In a recent Foreign Affairs piece, Richard Haass and David Sacks proposed that the United States abandon its longtime posture of “strategic ambiguity” over Taiwan, in favor of “strategic clarity” in regard to defending the island from a potential Chinese attack. In the prevailing climate of pessimism about U.S.-China relations and fast-mounting concern for Taiwan’s future, their proposal has developed some momentum in the American policy community.
But the proposed shift to strategic clarity would be unwise. It likely wouldn’t substantially enhance deterrence, its primary objective, but it would materially increase risk for the U.S., perhaps dramatically, at a difficult time. Strategic ambiguity continues to deliver a healthy dose of deterrence, and shouldn’t be abandoned.
For one thing, a change now would be needlessly provocative. Strategic ambiguity, in the context of the “one China” policy artfully crafted by Washington ahead of normalization with Beijing in 1979, has managed for four decades to help keep China at bay with regard to Taiwan – an island that Beijing emphatically considers to be its rightful territory and the unfinished business of China’s civil war. Meanwhile, in 2020, Sino-American relations are at their worst shape in almost half a century. And Chinese leader Xi Jinping has repeatedly highlighted Taiwan’s centrality to Chinese sovereignty and his project of “national rejuvenation.” Against that backdrop, it’s hard to imagine that an important policy shift announced by a U.S. president – an explicit, public commitment to go to war in support of Taiwan’s autonomy from China – would be heard in Beijing as anything short of an incendiary provocation.
Capacity Remains a Question
In addition, any policy shift toward strategic clarity makes little sense without the U.S. being highly confident in its capacity to successfully defend Taiwan – and to do so at acceptable cost and risk. With Taiwan a mere hundred miles off the coast of the mainland, and progress in China’s military technologies having rendered that neighborhood very challenging terrain for American forces, Beijing’s asymmetrical advantages have dramatically depleted that confidence over time. Present-day strategic ambiguity – while not guaranteeing American intervention – has required that its national security establishment prepare to operate in that theater. But as Fareed Zakaria and others have noted, Pentagon war gaming has consistently pointed to poor outcomes in U.S. military intervention scenarios.
Haass and Sacks do acknowledge the inadequacy of rhetorically elevating the U.S. commitment to defend Taiwan without the capacity to successfully deliver on that commitment. But there are two weaknesses in their treatment of this critical variable. First, the capacity fixes they recommend, set forth in a single short paragraph, don’t read like game-changers: the stationing of more and better dispersed assets in the region; setting Taiwan’s defense as a top Pentagon priority; and consulting with Tokyo and Seoul “to see what types of assistance these allies would offer during a Taiwan contingency.” Second, their “strategic clarity” prescription isn’t expressly conditioned on confidence that China’s asymmetric advantages in the theater have first been overcome. It appears that their recommendation is first and foremost to replace ambiguity with clarity – while also taking steps to improve the prospects for American/Taiwanese success.
It would be more prudent to reverse that sequence: First, address what’s needed for confidence in capacity to deliver the intended outcome of the policy change, assuming those steps are feasible, in the context of other foreign and domestic policy priorities; and only then declare the new policy.
Strategic Clarity Is Unlikely to Enhance Deterrence
In calling for strategic clarity, Haass and Sacks seek above all to better deter a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. In their view, “Ambiguity is unlikely to deter an increasingly assertive China with growing military capabilities.” Successful deterrence depends on both will and capacity. Yet one senses that the Haass/Sacks proposal gives the former much more weight than the latter. Reading between the lines, their assessment appears to be that Beijing would likely interpret a declaration of a policy of strategic clarity as an expression of steadfast American will – and that this expression of will might be sufficient to deter China, even without having previously established a clear capacity to successfully defend Taiwan.
The premise of that view is that the Achilles’ heel of deterrence in the Taiwan Straits is the uncertainty of U.S. intervention under the present doctrine of strategic ambiguity. But deterrence’s greater infirmity is probably an imbalance in theater capabilities that favors China. If Beijing is confident that superior local capacity means it can prevail militarily in that theater, then even the greater certainty of U.S. intervention under strategic clarity would have limited deterrent effect. There is one exception: If Beijing judges Washington to also have the will to undertake the risks of broader escalation, that would inject additional complexities into China’s calculations. In other words, if a policy of strategic clarity was adopted – but without the United States having managed to significantly enhance its prospects for success in defeating the hypothetical invasion – then the policy’s expected deterrence benefit would probably depend on a credible threat of U.S. escalation beyond the Straits.
Haass and Sacks don’t address a scenario in which strategic clarity is adopted, deterrence nonetheless fails, and the fighting in Taiwan and the Straits is faring poorly for the defenders. But contemplating this scenario helps assess the likelihood of successful deterrence. Chinese planners would assume that, in that adverse scenario, the U.S. would contemplate a range of options in terms of escalation. The more promising Beijing judged those escalation scenarios to be from Washington’s perspective, the more likely China would be deterred from launching a Taiwan invasion despite an expectation of success within that theater (defined narrowly).
But it’s hard to imagine that such escalation scenarios could look promising to the United States. True, a player with an unusually high appetite for risk can sometimes prevail via even reckless moves in a game of brinkmanship. But prudence would almost certainly militate against such an escalation, and this conclusion suggests the limitations of a policy of strategic clarity. A policy change would simply be too risky if its intended benefit – better deterring against invasion – required signaling, to another nuclear power, a willingness to escalate as needed in order to achieve an acceptable conflict outcome.
Other Options to Strengthen Deterrence
The impetus for considering strategic clarity in the near term is understandable. Beijing has been significantly ramping up its pressure on Taiwan, in the shadow of its crackdown in Hong Kong and muscle-flexing in the South and East China Seas and the Himalayas. If Taiwan needs to be defended, the moment for doing so may well arrive sooner than would be convenient for Washington. But a declaration of strategic clarity would be gravely premature if the U.S. had not yet implemented the concrete steps that an actual, successful defense of Taiwan would entail. If there are, in fact, such steps capable of overcoming Beijing’s asymmetrical advantages – as Haas and Sacks believe to be the case, even if their article didn’t lay them out persuasively – they should be in place prior to a declaration of strategic clarity.
The decision making calculus for strategic clarity must also consider whether it would be irresponsible for the U.S., given its pressing domestic challenges, to transform what is presently ambiguous into a public, unequivocal commitment to go to war with China on behalf of Taiwan should Beijing invade. The U.S. is a nation already wracked by the COVID-19 pandemic, political dysfunction and social division, deep recession, and a giant debt overhang. It is coming up on 20 years of a pair of “forever wars” better described as losses than wins. It’s hardly an auspicious moment for taking on another large, rigid commitment to defend another polity and people – especially if the prospects for success aren’t solidly in Washington’s favor. It is simply not the time for what might amount, in the present circumstances, to just short of a bet-the-country roll of the dice.
In lieu of publicly shifting from strategic ambiguity to clarity on Taiwan, the U.S. national interest would be better served by (i) preserving the existing policy; (ii) improving American capabilities to the point of confidence that Taiwan could be successfully defended without relying on reckless escalation (assuming that’s feasible); and (iii) retaining the option of conveying to Beijing any desired “clarity” of American resolve via private communication – rather than face-threatening public announcement – once the capacity justifying that confidence had been achieved.
Taiwan has been a friend of the U.S. for seven decades. The island is a remarkable story of a resilient people who, in exceedingly challenging circumstances, have achieved world-class economic, technological and governance success. The moral imperative of opposing a forcible unification with the mainland by military force is clear. And yes, Taipei’s autonomy from Beijing has significant strategic benefit for the U.S., Japan, and others, by helping to keep China hemmed within the perimeter of the “first island chain.” If full-blown Sino-American enmity is, in fact, in the cards, to have relinquished this strategic advantage would represent a costly setback.
It’s understandable, then – and admirable – that leading members of the U.S. foreign policy community are searching for policy enhancements that can help preserve the China-Taiwan status quo far into the future. The “strategic clarity” proposal, however, doesn’t meet that test.
Andy Zelleke, Ph.D., is a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School.