Washington’s longstanding policy of strategic ambiguity is increasingly likely to inflame the kind of crisis it was meant to deter.
In an interview with 60 Minutes on Sunday night, Democratic front-runner Bernie Sanders suggested that he might take military action to defend Taiwan if China attacks it. The implication is that a Sanders Administration would fundamentally transform America's security policy toward Taiwan—a move that would surely cause hand-wringing in foreign policy circles from Washington to Beijing.
At least in this instance, Sanders is right to shake things up. Washington’s longstanding policy of “strategic ambiguity” is increasingly likely to inflame the very kind of crisis that it was intended to deter. It’s time for Washington to re-evaluate, redefine and clarify its commitment to Taiwan.
Since the 1979 passage of the Taiwan Relations Act, the United States has had a legal obligation to sell Taiwan the arms it needs for self-defense. Yet the United States remained deliberately vague as to whether it might come to Taiwan’s aid in a cross-Strait conflict. The logic behind this one-foot-in, one-foot-out policy is that as long as the United States kept both sides guessing about the conditions under which it might intervene, it could deter both Taiwan from declaring independence and China from invading.
Strategic ambiguity gave the United States flexibility, which made sense while the trajectory of China-Taiwan relations remained deeply uncertain. For generations, Taiwan’s ruling party—the KMT—aspired to unify Taiwan with China (albeit under KMT rule). Even after Taiwan’s transition to democracy, the KMT continued to favor pro-unification policies. As a result China, which long lacked the military power to take Taiwan by force, had reason to remain patient.
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Recently though, uncertainty has given way to clarity on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. In China, clarity comes in the form of Xi Jinping.
Annexing Taiwan has been among China’s top priorities since Mao. But Xi Jinping, China’s strongest leader in generations, has gone a step further by pinning his own legitimacy to the issue. Xi has also overseen a major modernization of China’s military, swinging the military balance on the Taiwan question clearly in China’s favor. Nor is he proving particularly patient, as he repeatedly warns audiences at home and abroad that the Taiwan problem “should not be passed down generation after generation.”
In Taiwan, clarity comes from a growing sense of national identity. Public opinion polling suggests that more than half of the island’s population now identifies as exclusively Taiwanese. Identity tends to solidify with time, making it hard to believe that Taiwan will voluntarily submit to Chinese rule anytime soon.
This trend helps explain why Taiwanese voters handed independence-leaning President Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) a landslide victory last month. In doing so they sent China an unambiguous signal. Taiwan will no longer accept Beijing’s long preferred “one country, two systems” solution to the 71-year old standoff over the island’s status.
It makes sense that Taiwanese voters don’t trust Chinese promises and assurances. They are all too aware that Xi has reinforced the Communist Party’s role at the center of Chinese economic and political life, pulled back from market-based reforms, and ruthlessly crushed any perceived challenges to China’s territorial integrity. They have also watched the CCP round up millions of Uyghurs in Xinjiang and put them in reeducation camps, stonewall pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, and respond to the coronavirus outbreak with draconian quarantines and Orwellian propaganda. The recent election results, in which Tsai received more votes than any president in Taiwanese history, were a resounding rebuke of Beijing’s agenda.
Meanwhile, even as views in China and Taiwan harden, circumstances in the United States are causing both sides to wonder if strategic ambiguity is starting to mask empty bluster. Voters across the U.S. political spectrum are dissatisfied with America’s role in the world. Politicians as dissimilar as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have keyed in on Americans’ desire to fix problems at home before focusing on challenges abroad. And nearly two decades of high-tempo military operations has yielded a relative decline in American military dominance along with a sense of fatigue and strategic distraction.
Collectively, these trend lines suggest that strategic ambiguity’s costs and risks now outweigh its benefits. Perhaps ambiguity still deters Taipei from pursuing independence. But Chinese military power alone is already sufficient to impose restraint on Taiwan. It is also true that strategic ambiguity affords the United States options in a crisis. Yet the logic of deterrence tells us that keeping one foot out the door does not deter your adversaries—it emboldens them.
It could get worse. U.S. ambiguity already seems to be encouraging Chinese assertiveness and aggression toward Taiwan. Failing to clarify the true depth of Washington’s commitment—or lack thereof—increases the risk of a war that both sides could have avoided had one side (the United States) not misrepresented its true resolve.
It is therefore time to move from ambiguity to clarity. Options for a more explicit policy run the gamut from unequivocal security guarantees to abandoning Taiwan entirely, and although we have our preferences, a decision of this magnitude requires serious deliberation at the highest levels of elected power. Our point is simply that America’s status quo policy is fast losing its ability to maintain the cross-Strait status quo.
Reviewing—let alone changing—a policy this important entails risks. Teeth will gnash and sabers will rattle throughout Asia. People fear change, especially in a national security community that prizes “stability” above all. But a policy designed to keep the peace must evolve alongside facts on the ground.
And the facts are unambiguous. American credibility is in doubt. Washington is not in the driver’s seat, because it no longer has the power to dictate how the cross-Strait relationship will unfold. And Beijing is as clear-eyed about its intentions towards Taiwan as Taiwanese voters are steadfast in their willingness to reject Beijing’s vision.
In the Analects, Confucius demands that words speak clearly and reflect reality: “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.” For three decades, Taiwan’s uncertain aims and China’s uncertain response characterized the Taiwan question, and strategic ambiguity was the right answer. Today, the uncertainty is gone and the question has changed. America’s answer must change as well.
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