Foreign Affairs

Ending U.S. Strategic Ambiguity on Taiwan

In 1996, the People’s Republic of China attempted to disrupt the Taiwanese presidential elections by conducting missile tests off of the strait separating Taiwan from mainland China. It nearly worked until the United States responded by sending two aircraft carriers into the strait. The move signaled to China that the U.S. would not passively allow China to bully Taiwan. The U.S. effort succeeded, and China was dissuaded. Unfortunately, a similar scenario is no longer possible. Chinese military preparedness continues to improve, and much of the nation’s military spending is oriented towards a conflict with Taiwan. Under the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), the U.S. has continued to sell arms to Taiwan and aid its military in training and logistics. However, the TRA maintains American “strategic ambiguity” and does not commit the U.S. to defending Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion. American involvement with Taiwan allows the U.S. to frame the island as a democratic counterpoint to China. Keeping Taiwan out of the PRC’s direct control is proof the U.S. remains the dominant global power. With China finally having gained the military capability to take the island by force, it is imperative that the U.S. reaffirm its commitment to defending Taiwan and democracy abroad. 

Recent military exercises held by the Pentagon show a Taiwan-U.S. partnership is insufficient at holding back a Chinese offensive. China is only about 100 miles from Taiwan, while over 6,500 miles of ocean separate the U.S. from Taiwan. The U.S. spread its forces across the globe while China concentrated nearly all of theirs in the Pacific. While China has spent decades preparing for this particular invasion, America turned its attention to conflicts in the Middle East. The evidence is clear—the United States, as it stands, does not have the military capacity to hold back China. Significant military expansion coupled with modernization efforts has pushed the Chinese military into the same tier as U.S. forces. Recent simulations run by the U.S. military show Taiwan could fall within three days of the initial strike. The invasion would not be cost-free for China, of course, but every day China pulls further ahead of Taiwan, making the cost of war that much smaller. 

Despite America’s best efforts, the region has only grown more volatile, and relations continue to sour. The United States and its allies have devoted themselves to maintaining a military presence in the South China Sea and surrounding areas, with Taiwan playing a pivotal role in that strategy. On the other hand, Chinese President Xi Jinping has vowed to retake Taiwan. As a result, both nations are on a collision course that the U.S. can only avoid by changing standing strategic doctrine. 

Strategic ambiguity is the overarching structure that has shaped U.S. policy towards Taiwan since at least the TRA. In short, strategic ambiguity means that the U.S. remains uncommitted to defending Taiwan in case of an invasion and expects the fate of Taiwan to be decided peacefully. The strategy has been sufficient to prevent war thus far. Because neither China nor Taiwan can be sure what America will do in the event that fighting breaks out, strategic ambiguity forces both sides to consider their options carefully. 

China decided slow military buildup and ramping up pressure were their best options, and this is starting to pay off. 

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) followed the U.S. military’s withdrawal from Kabul with a military exercise designed to intimidate Taiwan. First, China simulated amphibious invasions and fired missiles into the sea south of Taiwan and followed this up by practicing closing off the Taiwan Strait to outside aid entirely. Then, in early October of this year, China flew a record 150 aircraft into Taiwan’s defense zone, including traditional fighter jets and bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons. These flyovers are a clear attempt to frighten the Taiwanese government and signal Chinese military preparedness for a potential invasion. 

Ambiguity has left Taiwan woefully outspent and with artificially limited American support. Without clear American commitment, it is only a matter of time before China decides the cost of invasion is low enough and proceeds with a takeover of the island. 

The United States should demonstrate its commitment by bolstering its military responsibility to Taiwan. Increasing the frequency and size of arms sales would be an excellent first step towards a closer U.S.-Taiwan relationship. Additionally, recent reports indicate U.S. forces are on the island training Taiwanese troops in strategy and the operation of American-made equipment. These efforts should be maintained and become a regular part of the partnership. Lastly, the U.S. should declare that any attempt at a violent Chinese invasion of the island will be met by proportional U.S. force. These steps demonstrate a strong U.S. commitment to the island and eliminate any ambiguity.

Substantial U.S. involvement raises the cost of invasion for China and deters military action. Further, it does not violate the current position of the American government that the China-Taiwan dispute should be settled peacefully. The Chinese government’s insistence that Taiwan is legally part of the People’s Republic of China means that any country wishing to do business with China must formally agree with China’s stance. The United States is no exception and has formally held the position that Taiwan is legally part of China since the 1970s through its One-China policy. If China wishes to reunite with Taiwan, it will have to do so through peaceful means. Ending strategic ambiguity is consistent with the TRA and the One-China policy. Any other alternative is not satisfactory.

Appeasement has failed to make any headway in bettering U.S.-China relations. China remains just as revisionist-minded as ever, and removing the one obstacle between China and Taiwan makes violent reunification inevitable. Scaling back our commitment to Taiwan would also damage confidence among our allies in the region, including Japan and South Korea. If our allies perceive American commitments to their defense to be anything less than rock-solid, they would not be faulted for pursuing a strategy independent of U.S. interests. Japan might buck its longstanding aversion to nuclear weapons and choose to proliferate unilaterally, further destabilizing the region. Additionally, after a takeover of Taiwan, China would likely turn its full attention to bolstering its military presence in the South China Sea, accentuating the fears of Western-allied countries in the area. Taiwan is a thriving democracy that deserves to have the ability to determine its destiny. If the U.S. is serious about supporting democracy abroad, it must also be serious about ensuring cross-Strait relations remain peaceful. A Chinese invasion of Taiwan has the potential to escalate into a full-blown war and would threaten democracies everywhere. It is time for the American government to replace its failing policies before it is too late.

Categories: Foreign Affairs

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