Flashpoints | Security | East Asia

The End of Strategic Ambiguity in the Taiwan Strait

The collapse of confidence in long-term advantage means the era of strategic ambiguity is over.

By Eric Chan for
The End of Strategic Ambiguity in the Taiwan Strait
Credit: Office of the President, ROC (Taiwan)

Our Taiwan National Defense University international group had almost finished the tour of a naval vessel at Zuoying Naval Base when the escorting ship commander suddenly halted. An embarrassed silence followed. He had clearly overheard some of the sotto voce comments from the group about the state of the ship, which was painstakingly maintained but undeniably antiquated. The commander turned around and quietly said, “When the enemy comes, they will pay a price.”

“When the enemy comes,” not “if.” The certainty of the phrase struck me at the time, and even more so today.

For years, U.S. policy toward Taiwan’s defense has been oriented around the principle of strategic ambiguity, outlined in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. There is no guarantee of any sort.

China also had a policy of strategic ambiguity: a refusal to renounce the use of force against Taiwan, but emphasizing the economic gains of cooperation. The viability of strategic ambiguity rests on an assumption: that time is on our side. As long as each player thought that long-term trends favored their cause, there was significant incentive to tamp down short-term tensions.

Over the last few years, however, this belief in long-term advantage has collapsed. Chinese leader Xi Jinping has taken concrete steps all but formally renouncing strategic ambiguity. This is dangerous on multiple levels, as it melds strategic aggressiveness with operational inflexibility.

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On a fundamental basis, strategic ambiguity is dead. A new understanding must be reached to restore balance and reduce the risk of runaway escalation.

The Economic Gambit

From 1979 to 2012, pressing for economic liberalization and integration with China was perhaps the most consistent aspect of U.S. foreign policy: President Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) established Most Favored Nation (MFN) trading status; President George H.W. Bush (1989-1993) protected MFN post-Tiananmen. President Bill Clinton (1993-2001) pushed for permanent normal trade relations without Congressional review, and President George W. Bush (2001-2009) advocated for China’s ascension to the WTO. The remarkable consistency was due to the irresistible combination of short-term economic gain with the prospect of long-term geopolitical advantage.

China had a similar strategy of economic integration for Hong Kong and Taiwan. Of course, the desired end state of this integration was not democratization, but active support for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), or at least tolerance for eventual reunification. Hong Kong was the test case.

Starting in 1989, China began a rigorous program of directed investment into Hong Kong. Over the next four years, Chinese investment increased by 100 percent. The political dividends of becoming Hong Kong’s largest trading partner paid off quickly. The first post-handover Legislative Council in 1998 was dominated by the pro-Beijing camp, consisting of an unlikely coalition of legacy pro-Communist trade unions and free-market business factions.

The seeming success of the Hong Kong case led to a similar approach with Taiwan. From 2000 to 2008, China-Taiwan trade tripled; notably, this acceleration of trade volume occurred during Beijing’s political hard line against the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration of Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian.

The Collapse of Confidence

Despite the massive growth in trade and investment, the last few years have seen very visible demonstrations that the underlying assumptions of political advantage were false.

In the United States, the pro-engagement coalition has largely been disenchanted. The business community has come to realize that the long-term losses outweigh the gains; human rights activists, once hopeful about leveraging economic ties to improve human rights, now understand that China’s domestic freedoms are shrinking, aided by U.S. surveillance technologies. The national security community once thought that China could be a “responsible stakeholder” in the U.S.-led international system; instead, China has sought to establish its own parallel institutions. The U.S. strategy of promoting stability and long-term democratic influence has instead flipped to an embrace of greater risk to deter China.

For Beijing, the illusion of long-term advantage disappeared following the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong and the Sunflower student movement in Taiwan. CCP fears of long-term “de-sinicization” have been made urgent due to elements of this rhetoric present in the Hong Kong protest movement of 2019-2020 and the Taiwan presidential election victories of DPP candidate Tsai Ing-wen in 2016 and 2020. Record numbers of Taiwan citizens now reject a Chinese identity, and instead call themselves Taiwanese, rising from 17 percent in 1991 to 60 percent in 2017 — and reaching 83 percent today.

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The main lesson that Xi took from these events was that a velvet glove over an iron fist was insufficient. Starting in 2019, Xi has repeatedly emphasized that the China now faced “concentrated risks,” highlighting Hong Kong and Taiwan. At the same time, the CCP official journal Qiushi published an article entitled “Taking Strategic Initiative to Prevent and Defuse Major Risks,” urging the Party to “fight good offensive battles” and “take the initiative in the struggle.” The article was written by Chen Yixin, Xi’s protégé, troubleshooter, and likely successor.

Over this last year, Xi has acted on his words, ramming through the draconian Hong Kong national security law and dropping references to peaceful reunification for Taiwan. Taken together, it is a dramatic repudiation of Chinese strategic ambiguity. Much like the United States, China has changed from a strategy of long-term influence to an embrace of greater risk to achieve reunification.

Xi’s actions in Hong Kong forced a dramatic Taiwan re-assessment of economic integration with China. It has led to the collapse of the pro-engagement Kuomintang (KMT) at the national level. The KMT is now attempting a “redesign,” to include a realignment with the United States. Moreover, the KMT collapse has given Tsai political breathing room to continue diversifying Taiwan’s economy away from China, openly align Taiwan’s foreign policy with the U.S., and pass significant increases in the defense budget. For the first time since 1996, China will likely face a Taiwan political system uniformly against engagement.

Every party is settling in for long-term confrontation, even if that term is not used openly. This collapse in trust is irreversible: even if Xi, or a successor, were to stop the most aggressive behaviors, no one would be under the impression that this was a result of the “democratizing influence” of international trade.

The End of Strategic Ambiguity: Back to the Future

With the collapse of the old dynamic, there are several courses of action the CCP may undertake.

The most likely course of action is increased political warfare against the Taiwan democratic system. Previously, CCP political warfare involved influence operations designed to persuade, with a focus on developing Taiwanese businessmen in China into a CCP-friendly constituency. While these types of operations will continue, the overall emphasis has shifted to destructive subversion. Instead of infiltrating business organizations and national-level political parties, the primary targets will be local civic organizations, the media, and the military. The goal of the infiltration is to create paralysis and unrest to justify, and then assist with, an invasion.

There are multiple historical examples of this type of subversion. In 1949, Mao’s spies attempted to provoke a social revolution in Taiwan just prior to the planned invasion. In 1967, the CCP assisted pro-Communist trade unions in fomenting riots in Hong Kong so severe that the British considered evacuating. From CCP interference in the last Taiwan legislative and presidential elections, it is clear what the 21st-century version of subversion will look like: disinformation meant to worsen existing divides, CCP use of Taiwan media proxies, vote-buying, and the establishment of puppet political parties.

The most dangerous course of action remains an invasion. However, the technology and operational methods being developed by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) mean that any crisis has a high probability of rapid escalation. The PLA used to discuss slow “strangulation” methods such as a blockade or the seizure of outlying islands to intimidate Taiwan. However, PLA literature is now fixated on achieving a fait accompli of securing Taiwan capitulation prior to U.S. intervention.

To achieve this, the PLA has developed aggressive operational concepts that are prone to miscalculation. The first is an extension of political warfare techniques into the kinetic realm: system destruction warfare, meant to paralyze the opponent’s leadership. Thus, any invasion will likely start with sleeper cell attempts to assassinate Taiwanese political leadership. The second is the integration of AI and algorithms into operations. The PLA talks about “intelligent operations,” with the use of an “algorithm game” to “quickly and accurately predict the situation on the battlefield” and seize the initiative. This reliance on algorithms is dangerously susceptible to a snowball effect of miscalculation in the decision-making process.

Thus, multiple factors combine to make the Taiwan situation highly unstable. Beijing’s strategic inflexibility, such as Xi’s target of 2049 for the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” is combined with leadership guidance to take more risks; meanwhile, the PLA is moving toward a model of warfighting that is inherently prone to rapid escalation and miscalculation. This is reminiscent of Imperial Germany’s Schlieffen Plan, in which a fixation on fast, offensive operations drove German strategy and the decision to go to war. The result was World War I.

Short Circuiting the Algorithm

The old order of strategic ambiguity is no longer sustainable. If the United States and Taiwan attempt to hold onto strategic ambiguity, the CCP can play on their respective fears – the U.S. fear of early capitulation by Taiwan, and the Taiwan fear of U.S. abandonment — to achieve the Sun Tzu maxim of winning without fighting.

Richard Haas and David Sacks’ recent Foreign Affairs article advocating for strategic clarity is a good start. They call for a presidential statement and an executive order that “unequivocally states that the United States would respond should Taiwan come under Chinese armed attack.” This should be followed up with Congress passing the Taiwan Defense Act. Finally, both Congress and the president should warn China that continued attempts to subvert Taiwanese democracy will be met with further U.S. measures. This could include graduated improvements in formal U.S.-Taiwan cooperation, such as the elimination of Department of State/Department of Defense policies that put a fig leaf around cooperation (for instance, Taiwan military personnel not being able to wear uniforms at DoD events), a Congressionally-mandated regular schedule of arms sales to Taiwan, ship visits, and the elimination of the U.S.-China Third Communique.

On the military side, it is time for a Pacific REFORGER. The U.S. military should openly practice multiple methods of rapidly moving troops, material, and equipment from a cold start to the Western Pacific, to demonstrate the ability to prevent a fait accompli. If Beijing continues its dangerous attempts to intimidate the United States and Taiwan — firing “carrier killer” missiles into the South China Sea, repeated fighter incursions across the Taiwan Strait median line — then the next step would be to informally include Taiwan in discussion or actual practice at the exercise.

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In Taiwan’s case, as the CCP continues to use the island as a test-bed for political warfare techniques, Taiwan can return the favor by sharing tactics, techniques, and procedures for combating this with the rest of the democratic world. Taiwan can deter the new PLA methods of warfare via openly practicing integration of conventional warfighting with the ability to wage an autonomous, drawn-out insurgency in the interior through the use of reserves. Finally, Taiwan political leadership could deter the CCP from decapitation-style strikes by declaring the retaliatory triggering of conventional “dead hand” counterstrikes against CCP leadership.

If the CCP takes the most likely course of action, the United States and Taiwan must impose costs as part of competition. To achieve balance and to credibly deter the CCP from the most dangerous course of action, the U.S. and Taiwan must introduce doubt and uncertainty into the minds of CCP leadership. In other words, we must short circuit the CCP algorithm.

Breaking Certainty

Some years ago, in a previous era of U.S.-China engagement, I had the delightful pleasure of listening to a PLA lecture in a gaudy Zhuhai hotel. It was a few days before the Zhuhai Air Show, and the PLA had invited the USAF delegation to a pre-show conference on “Air Force Innovation in the 21st Century.”

The presenter went through multiple historical examples of military innovation (with a special focus on Mao’s theory of people’s war), leading to the last slide: a partial differential equation. “We find all historical cases of innovation can be explained through this equation.” The officer then turned to the U.S. delegation. “Through relentless execution of this equation, our Air Force will certainly be the world leader in innovation.”

The U.S. delegation politely clapped, but we were bewildered at the idea that something like innovation could be boiled down to an equation. Much like my other visit to Taiwan, I was struck by the certainty involved. Most of all, I worried that the certainty demonstrated with regards to an equation on innovation would be replicated elsewhere — for instance, in an equation deciding if and when the PLA should invade Taiwan.

Strategic ambiguity no longer fulfills its promise of stability. Paradoxically, it invites dangerous certainty. It’s time to draw a line in the sand.

Eric Chan is a China/Korea strategist for the U.S. Air Force’s Checkmate office. The views expressed in the article are those of the author and do not reflect the official positions of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or SecuriFense.