, cooperating with local allies, and training Taiwan’s military. The Taiwan Strait may be especially tense now, says Professor Hickey, but it’s been worse before. Relations there are fragile, he points out, and require careful management. 

“You’re taking a policy that has worked well, and deterred both sides from making trouble for decades, and you’re going to change that,” says Professor Hickey. “I think that’s pretty risky.”

Editor's note: This article has been updated Dennis V. Hickey's current status at Missouri State University. He is a professor emeritus.

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