It has been over a month since President Joe Biden pledged to defend Taiwan from a Chinese invasion, shifting from the longstanding 43-year US policy in accordance with the strategically ambiguous “One China Policy.” Despite this pledge from the President, United States defense officials continue to maintain that the US approach to Taiwan has “remained consistent” across decades of administrations. However, as China increased its military presence along the Taiwan Strait with a practice naval blockade completed as late as August of 2022, proposed bills and policies like the Taiwan Policy Act, which pledges to provide $4.5 billion in military aid to Taiwan, subsist in Congress. This begs the question: is worsening US-China relations by economically and militarily aiding Taiwan beneficial for Taiwan – and, consequently, the United States? For the sake of upholding US credibility, national security, and preventing domestic and international upheaval, US defense officials and policymakers should maintain their historic strategic ambiguity while also working on developing a strategy to cultivate US and Taiwan national security without worsening relations with China.
Currently, the framework of the US approach in Taiwan is based on three US-China communiqués established in 1972, 1978, and 1982, along with the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. But as tensions have risen, calls to abandon “strategic ambiguity”, the act of intentionally staying vague to gain an advantage, in favor of more “strategic clarity” have increased. For example, during Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) visit to support Taiwan this past August (which was met with heavy backlash from the Chinese government), she commented that her trip was “worth it” and President Xi Jin Ping is a “scared bully.” However, those who endorse deserting strategic ambiguity fail to consider its full depth; the idea not only deters China but keeps Taiwan’s objectives from becoming unreasonably assertive.
As strategic ambiguity has deterred war from the region for 43 years, it is fair to assume that it is an essential framework in maintaining Taiwan’s security. Strategic ambiguity lessens the risk of two pathways to war: Taiwan declaring independence, which may compel China to take military action; and having close US-Taiwan relations, which could cause China to feel threatened. For instance, in the first situation, the potential of Taiwan declaring independence is dissuaded due to a lack of commitment from the US to protect the island. Conversely, China would be deterred by US military arms supplies to Taiwan and the possibility of increased US intervention.
The US’ neutrality would allow China to remain calm, as they would not need to feel threatened by an impending alliance between two of their adversaries. Furthermore, ambiguity allows for informal cooperation between Taiwan and the United States, which can include benefits such as a US embassy in Taipei, arms sales for the island, and limited US military training exercises for Taiwanese soldiers – all of which would likely not have been tolerated by China, had they been formal. Ambiguity also allows the US to maintain both their $400 billion imports from China and their $77 billion imports from Taiwan, lessening the US’ risk of economic downturn.
On the other hand, the risk of China commissioning a military attack similar to the 1954 Taiwan Strait Crisis due to the prospect of a US-Taiwan alliance is decreased. As the Russian attack on Ukraine has shown evident, considerations of military alliances can elicit hostile actions from nations. The US, by straying away from ambiguity in favor of clarity, would have the challenging responsibility of developing a credible and feasible formal treaty that provides defense for a nation that is 7000 miles away against an international superpower that is 100 miles away from it. Therefore, Biden’s oath to Taiwan does not have any benefit since it undercuts an already complicated unspoken agreement which has been in effect throughout decades of administrations and peacetime, jeopardizing both Taiwanese and American national security.
Although policies of strategic ambiguity have the potential to be compromised by China’s growing international presence, other factors must be considered before moving forward in favor of strategic clarity. Taiwan’s general public is overly optimistic about US Defense assistance, with over 60% of the population believing that the US would deploy troops in Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack. This optimism, with regard to only 50% of Americans who support US military action in Taiwan, is not consistent with the American public’s point of view, and moreover, is not supported by institutionalized, tangible, or uniformed military regulation. The US is unlike its Japanese, South Korean, and other East Asian allies as there is no structured military cooperation plan between the US and Taiwan, and they do not engage in base-sharing or collective large-scale military exercises.
The Biden Administration, US policymakers, and US defense community should strive to be strategically ambiguous but continue to provide Taiwan with military advice, direction, and arms to help Taiwan defend themselves. One way that the US can execute this is by providing Taiwan with anti-tank and anti-missile infrastructure, cybersecurity defense strategies, and quietly increasing their military capabilities in the case that US intervention is required. As tensions continue to escalate towards the prospect of hostility, it is now more imperative than ever that the US must remain publicly grounded in their ambiguity, but privately prepared for the worst.