Background: the strategic ambiguity-clarity debate
For the last forty years, the One-China Policy, the Six Assurances, and the Taiwan Relations Act have erected the pillars of the US’ Taiwan policy. Together, they mean the US will provide arms sales to Taiwan to ensure the island has sufficient ability for self-defense while not directly engaging in the sovereignty dispute between China and Taiwan. However, as China’s military power projection capabilities have progressed rapidly over the past few years, whether the US should adjust its policy towards Taiwan has stirred vigorous debate in policymaking circles.
Last September, Richard Haass and David Sack argued that the US should transition its support for Taiwan into “strategic clarity,” meaning the US should explicitly make a security commitment to Taiwan, such as by deploying US troops to the island to deter China from launching an assault. The Trump administration’s hard-line attitude against China and advancing US-Taiwan relations had provided extra momentum for this movement.
However, this approach has its critics. Objectors believe a policy of strategic clarity on Taiwan may be too risky as it could compel China to act earlier and drag the US into an unnecessary war, with this thesis supported by a recent report published by the Council on Foreign Relations listing Taiwan as “the most dangerous flash point in the world for a possible war.” The report proposed the US should work with its allies and effectively deter China’s growing coercion against Taiwan, yet should also adhere to One-China policy and maintain strategic ambiguity to prevent provoking China.
There is still no clear conclusion from the debate at this point. Poignantly, while certain stakeholders had predicted that Biden would refrain from showing clear support for Taiwan in order to reduce tension with China – at least during the early days of his office – recent developments indicate that Biden’s China policy, Taiwan included, has demonstrated continuity rather than radical change from the Trump administration. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has claimed that the Taiwan issue and that further Chinese threats against the island will not be ignored by the United States in his recent talks, including in an interview with MSNBC and a phone call to Chinese top diplomat, Yang Jiechi. President Biden also underscored his concerns about increasingly assertive Chinese action towards Taiwan during his first phone call to President Xi on the eve of the Lunar New Year.
In a seminar hosted by the US Institute of Peace (USIP), the incumbent national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, and his predecessor, Robert O’Brien, joined together and reached a consensus that the US should, with “clarity and consistency,” impose costs on China for its threat projections towards Taiwan. Most recently, on March 3, the White House released the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, which stated that “We will support Taiwan, a leading democracy and a critical economic and security partner, in line with longstanding American commitments.” Although these statements do not amount to a clear security commitment, the Biden administration’s determination to deter Chinese coercion against Taiwan and other democracies across the globe appears resolute.
The primary factors driving the US’ Taiwan policy
First, Chinese military expansion.
The military power gap between Taiwan and China remains the main source of urgency for US strategic clarity. Even if the US military joined the fight in a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, war-game results conducted by the Pentagon and Rand Corp conclude that the prospects are not optimistic. Moreover, Chinese militarized expansion is not limited to Taiwan only; the South China Sea, East Sea, and China-India border are all hotspots in China’s territorial claims. Notably, China’s nine-dash line in the South China Sea entraps over 80 percent of the entire sea and overlaps with exclusive economic zones of the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam.
In addition, China passed the new Coast Guard Law this past January, which would allow the Chinese coast guard to use force in these disputed waters. Such a move has raised concerns from both China’s neighboring countries as well as countries across the globe that frequent the busy maritime trade lines within the South China Sea. Should this escalation remain unchecked, the US’ commitment to and core interests in a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” could become swiftly undermined by China. The assertiveness of Chinese military action will determine the appropriate reciprocal strengthening of US presence in this region.
Second, US allies’ attitude towards Chinese relations.
Alignment among the US and her Asian allies is paramount to a successful approach of strategic clarity, as a successful defense of Taiwan would require tight-knit military, economic, and policy collaboration. However, leaders in the region are seldom willing to involve themselves in the military and sovereignty conflict between China and Taiwan. The US’ core allies in Asia, including Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and India, all have close economic ties with China, which would be at-risk should the countries align themselves against China. This has thus far led to a coalition that may show support for an independent Taiwanese democracy and economy, but has been otherwise unwilling to confront China over its imperialistic initiatives on an open stage. Unless the US can persuade its allies to assist in deterring Chinese military expansion in the region more broadly, an unequivocal commitment to Taiwan would be unrealistic to successfully carry out.
Third, a rational Taiwan.
If Taiwan uses a US’ commitment to pursue legal independence, the US will be forced to abandon its longstanding One-China policy in turn, which could lead to severe consequences for the US, Taiwan, and China. Thus, a conservative Taiwan that is not a “troublemaker” (as per President George W. Bush in the 2000s) is a precondition of strategic clarity, and has already been guaranteed by the incumbent Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. Even if her party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), has a strong proclivity towards Taiwanese independence, she has adopted a pragmatic approach towards China since assuming office in 2016. Even during Trump’s presidency, Taiwan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Joseph Wu, stated clearly that Taiwan would not pursue official diplomatic relations with the US at this stage. However, in the unlikely situation in which Tsai’s successor takes audacious moves instead, the US would have to decline the option of strategic clarity towards Taiwan.
Leadership and Taiwan’s sovereignty dispute are less relevant
Yet, the decision to adopt a policy of strategic clarity has little to do with leadership style or party affiliation. We have thus far witnessed a continuity of US policy on China between Trump and Biden, while Biden’s China team agrees with the former administration that the last four-decade engagement policy with China has failed. That is to say, as Taiwan policy is an inevitable hurdle for US-China relations, a policy of strategic ambiguity or clarity is not necessarily defined by any one individual – rather by the overarching relationship between the two largest economies in the world.
Furthermore, the issue over Taiwanese sovereignty should also be removed from the ambiguity-clarity debate. The One-China policy remains a red-line issue for the US-Chinese relations, and the priority should be instead to deter China’s military pressure against Taiwan rather than to intervene in the sovereignty dispute between the two. While this should not be interpreted as US noncommitment, a pragmatic approach would see increased cooperation between the US and Taiwan in areas such as economic activity, upgrading Taiwanese military quality, and developing additional supply chains between the two economies.
Looking forward: a state of constant evaluation
It will likely be some time before the conditions are ripe for a policy of strategic clarity towards Taiwan. The US’ Taiwan policy is unlikely to change drastically for the time being, though the option of strategic clarity will continue to remain in the policymaking arena. A possible outcome could be a complex combination of both strategic ambiguity and clarity – for example, US support for Taiwan grows in high-impact areas but excludes legally-binding defense commitments.