For many years, U.S. policy on the issue of Taiwan’s status vis-a-vis China’s goals to reclaim the island has been one of “strategic ambiguity.” This approach means that the United States does not express a clear and definitive stance on whether it would intervene if Taiwan were attacked or invaded by China.
This open-ended response has been effective in deterring aggression due to the ambiguity of whether Washington would come to Taipei’s defense, leaving Beijing wondering whether American resolve would result in an unwanted conflict between the two global powers. This decades-old policy is the result of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act.
With President Joe Biden now in the Oval Office, the issue of Taiwan has become even more important. The change in American leadership and the higher stakes from China’s threats of invasion towards Taiwan mean Washington must prioritize Taiwan.
This is an opportune time for the United States to adopt a new strategy of “strategic clarity,” where the American commitment to Taiwan is made more explicit. A new approach to Taiwan would deter any impending U.S.-China conflict in the Taiwan Strait and show U.S. allies in the region that Washington remains committed to the region. Strategic ambiguity has managed to deter any armed conflict in the region between the two countries to date, but as the balance of power in the region begins to tip, the issue continues to remain contentious and leaves Taiwan in a vulnerable state.
With China’s economic and political rise within the Indo-Pacific and East Asian regions, Beijing’s threats to possibly invade and reclaim Taiwan have become an alarmingly time-sensitive issue, according to experts. This pressure is being felt in Washington, as well. The increased frequency and pace of American air and naval drills in the Taiwan Strait since 2017, and most notably in 2020, are now a cause for concern.
In particular, former President Donald Trump’s unpredictable policies toward China deepened tension between Washington and Beijing and revived the long-standing question of Taiwan’s fate going forward. Through the initial Trump-Tsai call when Trump first came into office, to increased frequency of arms sold to Taiwan, actions of Trump’s acknowledgement to Taiwan has gotten Beijing even more upset.
But the Biden administration has made clear its support for Taiwan. When asked, Biden affirmed that the United States would do “whatever it takes” to come to Taiwan’s defense in the event of an outbreak of conflict in the Taiwan Strait. Adopting an approach of “strategic clarity” would already be in line with the actions of the current administration. A core tenant of strategic clarity includes more transparent, outward communication from the U.S. administration to China on its continued commitments to Taiwan.
Critics argue that taking such a firm stance ties the United States down in the region, committing Washington to responsibilities it may not be ready to take. China also sees strategic clarity as a provocative stance. Washington may be risking engagement in a military conflict that may not be worth it. Given that this policy is likely an additional burden that the United States might be reluctant to bear, some feel that strategic ambiguity is a safer and more appropriate path.
However, Taiwan is a crucial regional partner to the United States due to its geographical proximity to China. Taiwan is also a long-time political and economic trading partner. To leave a long-standing ally without clarity on whether the United States would come to their defense is politically and morally insincere. Since the birth of the modern Taiwanese state, the United States has always been a supporter of a peaceful future for Taiwan and lent its support through military arms trade, military drill training and diplomatic exchanges.
Additionally, if the United States chooses not to uphold its commitments to Taiwan, this will undermine the American position as a global superpower in the region. It will result in deep rifts between the United States and other regional allies like South Korea and Japan, who also look to the United States for support due to their proximity to China. Continued lack of clarity on Taiwan could threaten the strength of regional alliances and cast doubt on the United States’ commitment to countering China.
Without a strong show of support, Washington is signaling to Beijing that American involvement in the region is dwindling. This will be taken as a sign of weakness, which would certainly further Chinese aggression.
Abandoning Taiwan would also magnify the gap between US commitment and action that would surely damage American international reputation. Strategic clarity would relay clearer signals on US commitments and the conditions that it is willing to accept or go against. Should China intend to take Taiwan by physical force, strategic clarity would further prompt Beijing to think twice.
It is necessary for the United States to uphold its commitments to Taiwan if the US wants to continue to support thriving, democratic and peaceful governments in the Indo-Pacific region. Strategic ambiguity must be reassessed in favor of strategic clarity.