Following U.S. President Joe Biden’s recent commitment to defend Taiwan in the case of an “unprecedented attack” by China, there has been a fierce debate over whether or not this signals the end of the United States’ previous approach of “strategic ambiguity.” Many see Biden as moving toward a more distinct “strategic clarity” that outlines the U.S. commitment to defend Taiwan, a stance he has reiterated on multiple occasions since 2021. These reiterated commitments to the defense of Taiwan and the subsequent improvement of the United States’ unofficial relations with Taipei, which have been criticized by the Chinese government as hollowing out the “One China” principle and insinuating a change in official stance by the U.S. government.
To analyze changes in the U.S. approach toward Taiwan, we must first understand the differences between China’s “One China principle” and that of the United States. “One China policy” is an issue that arose when the two countries officially established diplomatic relations in 1979. The Chinese government requires all countries that wish to engage in diplomatic relations with Beijing to abide by the “One China principle,” stating that there is but one China and that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China. However, the “One China policy” that the United States adheres to indicates a key difference from the “One China principle.”
The “One China policy” has come to be known as the general guiding policy that the U.S. utilizes toward China and Taiwan and is rooted in the Three Communiqués jointly issued by China and the United States from 1972 to 1982. Throughout the Communiqués, the U.S. states that it “acknowledges the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China.” A key issue is the differing interpretations of the wording between the English and Chinese translations. The Chinese version of the word “acknowledges” (承认) carries a much stronger connotation of admittance or agreeing, whereas the English term can be interpreted to mean the U.S. understands this position but does not make a determination on its validity. In other words, the English term “acknowledges” does not settle Taiwan’s legal status in the eyes of U.S. policymakers.
It has been through this understanding of the word “acknowledges” that U.S. administrations have maintained lively relations with Taiwan. With the passage of the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979, the United States was left with a great deal of leeway to respond to actions within the Taiwan Strait. The Taiwan Relations Act states that the U.S. “shall maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or social or economic system, of the people of Taiwan.”
This clause does not guarantee U.S. military support for Taiwan, yet combined with the Six Assurances, many analysts have speculated that the U.S. may offer support to Taiwan in the case of an unprovoked attack from China. This grey area within U.S. policy toward Taiwan has allowed Washington an amount of flexibility in dealing with both sides across the strait, providing deterrence toward Chinese aggression and countering Taiwanese independence movements. The eventual coining of the term “strategic ambiguity” arose to describe the U.S. will-they-or-won’t-they stance toward the defense of Taiwan.
It is imperative to remember that “strategic ambiguity” itself is not an official stance; rather, it is a method of deterrence that utilizes the ambiguous nature of the Taiwan Relations Act to secure U.S. interests. Any move towards “strategic clarity” is simply a clarification of the U.S. position concerning whether or not it will defend Taiwan and not a change in Washington’s stance towards the One China policy. Even amid increased U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan, an influx of U.S. delegations visiting Taiwan, and the voicing of greater support for Taiwan, none of these indicates that the United States is ready to abandon the One China policy or campaign for a change in the status quo in the Taiwan Strait.
In fact, previous U.S. presidents have also shown their support for the island. During the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1996, after tensions with Beijing escalated, President Bill Clinton interpreted the Taiwan Relations Act to include defending Taiwan. He then deployed two carrier battle groups to the Taiwan Strait to show the U.S. commitment to defending Taiwan. In 2001, when asked if the U.S. had an obligation to defend Taiwan if it was attacked by China, President George W. Bush responded, “Yes, we do, and the Chinese must understand that.” He also indicated that the United States would use military force if needed in a conflict between China and Taiwan. An escalation of current or previous practices does not indicate a provocation or a change in stance. Instead, it indicates a commitment and a clear definition of a previously held position.
Increased escalations within the Taiwan Strait stem from a decreased tolerance by China toward the discrepancy between the “One China principle” and the “One China policy,” an issue that has been made prominent due to the United States’ gradual shift away from strategic ambiguity and toward strategic clarity. With the United States clarifying its position toward Taiwan, the differences between these two interpretations are becoming increasingly visible. With the rise of “wolf warrior” diplomacy in China and the Chinese adoption of a much more aggressive foreign policy stance, the Chinese tolerance for this discrepancy is wearing thin. It is precisely this decrease in tolerance for these differences in interpretation that has caused China to escalate tensions within the Taiwan Strait.
The move to strategic clarity has been widely speculated as eroding the United States’ previous efforts to deter war in the Taiwan Strait. Critics of Biden’s most recent claims to protect Taiwan argue that the U.S. is losing its ability to navigate the differences between the One China principle and policy. Critics further claim that Biden’s stance runs the risk of challenging a much more confrontational China head-on and losing influence in deterring Taiwanese independence movements.
However, in an era of increased aggressive Chinese rhetoric around Taiwan, by directly stating that the United States will come to defend Taiwan during an unprovoked attack by China, the U.S. is able to disincentivize a Chinese military invasion. Chinese society is currently facing a number of long-term issues, including continued strict COVID-19 measures, a real estate crisis, and slowing economic growth. This combined with the Russian failure to bring a swift end to the war in Ukraine suggests the Chinese government is unlikely to engage in a risky military operation that it is not guaranteed to win.
A Chinese military attack on Taiwan is not certain, yet the threat of war still looms in the Taiwan Strait. Biden’s move toward strategic clarity may elicit strong condemnations from China due to its disapproval of the differences between the One China principle and the One China policy; however, strategic clarity will be able to deter future conflict in the Taiwan Strait and contribute to stability within the Indo-Pacific region.