By – Harshit Sharma;
For the past four decades or so, US policy toward Taiwan’s defense has been centered around strategic ambiguity which is embodied in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. The US has adopted an ambiguous policy so as to deter both Taiwan and China from taking unilateral actions that might provoke the other side. However, deterrence only works when the threats made by the deterring state can either prove to deny the target state any expected gains from its unwanted actions or lay out punishment for such actions that may be perceived by the target state as costlier than its expected gains. To be effective, the deterring state needs to show the target state that it is capable as well as willing to effectively respond to any unwanted action. However, after deliberating on the unlikeliness of Taiwan taking advantage of strategic clarity and the likeliness of China taking advantage of strategic ambiguity in the article, I argue that the US policy of strategic ambiguity has started losing its utility in the Taiwan strait.
Origins of Strategic Ambiguity
To understand why the policy of strategic ambiguity has run its course and now is outdated, it is also pertinent to investigate its origins as to why it had been formulated in the first place. America’s ‘Strategic Ambiguity’ policy has been shaped by the historical, economic, societal, and geopolitical narratives surrounding the cross-strait relations between China and Taiwan, as well as its own perceived place in the East Asian regional order. The origins of strategic ambiguity are largely rooted in America’s entanglement with Taiwan since 1950. Over time, it was influenced massively by the country’s enhancing relations with China. In June 1950, Harry S. Truman, the then US President, brought the Chinese Civil war to a standstill when he placed USA’s 7th naval Fleet in the Taiwan Strait while responding to North Korea’s attack on South Korea. There was a two-sided dilemma Truman and his advisers had to address. Firstly, they had to assure that the Chinese Communist Party did not use the war on the Korean peninsula as a diversion to attack Taiwan, thereby reclaiming all islands such as Taiwan, Penghu and Matsu, from under the authority of the Chiang Kai-Shek-led Kuomintang Party (the Nationalist party based out of Taiwan). Secondly, they also had to prevent Taiwan from launching a “hopeless assault” on China (Tucker, 2005), considering even the Kuomintang was seen as untrustworthy by the US administration. It is in this regard that the 7th Fleet served a larger purpose of protecting US interests across two conflicts, considering either of the situations mentioned above would have forced Truman to mobilize troops to defend Taiwan as well.
However, this balancing act played out by the US must not be construed as an all-out guarantee and/ or support in the face of aggression by either side across the Taiwan Strait. The US, under the administration of Dwight Eisenhower and his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, strived to maintain its ambiguous and flexible position in the American ‘Western Pacific theater’ in East Asia. As a result, even the Mutual Defense Pact signed between the US and ROC in 1954, which called for a sense of unity in the face of conflict, reflected this. More specifically, article V of the Treaty read that “Each of the parties… declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes.” The 1979 TRA is based along similar lines, Section 3(a) which declares that “the United States will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services… to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.” What the US understands as the right amount of self-defense capability for Taiwan to be able to successfully maneuver around a Chinese assault, remains ambiguous.
One can argue that the US has both promised Taiwan help and at the same time, discouraged it from making unilateral provocations at Beijing by making conditional commitments to the island’s security. It was made clear to Taipei that should it make statements or actions that would unilaterally alter Taiwan’s status, the US might not intervene in the resulting cross-Strait conflict. Thus, the US has also adopted a policy of “keeping the friend guessing,” as I would like to call it.
What has changed?
However, the double-edged sword is no longer needed now. As much as the DPP under President Tsai may insist on having a pro-Taiwanese identity, she knows any provocation from the part of Taiwan would make the Mainland Chinese retaliation inevitable. Her repetitive focus on “maintaining the status quo” is an attempt at both balancing the Beijing-leaning and the independence-leaning factions among Taiwanese political elites, as well as reassuring the populace that she would not jeopardize their security by amending the ROC constitution in favour of independence. It is so because the citizens of Taiwan, it seems, want peace more than independence or unification. As per the research team of the Election Study Center, most Taiwanese favour maintaining the status quo rather than seeking either independence or unification anytime soon. National identity in Taiwan is not as divisive an issue (Tucker, 2005). The USA can remain assured about Taiwan not taking undue advantage of America’s strategic clarity, not only because of the Taiwanese people’s consistent insistence on maintaining the status quo but also because given tense cross-strait relations, any provocation from Taiwan’s side would invite severe retaliation from China.
China’s U-turn from Strategic Ambiguity
Finding great merit in the economic gains of cooperation with Taiwan, even China has been ambiguous in its policy by neither renouncing nor formally announcing the use of force against the island. However, despite the fact that China-Taiwan trade tripled between 2000 and 2008, a more aggressive China, in the last few years under Xi Jinping, has seemed to let go of the apparent economic and political advantages periods of peace have brought with them. As a result, Beijing has also faced intense backlash from within islands it claims as its own, such as in the form of Taiwan’s Sunflower student movement and Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement. These movements, however, have only furthered Chinese insecurity and have egged the Chinese Communist Party on toward an expansive display of military prowess with the purpose of generating fear. Adding on to the urgency of the situation have been the 2019-2020 Hong Kong protest movement and the election and re-election of a pro-sovereignty, Tsai-ing Wen-led DPP in Taiwan, in 2016 and 2020 respectively. Increased insecurity also stems from figures achieved by Surveys such as the Taiwan National Security Survey and the identity survey known as the Taiwan Election and Democratisation Study conducted by the National Chengchi University in Taiwan, which indicate that as of 2016, a whopping 72 percent of Taiwanese people recognize ROC as an independent country, while close to 60 percent of them recognize their identity as exclusively Taiwanese (a majority of whom are part of the younger generation under age 40).
Unfortunately, for Xi Jinping, the primary lesson to draw here was that his policy of ‘velvet glove over iron fist’ remains a failure. As a result, since 2019, Taiwan and Hong Kong are being viewed and projected as ‘concentrated risks’ for the CCP to focus on. What is also interesting to note is that an essay entitled ‘Taking Strategic Initiative to Prevent and Defuse Major Risks’, published by Qiushi (or “Seeking Truth”), the Party’s flagship journal in February 2020, called for China to “see things early, move quickly,” as a key tenet of successful risk management. This essay was authored by Chen Yixin, considered to be the ‘guy with the emperor’s sword’ for the CCP. Possibly acting on his protégé’s words, Xi rammed through the Hong Kong national security law and in the same context, continued to emphasize a time of peaceful reunification for Taiwan. When looked at together, we witness a drastic negation in China’s ambiguity policy- from preaching “long-term influence” to moving toward rapid reunification through increased risk-taking. In a way, Xi has taken all concrete steps towards renouncing ambiguity except formally announcing it. This is also evident from the concrete timeline the CCP has set for itself, by which it must achieve national reunification – by the second centennial in 2049.
A Case for the US to Adopt Strategic Clarity
A policy of strategic ambiguity works so long as it keeps the enemy and the friend guessing indefinitely. However, since the friend (here, Taiwan) is no longer in a position to change the status quo unilaterally, the continuation of this ambiguous policy can be interpreted by the enemy as unwillingness on the part of the USA to defend Taiwan.
The only stakeholder the US must thus base its deterrence policy around is China. This is especially considering the Chinese People’s Liberation Army has transformed itself completely to face a new era of warfare. Possessing huge economic capabilities and a military capability 20 times Taiwan’s size, China is on a quest to emerge victorious out of any form of conflict around its neighbourhood. Along with acquiring new weapon systems, the PLA has also developed anti-access/ area denial capabilities concentrated around Taiwan, so as to be able to deter American or Japanese maritime presence in the region, even rendering America’s first-island chain strategy mute. Furthermore, Beijing has aggressively expanded its military presence in the South China Sea in recent years, developed massive economic integrity projects like the BRI, engaged in border conflicts with India and Bhutan, and flouted various other liberal international norms of peace and security. These activities show that the CCP under Xi is willing to withstand a growing international sentiment of discontent against China’s rise, to forcefully assert its rapidly expanding power both domestically and externally. Therefore, to counter China’s unannounced negation of strategic ambiguity, and to avoid the risk of a runaway escalation across the Strait, the USA needs to formally announce and adopt a policy of ‘Strategic Clarity’.Some scholars, such as CFR’s Richard N. Haass and David Sacks, as well as several members of the US Congress, have argued that Washington should explicitly guarantee to respond militarily to any Chinese use of force against Taiwan. It is possibly these policy provocations that have led to evident changes in the American foreign policy on cross-strait relations. Apart from openly accepting that America is bound to defend Taiwan, President Biden, on 24th November 2021, also formally included Taiwan among the 110 invitees but excluded China from the Democracy summit. The USA has also encouraged Taiwan to increase its defense spending and increase its defense-related exports. The USA has also started sailing ships through the Taiwan Strait regularly to demonstrate its military presence in the region. In addition to that, the USA has increased its sales of defense equipment to Taiwan. More recently, in May 2022, when asked whether Biden is “willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan, if it comes to that,” his straight answer was “Yes“.
Considering the asymmetry between the military might of China and Taiwan, the USA should no longer need to bother regarding Taiwan taking injudicious advantage of USA’s unambiguous backing and do away with its policy of strategic ambiguity. Moreover, China’s U-turn from the policy of strategic ambiguity makes it even more pertinent for the USA to turn a new leaf in their approach towards the Taiwan strait forthwith. As discussed above, the USA can be seen taking some positive steps in that direction. The course correction in the US foreign policy for the cross-strait relations is a testimony that the contemporary geopolitical situation is a lot different from what it used to be during the genesis of the policy of strategic ambiguity. In the light of all the arguments discussed in this article, I argue that the renewed policy shall be carried forward until a situation arises when Taiwan can take advantage of America’s unflinching support resulting in increased cross-strait relations. Until such a situation arises, to make the Taiwan strait remain peaceful, the USA needs to follow the policy of strategic clarity to deter the revisionist power such as China from trying to militarily change the status quo unilaterally.
Harshit Sharma is a student pursuing Master’s in Diplomacy, Law, and Business at the O.P. Jindal Global University. He has completed his undergraduate degree in History from the University of Delhi. He is working as an intern at the Jindal Centre for Israel Studies and Centre for Afghanistan studies. He is also works as a member of the Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Peace Studies. His research interests include Peace and Conflict Studies, and the philosophy of non-violence.