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Time to End US Strategic Ambiguity on Taiwan

 
 

At their meeting at Mar-a-Lago, U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping supposedly became new best friends. As a result, Trump said he would not, for now, declare China a currency manipulator and impose new trade sanctions, as he had promised to do during the campaign.

In exchange for this forbearance, Beijing would presumably use its unique leverage to pressure North Korea to end the nuclear and ballistic missile programs China has supported and enabled for over two decades.

Shortly after their meeting, Trump seemed to throw in a further concession, this one on Taiwan. He said he would have to check with Xi before having another phone conversation with Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen — after his unprecedented first one had angered Beijing and confounded China experts. Trump thus linked North Korea and Taiwan, two East Asian flashpoints that threaten to ignite U.S.-China conflict.

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Regarding the third potential crisis-generator — China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea — nothing was said publicly by either capital during or after the Florida meeting. China’s militarization of its artificial islands continued apace.

Trump was uncharacteristically silent on the subject, but his actions spoke louder than words. He unleashed the U.S. Navy to conduct full-fledged freedom of navigation operations to challenge China’s illegal territorial claims, a contrast to the Obama administration’s watered-down innocent passages.

Now it is time for the president also to address two other matters long-neglected by his predecessors, both affecting the security of Taiwan. The first is the question of arms sales to Taiwan, administration action mandated by the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979.

Passage of the TRA by veto-proof margins reflected congressional anger at the Carter administration’s severing diplomatic relations with Taipei in favor of Beijing and termination of the U.S.-Taiwan Mutual Defense Treaty. Ever since, Congress has pushed successive administrations to fulfill U.S. legal obligations to sell Taiwan the weapons it needs to defend itself against Chinese aggression.  The executive branch has often demurred, delayed, and denied Taiwan’s requests, sometimes for good reason, such as inadequate strategic planning, technical proficiency, or committed funding.

But every sale, no matter how large or how advanced the weaponry involved, inevitably meets with fierce opposition from the People’s Republic, threatening to jeopardize the entire U.S.-China relationship. And Washington, ever-sensitive to Beijing’s moods, has been on the defensive about Taiwan’s defensive arms.

That was particularly true of the Obama administration, which shelved a package of essential arms that had long been pending. Now the Trump team is reported to be putting together an even more robust arms deal but is delaying its announcement for fear of interrupting China’s promised help with North Korea.

The problem is that despite its rhetoric, Beijing, again, is not delivering, and Pyongyang knows it still has China’s indulgence to move ahead with its weapons programs. Trump should show China that he cannot be strung along and approve the Taiwan arms sale expeditiously.

While he is at it, the president should correct a decades-long mistake in U.S. policy: the unwillingness to state forthrightly that America will defend its democratic ally against any aggressive moves by China. That means abandoning the outdated doctrine of strategic ambiguity, which states that we might or might not defend Taiwan “depending on the circumstances.”

Since 1995, when the official equivocation was explicitly declared by the State Department as a cautionary amber light, China has read it instead as an inviting green light to build up its surface and underwater fleets and ballistic missile arsenal to create “the circumstances” that would keep the United States away from a cross-strait conflict.

The Chinese deterrent strategy, known as anti-access and area denial, shows signs of working: if Washington is reluctant to do all it can to help Taiwan defend itself, why should Beijing expect that the United States will itself step directly into the fray?

Only a straightforward declaration by the U.S. president will convince China of that commitment. Donald Trump is the one best positioned to provide China, Taiwan, the region, and the world with the strategic clarity that this Asian flashpoint requires.

Joseph Bosco is a former China country director in the office of the secretary of defense, 2005-2006.

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