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Correcting the Record on US Taiwan Policy

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Correcting the Record on US Taiwan Policy

The important nuances of “strategic ambiguity” and other elements of U.S. policy are often lost in the headlines.

Correcting the Record on US Taiwan Policy
Credit: Official White House photo

It is often said most Americans wouldn’t be able to find Taiwan on a map. True or not, we are seeing much more news of the democratic island these days. It is especially on the minds of American leaders. In September, President Joe Biden reiterated U.S. support for Taiwan should the People’s Republic of China attempt an invasion. Then in October, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday each warned of stepped up PRC efforts to force Taiwan’s unification, sparking alarming headlines like “Beijing speeding up plans to seize Taiwan” and “China’s Accelerated Timeline to Take Taiwan Pushing Navy in the Pacific.” For those who have dealt with cross-strait issues for some time, however, these statements aren’t as dramatic as they may appear.

Speaking at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, Blinken said:

There has been a change in the approach from Beijing toward Taiwan in recent years. … Instead of sticking with the status quo that was established in a positive way, [it made] a fundamental decision that the status quo was no longer acceptable and … Beijing was determined to pursue reunification on a much faster timeline. … And if peaceful means didn’t work, then it would employ coercive means and possibly, if coercive means don’t work, maybe forceful means — to achieve its objectives. And that is what is profoundly disrupting the status quo and creating tremendous tensions.

In some sense, Taiwan’s status quo was never acceptable to the PRC, which always insisted that Taiwan and its people were part of one Chinese nation. (Many Taiwanese believed the same, although that number is shrinking.) It would be more appropriate to say that past Chinese leaders had shelved the dispute, not that they had accepted the status quo.

On the other hand, Xi Jinping has clearly changed his country’s policy, effectively “unshelving” the dispute and behaving more aggressively toward Taiwan. His decision to do so is the “much faster timeline” to which Blinken refers. Although I believe this is a fair statement, the reference to a timeline does suggest Xi has a specific date in mind, which is misleading. Xi’s most recent statements show no such plan and are at most mildly more pressing than past pronouncements. Presumably, he would like to absorb Taiwan before his tenure expires, but there is no evidence he has set a certain date and his tenure may be long indeed.

Xi’s aggressive actions in Hong Kong and against Taiwan have accelerated Taiwan’s alienation from China, all but eliminating any potential for a peaceful settlement in the foreseeable future. Xi has thus painted himself into a corner: If he is to unify Taiwan, it will have to be through military conquest. And although the PLA is improving its capabilities, a military operation to conquer Taiwan would still be an extremely risky operation. It would seem completely counter to China’s interests to launch such an invasion, but ultimately all that matters is whether Xi believes that.

U.S. leaders are right to warn of the threat and help the coalition of democracies and like-minded countries to prepare; however, the important nuances of the situation are too often lost in the headlines.

Biden’s statement in particular merits more thought. It marks the fourth time he has publicly provided an assurance (see here, here, and here for the other instances). The reactions to such pronouncements by the president are at this point predictable: Beijing condemns it, the White House insists U.S. policy has not changed, and commentators claim that the White House is trying to “walk back” the offending statement. Some portray these statements as a new development in relations between the United States, China, and Taiwan. Others point to the president’s statements as “dangerous… gaffes” that create unnecessary tension in China-U.S. relations. Still others claim that in promising to defend Taiwan, the United States has dropped its “strategic ambiguity policy” (here and here).

Lost in these conversations is what U.S. policy actually is and what terms like “strategic ambiguity” mean. Regardless of one’s position, it pays to ground the debate in authoritative sources and facts.

The outline of modern Taiwan-U.S. relations took shape in the 1972 China-U.S. joint statement, known as the first Shanghai Communique, the result of President Richard Nixon’s opening to China. The U.S. “One China policy” is based on this statement from it:

The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States Government does not challenge that position. It reaffirms its interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves.

This is superficially similar to Beijing’s “One China principle” that “there is only one China in the world, Taiwan is a part of China and the government of the PRC is the sole legal government representing the whole of China.” But by acknowledging purported Chinese views instead of affirming the One China Principle directly, the United States differentiated its policy. Moreover the insistence on “peaceful settlement” suggested limits on what it might tolerate in terms of China’s behavior toward Taiwan.

The fact that this is a China-U.S. communique shows how much Washington’s Taiwan policy is dependent on its relations with China. Indeed, the United States has at times shown an exaggerated deference on the issue. Some would even say its Taiwan policy is subordinated or “held hostage” to its relations with Beijing. The issue has inspired policies to mitigate the perceived imbalance. When President Jimmy Carter formally shifted diplomatic recognition to the PRC away from the Republic of China (Taiwan) in 1979, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) in response. The act affirmed that:

It is the policy of the United States… to consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States; to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character; and to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.

Because of U.S. support stemming from the TRA over the years, China accuses the United States of encouraging “Taiwan independence.” To Xi, the strengthening of a Taiwanese identity separate from that of mainland China, as exemplified by the election of proudly pro-Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, is intolerable. China escalated its malign activity in connection with her election in 2016 and re-election in 2020. But the fact is that American policy has never advocated Taiwan’s independence (and neither has Tsai, for that matter).

Importantly, there is no significant movement on Taiwan for some declaration of independence beyond maintaining its present government and democratic political system. Xi’s escalations are in response to his own dissatisfaction with Taiwan’s choices, not because the choices themselves have caused some irreparable split between China and Taiwan. Xi’s hostility toward Taiwan and abrogation of China’s agreement to protect Hong Kong’s political status have done far more to alienate Taiwan than Taiwanese or American actions ever could.

We might best categorize U.S. policy as a mixed bag: tough at times but mostly accommodating. For example, even as the Reagan administration sought improved ties with Beijing, the president himself provided greater clarity to Taiwan with his “Six Assurances” in 1982:

U.S. willingness to reduce its arms sales to Taiwan is conditioned absolutely upon the continued commitment of China to the peaceful solution of the Taiwan-PRC differences. It should be clearly understood that the linkage between these two matters is a permanent imperative of U.S. foreign policy.

President George H.W. Bush imposed sanctions on Beijing over its Tiananmen Massacre, but also sought to revitalize economic relations with the Communist government. President Bill Clinton continued to work with Beijing but also sent U.S. aircraft carriers to the Taiwan Strait during the 1996 crisis as a symbol of resolve. President George W. Bush said the United States would do “whatever it took” to help Taiwan defend itself, while relying on Beijing for support in the U.S. War on Terror. The Obama administration hyped its “Rebalance” to the Pacific and maintained relations with Taiwan. President Donald Trump attempted an ill-fated trade deal with China and took a dim view of Taiwan’s prospects, even as his administration later put pressure on Beijing. Biden has been clearer in affirming that the United States would come to Taiwan’s aid, but also hesitant to employ the U.S. military directly, as in Afghanistan and Ukraine.

We should remember that Biden’s statements on Taiwan have come in response to questions, not as formal policy statement. They represent the current president’s thinking and likely action on the issue. But to the extent that these statements differ from those of past presidents, it is a difference of degree, not of kind. Moreover, he says nothing about the circumstances under which the United States would intervene.

To understand why this is important, we should reexamine the meaning of strategic ambiguity, which Steven M. Goldstein defines as follows:

Strictly speaking, strategic ambiguity is not about whether the United States would intervene should either side upset the present status quo by initiating a cross-strait conflict, as is commonly assumed. Instead, it is about providing conditional clarity regarding the circumstances under which intervention by the United States would be appropriate. It creates a type of “dual deterrence” in which both sides are deterred from endangering the status quo by the possibility of U.S. intervention while at the same time being assured that the other side will not unilaterally seek to change the status quo.

Note that the term “strategic ambiguity” does not appear in official policy but as a descriptor applied by commentators. The Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy clarifies:

We will also work with partners inside and outside of the region to maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, including by supporting Taiwan’s self-defense capabilities, to ensure an environment in which Taiwan’s future is determined peacefully in accordance with the wishes and best interests of Taiwan’s people. As we do so, our approach remains consistent with our One China policy and our longstanding commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act, the Three Joint Communiqués, and the Six Assurances.

Biden’s promises of intervention do not alter this dual deterrence, because the question was never whether the United States would intervene but when. This is why both Biden and his national security staff can speak with honesty and frankness of a U.S. commitment to Taiwan without changing the structure of long-standing policies. What has changed is Beijing’s more obvious threat to Taipei. As a totalitarian leader, Xi is unlikely to back down from his military threats absent a credible deterrent from Taiwan in coordination with the global coalition of democracies, first of all the United States. Biden’s statements are thus neither unintentional nor embarrassing. They are a vital part of deterring Xi.