The USS Barry conducts operations in the Taiwan Strait, April 10, 2020.

The USS Barry conducts operations in the Taiwan Strait, April 10, 2020. U.S. Navy / Ensign Samuel Hardgrove

Ending Strategic Ambiguity Won’t Help Taiwan

Here are three better steps to take.

America’s position in the Indo-Pacific is tied in many ways to stability across the Taiwan strait, and China’s growing ability to seize Taiwan is not a problem we can put off. We need a strategy to heighten Beijing’s perception of the risks of taking the island, and we need to deploy it within two to three years. Some say the solution is as simple as adjusting Washington’s policy of strategic ambiguity, but a surer approach would increase military assistance to Taiwan, launch a multi-domain training program, and hasten delivery of arms already purchased by Taipei.

The potential consequences of a war over Taiwan are difficult to overstate. They include the devastation of Taiwan’s democracy, its free people, and its economy; and instability across the first island chain and beyond. Indeed, a conflict that begins over Taiwan may not end there. A military clash could reshape Japan’s southwestern islands and even extend to strikes on bases in northern Australia or naval clashes in the Indian Ocean region. Moreover, given the contributions of the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, or TSMC, to the global economy, a conflict over Taiwan would cause supply-chain disruptions in ways that would dwarf those of the COVID pandemic. 

Some military leaders have tried to put a timeline on the potential for conflict. But viewing the problem as a shot-clock is an unhelpful way to think about when Beijing’s capabilities and intentions may align. Instead, we should seek policies that continue to persuade Beijing that taking Taiwan is too costly and therefore not worth the risk. 

One policy recommendation that has become fashionable this past year is to abandon Washington’s longstanding policy of strategic ambiguity towards Taiwan in favor of a simple declaration that the United States would intervene if China moves to take the island by force. But changing the policy would only create greater uncertainty about our intentions. It would elevate this issue to a policy question that each presidential candidate would need to take a position on—and likely, each administration when Taiwan elects its own new president. The confusion and political uncertainty would undermine any positive effect it may have on deterrence. Moreover, the central issue at hand is not whether Beijing believes Washington will intervene – it certainly has to plan for this assumption – but whether Beijing believes Washington and Taipei can successfully deny Beijing’s military objectives. Given this, Washington is better served by continuing to be strategically ambiguous on the specifics of its hypothetical action while introducing more tactical clarity about its intentions through a range of other policies with Taipei that can directly improve cross-strait deterrent posture.

Foremost among the range of steps Washington can take in the near term is to launch a robust foreign military financing program to increase Taiwan’s security. Washington already conducts similar programs with Israel, Egypt, and Jordan. Like these countries, a security assistance program for Taiwan—ideally led by the State Department, with planning support from the Pentagon—could start with five years of annual aid of about $1 billion to $2 billion. This would not seek to replace Taipei’s current defense budget but to accelerate and bolster their asymmetric investments in key ways that can help delay, degrade, and deny attempts by People’s Liberation Army forces to operate in and around the Taiwan Strait and adjoining seas. 

In the past, I have been suspicious of recommendations to provide more resources to a government in Taipei that has underfunded its defenses for too long. But the situation has deteriorated in recent years to the point that we cannot afford to stand on the sidelines hoping for a more ideal situation to emerge. If the security of Taiwan and stability in the Indo-Pacific are as critical as many now agree, we must be willing to further assist Taipei by directing more resourcing to this challenge today. 

Senator Risch and his colleagues on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have introduced the Taiwan Deterrence Initiative, which would seek to operationalize a State-led military financing program for Taiwan. Senator Hawley’s Arm Taiwan Act takes a similar approach but seeks to use Pentagon security assistance funding. Given this growing interest from Congress, another advantage of this approach is that it provides a unique opportunity for both parties to work together on the hill and with the Biden administration to take bipartisan action in 2022 to increase stability in the Taiwan Strait. 

The administration might also deploy a multi-domain training program with Taiwan’s military that is more aligned with the scope of the operational challenge it faces. To this point, training with Taipei has been minimal, targeted, and only focused on several military domains. An expanded training regime could push into the maritime domain, add cyber and electronic warfare efforts, and conduct more senior-leader bilateral war games that could eventually include Japan and Australia. 

Finally, the administration should seek to expedite arms exports to Taiwan. Taipei has bought a range of systems in recent years, but it will take four to six years—in one case, eight—before many of these orders can be fulfilled, because other countries are at the front of the line. An effort to review and adjust these timelines could have an outsized impact on Taiwan’s defenses during the 2020s.

The level of attention Washington is now devoting to Taiwan and stability across the strait is encouraging. The challenge now for policymakers is to devote their newfound focus to a set of policies that can be effective and imminent. 

Eric Sayers is a nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He previously worked as a professional staff member on the Senate Armed Services Committee and as a consultant to U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, where he worked as special assistant to the commander.