Dominic de Bruyn | United States Fellow
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the United States’ friends and foes alike continue to question the global superpower’s resolve to intervene on behalf of allies to repel external acts of aggression. Perhaps no country is more concerned than Taiwan, which has maintained a precarious relationship with China for more than 70 years.
Beijing asserts that Taiwan is part of The People’s Republic of China (PRC) and seeks eventual reunification with the island. Chinese President Xi Jinping argues that Taiwan is bound by an understanding known as the 1992 Consensus, which he states is an agreement that “the two sides of the strait belong to one China and would work together to seek national reunification.” Conversely, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen maintains that she will safeguard Taiwan’s sovereignty.
In 1979, the US established formal diplomatic relations with China and severed official ties with Taiwan. Since then, however, the US has maintained a robust unofficial relationship with Taiwan, most notably through the sale of military hardware to the island. This delicate policy setting is known as ‘strategic ambiguity’.
The policy’s central component is the notion that Beijing cannot be certain that the US would not intervene if China invaded Taiwan, and neither can Taiwan be sure that Washington would come to its aid. While the US’ Taiwan Relations Act states that the US will maintain the capacity to defend Taiwan, it falls short of declaring that the US would intervene in the event of a conflict.
However, in May 2022, President Joe Biden publicly stated that the United States would be willing to intervene militarily in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. These comments reflect a growing sentiment in the US that Beijing’s coercive tactics require a clearer statement of US support for Taiwan.
Perhaps the strongest proponents of a more muscular Taiwan policy are Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), and Davis Sacks, a Research Fellow at the CFR. Haass and Sacks contend that America should adopt a position of ‘strategic clarity’, which makes clear that the US would respond with force if China invaded Taiwan. Beyond a presidential declaration of intent, the policy shift would involve devoting additional air and naval forces in the region, coordinating with regional allies such as Japan and South Korea, and increasing military assistance to Taiwan. Haass and Sacks conclude that “strategic clarity aligns US policy with what US allies already expect and sets a course for narrowing the gap between commitments and capabilities.”
There are several problems with strategic clarity. Most glaringly, is the potential for China to respond aggressively by invading Taiwan, which would force Washington to follow through on its new security commitment. President Xi has consistently adopted a tough approach to sovereignty disputes in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and the disputed border with India. Facing the spectre of domestic criticism, President Xi may calculate that taking decisive action against Taiwan is his only option.
Additionally, a US security guarantee would inevitably entail several caveats and conditions, which Beijing could exploit to challenge US credibility. For example, Taiwan controls a few islands close to China’s shoreline that Beijing could seize in order to test the limits of America’s commitment. China previously escalated a jurisdictional dispute with the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal by sending armed vessels to the area in the belief that the territory was not covered by the US-Philippines defense treaty.
Another risk is that an unqualified security commitment would embolden pro‑independence constituencies within Taiwan, which may provoke an aggressive Chinese response. While Washington could make clear that it would not be obligated to intervene if Taiwan precipitated a crisis, the assignment of blame is often a grey area. China would deploy its potent propaganda machine to argue that any coercive measures against Taiwan are a defensive effort in the face of Taiwanese aggression.
Strategic clarity might also undercut multilateral collaboration in the region by reminding allies such as Japan and South Korea that a close security relationship with the US might mean getting dragged into a Taiwan conflict. In December 2021, former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stated that "a Taiwan contingency is a Japan contingency”, reflecting a growing consensus that Taiwan’s security directly impacts Tokyo. However, US strategic clarity would be unlikely to shift Japanese public opinion in favour of a more active security role in the region. The US’ strategic partners have enjoyed the flexibility that strategic ambiguity provides and would likely hedge against making firm commitments to intervene in Taiwan.
Instead of adopting strategic clarity on the Taiwan issue, the US should continue to outwardly exhibit an ambiguous policy while simultaneously bolstering deterrence efforts. This should include increasing military resources in the region to counter China, increasing cooperation with Taiwan, and strengthening security relationships with regional allies. These concrete measures will indicate US resolve far more than a change in declaratory policy.
Strategic clarity would dramatically escalate tensions with China and lead to precisely the opposite outcome the policy seeks to achieve. It is far wiser for the US to maintain its policy of strategic ambiguity and to strengthen deterrence measures in other ways.
Dominic de Bruyn is the United States Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.