The debate over whether to stick to strategic ambiguity or opt for clarity on U.S. policy toward the defense of Taiwan has been under the spotlight recently. This reflects the rise of instability across the strait, and China’s growing military drills in the region. Taiwan was pointed out as the “most dangerous flashpoint in the world for a possible war,” in a recent Council on Foreign Relations report, rising to a Tier 1 risk for the first time.
U.S. policy toward Taiwan and cross-strait issues has a profound impact on the peace and stability of the region. Any actions by the parties in the China-Taiwan-U.S. triangular relationship will set off a chain of reactions, for better or for worse. Therefore, determining whether strategic ambiguity or clarity can best maintain peace and stability in the region is of vital importance. We argue that the long-standing policy of strategic ambiguity employed by the United States can best keep Taiwan safe and deter China from attempting an amphibious invasion or any sorts of military blockade to cut off the island.
When the United States broke its official relations with the Republic of China (ROC) back in 1979 and switched recognition to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Washington gained a strategic ally to counter the Soviet Union. In the same year, PRC leader Deng Xiaoping opened up China’s door to the world. This policy symbolized the return of China to the global market. Washington, Beijing, and Taipei all benefited from this reform and opening policy through increased economic and cultural exchanges – and it was all triggered by the U.S. policy of strategic ambiguity.
The Taiwan Strait had been a relatively peaceful place in East Asia due to strategic ambiguity. However, the military capability of China has increased gradually in the past 20 years as well. Many began to worry that Beijing may challenge the status quo to complete its pursuit of “national unification.” In reality, China will still have to think twice before it starts a war with Taiwan, because there remains a great possibility that the United States will provide military assistance to Taiwan against Beijing’s aggression.
Strategic ambiguity can restrict any unilateral decisions by both sides of the strait. On the one hand, it can prevent a declaration of independence from the Taiwan side on the assumption that the United States will surely come to its aid. Taiwan scholar Shelly Rigger, the author of “Why Taiwan Matters,” points out, “An unconditional promise of US support would alter the balance of power… Washington should be extremely careful about encouraging radical elements within Taiwan.” This description hits the core of why we need to be cautious in facing a growing aggressive China.
If Taiwan’s leadership declares de jure independence by altering the ROC constitution, it will bring back the memory of the “Century of Humiliation” to the population of mainland China, since Taiwan had once been ceded to Japan after the defeat of Qing Dynasty in the First Sino-Japanese War between 1894 and 1895. If the United States openly supports Taiwan’s de jure independence, China will declare Washington as the enemy of Chinese nationalism, hence escalating the situation. China may not emerge as a victor in a direct confrontation over the Taiwan Strait, but neither will Taiwan nor the United States.
Furthermore, strategic ambiguity allows the United States to hide its cards in the various scenarios that may arise in the cross-strait relationship. Beijing will think twice about harming Taiwan, because it doesn’t know for certain how the United States will respond and to what degree. This essentially acts as a deterrence and at the same time maintains a careful orchestrated balance of power by restricting all relevant parties from escalating the situation. Taiwan will be able to prevent itself from becoming a “bargaining chip” between the two major powers, which some have been concerned about.
H.R. McMaster, a former national security advisor for President Donald Trump, at a Senate Armed Services Committee said that Taiwan is “the most significant flashpoint” that could lead to large-scale war between the United States. But he also argued that strategic ambiguity was “adequate,” along with the Six Assurances to Taiwan. He emphasized the importance of actions, not words, in deterring Beijing. The key is for the executive branch to continue its support through the Six Assurances and the Taiwan Relations Act. These will have a substantial impact on the security of Taiwan.
Walter Lohman, director of the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, and Frank Jannuzi, president of The Mansfield Foundation, believe that U.S. strategic clarity for Taiwan could mean “an unconditional presidential security pledge,” which in turn, running the risk of making Taipei’s Tsai administration less careful about its posture and political assessment on China. Furthermore, by pledging a binding security commitment, Washington cannot guarantee full control over when and where its military will engage with China, something that Lohman argues “should be reserved entirely to Americans — even when the friends they propose to protect are as dear as the Taiwanese.”
Andy Zelleke, a Harvard Business School senior lecturer and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, has expressed similar thoughts. Zelleke argues that strategic ambiguity delivers a healthy dose of deterrence. Before getting rid of it, the U.S. must be highly confident of its capacity in defending Taiwan. He also wonders whether a clear commitment to Taiwan against a Chinese invasion would mean neglecting domestic priorities, given 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.”
Overall, the two articles cited above list some key prerequisites before Washington can consider strategic clarity: the United States must be confident in managing current domestic priorities; ensure the U.S. military is capable of achieving its stated objectives in case of war; and probably most important of all restrain Taiwan’s adventurism to ensure U.S. does not engage China on terms and circumstances beyond their control. Without first possessing credible solutions to satisfy these prerequisites, strategic clarity may not be sufficient enough to bring benefits to both Taiwan and the United States.
The devastations of war have haunted humanity since before written history began. At the same time, there are many historical lessons that have taught us war is not the only solution. Diplomacy done right can facilitate the right balance in the region to keep peace and avoid another human catastrophe. As the oldest republic in Asia, the Republic of China will not back down when we need to defend our democracy and way of life, but we have a responsibility as well to avoid a war from happening in the first place.