US Should Abandon Strategic Ambiguity for ‘Dual Clarity’ Toward Taiwan

The world’s undivided attention is on Ukraine, justifiably so, as Russian aggression has caused widespread geopolitical changes not seen since World War II.

The dire situation also prompts many to worry about a potential war in the Taiwan Strait, pointing out that Beijing is learning earnestly and could replicate a conflict when the moment is ripe.

The worries rekindle a discussion on the current US strategic ambiguity policy toward Taiwan.

On February 27, Japan’s former prime minister Shinzo Abe appeared to advocate the US ditch the strategic ambiguity policy employed since 1979.

In replacement, Abe recommends the US make it clear that it would defend Taiwan when facing a Chinese invasion. Yes, Abe calls for strategic clarity, which would provide an unconditional commitment to Taiwan’s defense. However, such a blanket stance, unfortunately, carries its own risks.

Risks of Strategic Clarity

Some argue that offering Taiwan unconditional support is like giving a blank check to a teenager – self-restraint could happen but probably won’t.

Emboldened leaders in Taiwan could decide to change the “status quo” in the future, knowing that the US would foot the bill. Inadvertent entrapment by authorities in Taiwan increases the risk of miscalculation and escalation of a cross-Strait conflict.

Xi Jinping in a conference.
Xi’s “China Dream” is a prosperous China, economically and militarily powerful, and reunified with Taiwan by 2049. Photo: Aleksey Nikolskyi/AFP

Furthermore, some fear that China might even react preemptively before such a policy ever becomes a reality.

What could be a feasible alternative if strategic ambiguity and clarity have apparent weaknesses? One policy option has been flying under the radar: dual clarity.

Dual Clarity Toward Taiwan

In practice, the policy of dual clarity means that the United States will announce its commitment to defending Taiwan if and only if Taiwan vows not to declare independence.

In other words, the US will commit to military intervention when China invades Taiwan without Taiwan unilaterally changing the status quo. America will not assist Taiwan if the conflict comes as a result of the island declaring independence as the first move.

The policy is called dual clarity as it is crystal clear to both Taiwan and China about the condition under which Washington would intervene.

The rationale behind this proposal is sound. Although many in Taiwan would reasonably seek independence to perpetuate their current condition, most are clearly cognizant that doing so will almost certainly invoke a Chinese invasion.

The awareness led most to favor sticking to the current status quo than pursuing independence in polls about Taiwan’s political future – a robust result across polls for decades in Taiwan.

Although the definition of status quo varies, about 75 percent of Taiwanese agree that “Taiwan is already a sovereign state as the current official name is the Republic of China.”

In this regard, implementing dual clarity is not creating a sea change in US Taiwan policy but affirming the majority preference of citizens in Taiwan, presuming Beijing is not changing its position toward Taiwan.

Ruling Out Independence for Taiwan

Arguably, ruling out the independence option will upset some or even many in Taiwan, but some citizens are likely to view it as a worthwhile bargain as it requires little change to their way of life while getting the craved US security guarantee.

China’s opposition to such an idea could also be minimal; the US is helping it by quashing Taiwan’s independence, which can be considered a strategic victory for the CCP.

Of course, the CCP could say no to this proposal, believing that the US commitment to dual clarity policy is uncredible and that the term can be revised anytime in the future. Furthermore, the CCP could deny any US official involvement in cross-Strait relations.

Taiwanese soldiers
Taiwanese soldiers undergoing combat exercises. Photo: AFP

Risks to Strategic Clarity

Benefits aside, one danger of this proposition is that Taiwan could gladly agree to it and then change the status quo anyway.

For some, any degree of US overt promise for Taiwan will only lead the country to seek out de jure independence, and the US will be entrapped as it might still come to Taiwan’s defense for considerations of national interests.

This moral hazard problem exists in both strategic clarity and dual clarity policies. Therefore, it seems like the success of the clarity policy hinges on the Taiwanese public voluntarily restraining themselves from overly supporting independence, knowing that it is a precondition for US protection.

Taiwanese Attitudes Toward US Policies

Then the question at stake is: would Taiwanese react accordingly when given such information?

To answer this critical question, our team fielded a survey experiment (n = 910) in December 2021. The experiment set out to measure citizens’ attitudes toward changing the status quo before and after being offered different policy proposals of US policy toward Taiwan.

Before receiving information about US foreign policy toward Taiwan, citizens were asked, “do you support Taiwan’s independence?” The average level of support was about 63 percent.

Afterward, they were randomly assigned to three different scenarios. Citizens in the dual clarity group were asked, “If the US promises to send troops to protect Taiwan, but Taiwan must not declare independence, do you still support Taiwan’s independence?” After receiving this information, their support for de jure independence dropped to 54 percent — a statistically significant nine-percentage drop.

In comparison, respondents who received strategic clarity information (“the US promises to protect Taiwan anyway”) slightly increased their independence support to 64 percent, while those who received strategic ambiguity information (“the US is uncertain to protect Taiwan”) dropped their support to 57 percent.

Feasible Alternative

The results should give us some confidence that it is practical to consider dual clarity as a feasible alternative to the current strategic ambiguity.

In essence, it offers the necessary component for the trio: a China that is intolerant of Taiwan’s independence, a Taiwan that wants to perpetuate its way of life, and the US that is reluctant to be entrapped into an armed conflict.

Chinese soldiers look on.
China’s Xi has stated that the PLA must become a “world-class” fighting force by 2049. Photo: Photo: Dale De La Rey/AFP

Even though both strategic ambiguity and dual clarity effectively lowered the independence support in our experiment, dual clarity may further eliminate lingering uncertainties and possibilities of miscalculation, incomplete information, and misperception about adversaries – which all could move us into an unwanted war.

Support for Independence

Note that our survey found higher levels of support for de jure independence than many others, which could result from two different reasons.

First and most importantly, we did not explicitly remind our subjects that supporting Taiwan’s independence will likely induce a Chinese invasion.

Second, the determination of Taiwanese people to pursue their nation’s independent status has grown exponentially, especially after seeing what has happened to Hong Kong and minority groups such as Uyghurs.

As such, dual clarity policy could help halt a rapid demand for Taiwan’s independence, but the long-term development of Taiwan’s public sentiment on this issue requires further attention.

Furthermore, Beijing’s Taiwan policy and US-China relations are other critical factors that could come into play in considering dual clarity policy.

If the intensified US-China competition drives China to change the status quo on the cross-Strait unilaterally, regardless of which direction, the US would need to restrategize its Taiwan policy.

Nevertheless, our evidence points to the practical usefulness of dual clarity at this given moment.

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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