There is for China no issue more sensitive or important than Taiwan. Since it seized power, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has insisted that the island is a renegade province that must one day be reunited with the mainland. That date has never been set but that goal has never wavered. Beijing identifies Taiwan as a “core interest,” one that is nonnegotiable and about which other governments can have no say.
Beijing conditions diplomatic relations on its partners’ acceptance of a “one China” policy — there is only one China and Beijing is the capital — and insists that they cannot have normal diplomatic relations with Taipei as well. The result is the near-isolation of Taiwan as the number of countries who recognize it shrinks to a handful — they prefer economic exchange with the mainland — and near-comical diplomatic contortions among countries that want to maintain ties with the island but also don’t want to anger China.
In 1979, the United States shifted diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing when it normalized relations with China; it also ended its mutual defense treaty with Taiwan. (It sidestepped with artful language the claim that Beijing is the rightful capital of one China.) Congress insisted that the U.S. maintain a security relationship with Taiwan and passed the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) to ensure that it did. The TRA asserted that Washington would “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.” In response to that concern, the U.S. would maintain the capacity to come to Taiwan’s defense and make available to the island the arms necessary for its security.
Significantly, the specific terms of U.S. support for Taiwan are not clear. Read the TRA language closely: It does not explicitly say that the U.S. will come to Taiwan’s defense. This imprecision has become a term of art in U.S. foreign policy: “strategic ambiguity.” Lack of clarity serves two purposes. It helps dissuade China from seeking to reunify the island by force by leaving open the possibility of a U.S. response. Imprecision also dissuades the Taiwan government from reckless actions — declaring independence — that it might take if it knew it had unquestioned U.S. support.
Strategic ambiguity has worked well, preserving peace in the Taiwan Strait. Now, however, there is a clamor to end it and have the U.S. make a straightforward pledge to defend Taiwan. In a recent Foreign Affairs article, Richard Haass, president of the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations, and David Sacks, a research fellow there, argue that ambiguity’s time has expired given China’s increasing assertiveness and the military capabilities to follow through on those demands, a situation highlighted in the just-released 2020 U.S. Department of Defense Report on Military and Security Developments in China. News reports also note that Pentagon exercises consistently show the U.S. military would have difficulty quickly and decisively preventing China’s military from overrunning Taiwan, forcing it to either intervene directly or let the island go.
Meanwhile, Taiwan remains cautious and pragmatic despite a pro-independence president (Tsai Ing-wen) and a pro-independence party (the Democratic Progressive Party) with a majority in Parliament. Its leadership and a majority of the population know their preferences must be sublimated to reality: The U.S. doesn’t support independence and rash moves would force Beijing to act.
In this situation, Chinese patience matters most and there are reasons to anticipate it coming to an end. President Xi Jinping might decide that China’s rise and the Chinese dream force him to act. This could be the moment to fulfill the nation’s destiny. Beijing could move because it believes the world is distracted by the COVID pandemic, or because of the perceived success of the imposition of a national security law on Hong Kong. Or it could be driven by a need to distract a disgruntled public if the Chinese economy stumbles.
The combination of Taiwanese realism, worries about Chinese patience and a shifting military balance pushes Haass, Sacks and others (like George Will in Tuesday’s Japan Times) to argue for strategic clarity from the U.S. on its commitment to Taiwan. They want the U.S. to recommit to the one-China policy, reiterate that it does not support Taiwan independence and unequivocally state that it will respond if Taiwan is attacked. There is reported to be a debate in the U.S. administration about ending strategic clarity — there are no details about what it would say instead — as part of an effort to get as close as possible to normal state-to-state ties with Taiwan without violating the one-China policy.
To that end, the Trump administration last year agreed to sell more than $10 billion in fighter jets and tanks to Taiwan. Taipei formally agreed to buy the jets last month. In May of this year, the administration informed Congress that it wanted to sell $180 million worth of advanced torpedoes.
While China complains about those sales — and all military sales to Taiwan — they are a vital piece of the U.S. commitment to Taiwan. They are consistent with the “Six Assurances” given by U.S. President Ronald Reagan to Taiwan President Chiang Ching-kuo in 1982. Long classified, they have been made public over the last year, and they reveal, among other things, that the U.S. willingness to reduce arms sales to Taiwan is “conditioned absolutely” upon China’s commitment to a peaceful solution to cross strait relations.
Meanwhile, last month, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar made the first secretary-level visit to Taiwan since 2014. He met Tsai and applauded her government’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Tsai said that she wanted to strengthen military ties with the U.S. and establish a free trade agreement. To prove she was serious, she eased restrictions on U.S. pork and beef imports, a trade barrier that the U.S. had long complained about. Washington reciprocated at the end of August when it announced the launch of a bilateral economic dialogue with Taipei that will cover the full range of the economic relationship, while focusing on technology.
Taiwan is a core interest for China but it is no less important to the U.S. and Japan. Taiwan is a thriving democracy with a vibrant economy. It offers proof that China can flourish under democratic values, and as such is a direct threat to CCP orthodoxy. Strategists argue that Taiwan is key to the military balance in the Western Pacific. It can contain China, blocking the projection of its military power; in Beijing’s hands, Taiwan is “a stepping stone to regional hegemony.” Control of the island would give China potential control of sea lanes that carry Japan’s energy and trade.
The loss of Taiwan would raise doubts among U.S. allies of it commitment to their defense. It would challenge the foundation of the U.S. security guarantee to the region. Allies, partners and friends would be forced to question the credibility and value of their ties to the U.S. It would embolden adversaries as well.
Supporters of strategic ambiguity argue that clarity is dangerous, too. Explicit language will legitimate the claim of Chinese hardliners that the U.S. is a hostile adversary that cannot be trusted to honor diplomatic agreements. A shift in U.S. policy would make it the revisionist power and allow it to be cast as the destabilizing force in the region. Moreover, it would force other governments to make similar declarations, and even if they wish to support Taiwan, they are unlikely to do so as openly. Finally, an increased defense presence, evident in Taiwan Strait transits and South China Sea exercises, raises the possibility of an accident between U.S. and Chinese forces that could escalate into conflict.
The key is deterrence. Statements about intent will ring hollow in the absence of preparations by the U.S., Taiwan and other concerned countries — Japan among them — to defend the island. The main burden falls on Taiwan, which needs to significantly increase defense spending. The U.S. must intensify preparations for a Taiwan contingency. And Japan must continue to strengthen security cooperation with Taiwan — a process that has been quietly but consistently moving forward for several years. Taiwan may well be a core interest for all of East Asia.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).