Why the US Should Ditch Strategic Ambiguity Toward Taiwan

If the US policy of strategic ambiguity continues to be its primary doctrine toward the Taiwan Strait a grim picture emerges.

Increasingly, strategic ambiguity has become a buzzword, and John Oliver’s segment on Taiwan during Last Week Tonight strengthened its place in the international political lexicon.

The long-standing policy of strategic ambiguity – aimed at not providing assurances to either Taiwan or China about US reactions to a potential conflict between them – has served American interests well. Taiwan and China have not engaged in a shooting war since the 1970s introduction of this strategy.

However, the international environment is rarely stable for long. As the balance of power between the US and China, and China and Taiwan, continues to change, it’s time to call for a review. It is an urgent matter since Chinese intrusion in Taiwan’s air defense identification zone has increased significantly over the past two years.

The military threat from Beijing to Taipei is becoming more visible and imminent. Clinging to a policy of strategic ambiguity could be harmful to US national interests.

America’s Domination

Successful deterrence rests on two elements: capabilities and intentions. When the strategy was first introduced, there was little doubt in the minds of Chinese leaders that the US could interdict, block, and even punish the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) should it launch an attack on Taiwan.

American intervention in the 1995-1996 Third Taiwan Strait Crisis clearly showed Beijing what it could and was willing to do should conflict arise. The preponderance of power and apparent mismatch in capabilities made the implicit US security commitment to Taiwan through strategic ambiguity credible.

It’s uncertain if such conditions still hold today. Granted, the US military is still leaps and bounds ahead of the PLA in many regards, but most would agree that the gap is narrowing rapidly.

Chinese H-6K bomber
A Chinese H-6K bomber being intercepted by a Taiwanese F-16 fighter. Photo: AFP

Witnessing how the US conducted Operation Desert Storm sparked a PLA modernization drive, and efforts to increase anti-access/area-denial capabilities have greatly reduced US confidence in incurring minimum costs intervening in a cross-strait conflict.

As the capability gap shrinks, American ability and credibility to deter a Chinese military attack on Taiwan is hampered.

China’s Intentions

It could also be argued that China has not had strong intentions to take Taiwan back for the past several decades. Recovering from domestic upheavals in the 1960s led the Chinese Communist Party to devote the bulk of its energy to revitalizing the country’s economy.

In subsequent decades, China was keen to join the liberal international system the US had built, and Beijing adopted a policy of compliance to bide its time. A conflict with Taiwan that could wreck its economy and its international image was unthinkable.

We see a different China today. Its newfound power, gained through rapid economic development, has emboldened Beijing in its aspirations for a more prominent role in the international order. China has largely outgrown its reticent past to become a hegemonic competitor with the US in world politics.

Openly challenging the US in the South China Sea, launching the Belt and the Road Initiative, and enhancing its economic cooperation with key NATO countries such as France and Germany are all cases in point. It is only natural for China to become increasingly more assertive about Taiwan, with Chinese President Xi Jingpin commenting that the “problem” of Taiwan could not be passed on to the next generation.

Chinese President Xi Jinping
Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo: AFP

Serving Beijing’s Interests

US strategic ambiguity no longer seems capable of curbing China’s intentions to recover Taiwan. Worse, the policy has served Beijing’s interests vis-à-vis the US. Imagine ourselves several years ahead, say, 2030. The deterrent effect of strategic ambiguity toward China would hardly seem to matter.

China has prepared and probably become more confident in preventing a US intervention in the cross-strait conflict and found ways to communicate to Washington that interference could be too costly.

Rising nationalism and national pride make the nation zealous about taking Taiwan. Threats or even the use of force by the United States would hardly persuade the PLA to back down, as China’s public backs such a tough stance.

Not only would strategic ambiguity become a liability for the US in curbing China’s intentions, but its worries about potential entrapment by Taipei are also overblown.

Status Quo

Proponents of this policy believe that an explicit security guarantee would give Taipei a blank check to take Mainland China back by force (unlikely nowadays) or pursue Taiwan’s independence, dragging the United States into an unwanted conflict. These were valid concerns.

According to some viewpoints, Taiwanese presidents such as Lee Tung-hui (1988-2000) and Chen Shui-bian (2000-2008) arguably created more trouble than the US would have liked by seeking Taiwan’s de jure independence. The current strategy worked well to prevent them from taking riskier actions.

However, this concern has little bearing on Taiwan nowadays. Current leader Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic Progressive Party have no intention of pursuing Taiwan’s de jure independence. Citizens do not support the government doing so, either.

Maintaining the status quo continues to dominate all other options in polls, even as more citizens consider themselves Taiwanese only rather than Chinese or both Chinese and Taiwanese.

This fact could be attributed to the policy of strategic ambiguity: not knowing if the US would help Taiwan in a war with China has undoubtedly sapped citizens’ appetite for de jure independence. But going forward, as the cost of declaring Taiwan independence is well understood by Taiwanese citizens, if the peace is broken, it will not be Taiwan making the first move.

For the United States, it’s critical to better deter China from using force against Taiwan than it is to prevent Taiwanese citizens from changing the status quo through its independence movement.

Taiwan’s Security

In other ways, strategic ambiguity has created some fundamental issues for Taiwan’s security. Although the policy has convinced Taiwan’s leaders about US ambivalence in a cross-strait conflict, the message is often lost among its citizens. For decades, the Taiwanese public overwhelmingly believed that America would come to Taiwan’s defense in the event of a war with China. This belief is harmful to Taiwan’s defense.

Domestically, this has given rise to a buck-passing mindset of not taking the country’s defense seriously, which has ultimately contributed to a growing gap in military capability across the Strait.

Taiwanese soldiers
Taiwanese soldiers undergoing combat exercises. Photo: AFP

The mindset could also be an underlying reason why joining the military is undervalued in Taiwanese society. So, strategic ambiguity has created the unintended consequence of weakening Taiwan’s defense by curbing the country’s concern for self-defense.

Recently, however, there are signs that citizens in Taiwan have started to take defense more seriously. Still, this has little to do with the policy of strategic ambiguity and more with the overt threats emanating from Beijing.

Grim Picture

If the US policy of strategic ambiguity continues to be its primary doctrine toward the Taiwan Strait a grim picture emerges.

An increasingly powerful China will not be curbed by the policy, or it will find US deterrence irrelevant or unconvincing, coupled with a Taiwan that does not match China’s military capability and still clings to Washington for defense.

Taken altogether, this is likely to induce a conflict that the United States wants to avoid.

Therefore, if maintaining the first island chain and containing China are top priorities of US foreign policy, strategic clarity along with rapid military deployment to strengthen Taiwan’s defense and deterrence capability may be a viable alternative, even though this action could very much signal the onset of a US-China Cold War.

Headshot Charles K. S. WuCharles K. S. Wu (@kuanshengtwn) is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of South Alabama.

Headshot Yao-Yuan YehYao-Yuan Yeh (@yeh2sctw) is Chair and Associate Professor in the Department of International Studies & Modern Languages at the University of St Thomas, Houston.

Headshot Fang-Yu ChenFang-Yu Chen (@FangYu_80168) is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Soochow University, Taiwan.

Headshot Austin Horng-En WangAustin Horng-En Wang (@wearytolove) is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Defense Post.

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