The joint declaration issued during last month’s U.S.-Japan summit reads, in part: “We underscore the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and encourage the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues.”

The last time that Taiwan was mentioned in a joint declaration was 52 years ago during the 1969 summit between U.S. President Richard Nixon and Japanese Prime Minister Eisaku Sato. The 1969 statement read: “Prime Minister (Sato) said that the maintenance of peace and security in the Taiwan area was also a most important factor for the security of Japan.”

Even compared to the relatively dry wording of the 1969 declaration, the 2021 statement struck a perfunctory tone. The U.S. side reportedly pushed for more explicit wording regarding U.S.-Japan coordination for Taiwan’s defense, but the Japanese side preferred more cautious phrasing.

Some in Washington have criticized the Japanese delegation’s constrained stance on the Taiwan issue. In the words of the Pentagon’s former China country desk officer, Joseph Bosco: “On the Senkakus, Tokyo recognized the need for strategic clarity to provide deterrence against Chinese adventurism. It urgently sought, and received, a public commitment that the U.S. security guarantee would extend to those uninhabited rocks. Yet, when it comes to Taiwan … Japan shies away from joining with the United States in an open commitment to resist Chinese aggression. The joint ambiguity simply encourages Beijing to keep pushing the military envelope … .”

Ever since the Nixon administration, which sought closer ties with China to counter the Soviet Union, successive U.S. administrations have stuck to a basic policy of strategic ambiguity on the subject of the Taiwan Strait. “Strategic ambiguity” refers to a deliberate refusal to clarify whether or not the U.S. would hasten to Taiwan’s defense in the event of a Chinese military attack. It was devised as a means of simultaneously deterring both a declaration of independence by Taiwan and a Chinese offensive aimed at forcing Taiwan’s unification with the mainland.

In the mid-1990s, China issued a pointed threat by launching missiles toward Taiwan in the lead-up to Taiwan’s presidential election. Top Clinton administration officials simply warned China that if it were to invade Taiwan: “We don’t know what we’d do. You don’t know what we’d do. It all depends on the situation.” Such language epitomizes the strategy of strategic ambiguity.

Yet some are raising doubts about the actual effectiveness of strategic ambiguity. One such skeptic is Dr. Richard Haass, president of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations. Writing in Foreign Affairs last autumn, Haass argued: “Ambiguity is unlikely to deter an increasingly assertive China with growing military capabilities.” Instead, “the time has come for the United States to introduce a policy of strategic clarity.”

Specifically, Haass proposed stationing additional U.S. naval and air force personnel in the region, dispersing these forces to complicate Chinese planning and “mak(ing) preparing for a Taiwan contingency a top priority for Department of Defense planners.” Haass also recommended that the U.S. consult with Japan and South Korea to establish the types of assistance these U.S. allies could offer in the event of a Taiwan contingency.

Yet a transition to a policy of “strategic clarity” with regard to Taiwan carries its own risks.

To begin with, depending on how this clarity is introduced, China could overreact, setting off an arms race.

Next, the U.S. could fall into the redline trap if it presents strategic clarity as a kind of redline — and if it is perceived as such. Observing this redline would become a litmus test for American credibility.

Furthermore, such clarity is not very effective when it comes to gray zone geopolitical challenges involving cyberattacks, supply chain disruption and SNS-based battles for political influence. Here it would be wiser to adopt China’s specialty of deceptive planning.

Finally, we should not overestimate China’s abilities. Even experts are divided on the question of China’s ability to launch an invasion of Taiwan and the merits of its strategy. In Michael Beckley’s analysis, China would have difficulty bringing Taiwan to the point of capitulation regardless of whether it attempted a landing operation, a sea blockade or strategic bombing. Indeed, one scenario involves a war of attrition, with Taiwan employing a so-called “porcupine strategy” of making itself exceedingly painful to invade and surviving an onslaught until the arrival of American assistance.

Still, as China redoubles its efforts to establish sovereignty over Asian waters, Taiwan’s growing strategic value to both the U.S. and Japan is undisputable. Taiwan, the Senkaku Islands and Okinawa are vital points along the first island chain. In the event of a Taiwan crisis, the Senkakus and Okinawa will face the type of threat to national survival necessary for the exercise of collective self-defense.

Or, if Taiwan is lost, the U.S. will no longer be able to maintain a line of defense along the first island chain. This would signal the demise of the U.S. as a power in the western Pacific. It would also jeopardize the U.S.-Japan security alliance and the security of Japan’s sea lanes.

During World War II, Douglas MacArthur referred to Taiwan, which faces the South China Sea and the East China Sea, as “an unsinkable aircraft carrier.” Today, Taiwan’s geostrategic position remains unchanged.

The 1969 joint statement of Prime Minister Sato and U.S. President Nixon underlined American recognition of regional security issues ahead of the 1972 reversion of Okinawa to Japanese control and reconfirmed the continued strategic importance of U.S. military bases on Okinawa. The reference to Taiwan in the 2021 joint declaration is nothing other than a “new Taiwan statement,” which clearly takes into account a possible Taiwan contingency and the role of Japan.

It is precisely for this reason that we must keep our “words” discreet and quietly prepare for “actions” that serve the goals of deterrence and dialogue.

Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Asia Pacific Initiative and a former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of his column in the monthly Bungei Shunju.

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