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U.S. Policy on Taiwan at a Crossroads

Updated: Jul 28, 2023


Can war between the U.S. and China over Taiwan be averted? U.S. policymakers must make hard choices between competing policies that may lead to peace or catastrophic conflict.

via TFI Global


Danger to World Peace

Given the escalating conflict in Ukraine, it is understandable if concerns about stability in the Taiwan Strait have taken a backseat. However, there are many similarities between the ongoing war in Ukraine and the potential for war between the U.S. and China over the Republic of China (ROC) — widely known as Taiwan — that deserve close attention.


In both China-Taiwan relations and Ukraine-Russia relations, a larger, more powerful state claims territorial sovereignty over a smaller and weaker one. There is great complexity in the differences between U.S. policy towards Ukraine and Taiwan, especially after the invasion of Ukraine, but at a minimum the U.S. has supported the autonomy of both Ukraine and Taiwan through arms sales. Additionally, both situations involve unresolved historical issues between two groups of peoples with close cultural and economic ties. If the war in Ukraine is any indication, U.S.-China relations over Taiwan could be a powder keg.


As China emerges as a great power with the military and economic capability to rival the U.S., how will Taiwan factor into foreign policy? Can the U.S. preserve peace with China while maintaining its current commitment to Taiwan?

It is within this context that American experts and scholars on U.S.-China relations propose three potential policy options: strategic ambiguity, strategic clarity, and limited accommodation. Let’s examine each of them with a critical lens to understand which of them, if any, hold the key to peace in the Taiwan Strait.


Strategic Ambiguity

Strategic ambiguity has constituted the status quo policy towards China on Taiwan for decades. There are two foundations of strategic ambiguity: dual deterrence and the “one-China” policy. Dual deterrence reflects the need to prevent both China and Taiwan from unilaterally changing the status quo. If China were to take steps to invade Taiwan, the U.S. may intervene. Similarly, if Taiwan were to move towards a formal declaration of independence, the U.S. could threaten to abandon support for Taiwan and force it to reconsider.


While dual deterrence relies on the importance of U.S. intervention to preserve peace, the one-China policy dictates the shape of the tripartite relationship. Passed by Congress in 1979, the Taiwan Relations Act determines what kind of relations the U.S. can have with Taiwan. It stipulates that the U.S. maintain informal political and economic relations with Taiwan and directs the president to take actions to defend the island’s autonomy. Meanwhile, the U.S. recognized the PRC as the sole legitimate government of China, formalizing full diplomatic relations. Finally, the one-China policy states that Taiwan is an autonomous, self-ruled entity without sovereign status. Thus, the policy functions as a compromise that neither party wants but both must live with. Taiwan has autonomy but not sovereignty, and China has full diplomatic recognition but not full reunification.


Benefits

Advocates of strategic ambiguity argue that the historical success of the policy speaks for itself. Dual deterrence was essential in resolving all three Taiwan Strait crises, but especially the third.


The Third Taiwan Strait Crisis kicked off when the Clinton Administration in 1995, at the behest of Congress, issued a visa to allow Taiwan’s President Lee Teng-hui (1988-2000) to visit the U.S. Infuriated by this perceived slight to China, the PRC began conducting missile tests and live military exercises in the Taiwan Strait. These tests were aimed at disincentivizing Taiwanese people from electing Lee Teng-hui that election year. The Clinton administration responded by deploying two aircraft carrier battle groups, causing China to back down. Thus, America’s strong willingness to intervene and deter provocative intimidation tactics were successful at maintaining stability.


Conversely, when Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian (2002-2008) seemed to be moving towards formal independence, the Bush administration publicly reprimanded him. In a 2003 meeting with Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, President George W. Bush issued a statement that “the comments and actions made by the leader of Taiwan indicate that he may be willing to make decisions unilaterally, to change the status quo, which we oppose”. Supporters assert that, while not ideal, strategic ambiguity preserves a fragile peace and secures U.S. interests in the region.


Risks

Nevertheless, contenders argue that while strategic ambiguity has worked in the past, the Taiwan Strait situation is evolving such that the foundations of the policy may crumble. For deterrence to work, it must maintain a credible threat to win a conflict, or at least make it too costly for Chinese leaders to bear.


Given the shifting balance of power, China is likely to question U.S. resolve or readiness to intervene militarily in the future. This is exacerbated by the fact that, compared to formal defense treaties it has with Japan and South Korea, the U.S. has no obligation to defend Taiwan. Moreover, deterrence through imposing costs assumes that Chinese leaders act rationally and perceive the situation clearly. If the U.S. underestimates the willingness of Chinese leaders to seize Taiwan, then war may occur. Even without nationalism or domestic troubles clouding judgment, escalating tensions can create a fog of war which prompts states to strike first.


Strategic ambiguity’s second foundation may already be eroding. Political data shows Taiwan’s population is developing an identity separate from the mainland. An annual survey by the National Chengchi University shows that the percentage of Taiwanese respondents identifying as only Taiwanese grew from 20% in 1992 to 64.3% in 2020. Meanwhile, the percentage of Taiwanese respondents identifying as both Chinese and Taiwanese dropped from 46.4% in 1992 to 29.9% in 2020. This coalescing independent identity apart from the mainland played a role in the election and reelection of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in 2016 and 2020, a member of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). As a candidate aligned with the DPP, a key part of her platform includes potent opposition to the idea of one-China. In a January 2019 speech responding to Chinese President Xi Jinping, President Tsai stated that “we have never accepted the ‘1992 Consensus.’...I want to reiterate that Taiwan absolutely will not accept ‘one country, two systems.’ The vast majority of public opinion in Taiwan is also resolutely opposed…and this opposition is also a ‘Taiwan consensus.’”


The 1992 Consensus is the foundation of the one-China principle. It holds that while both governments agree there is one China, they disagree on which one – the PRC or the ROC — is the legitimate government over all of China. By adhering to the 1992 Consensus, diplomatic space was opened for semi-official cross-strait exchanges. It was China’s basic precondition for dialogue between the PRC and the ROC. President Tsai’s explicit rejection of the 1992 Consensus has therefore played a key role in souring relations and a major instigator for the PRC’s intimidation tactics towards Taiwan.


Meanwhile, Taiwan’s more pro-China KMT party could make a comeback, but the race ahead of the January 2024 presidential election is just beginning. Regardless of the outcome, time is likely to only strengthen the trend of Taiwanese people identifying with a uniquely Taiwanese identity. That by itself may be perceived as a threat to the CCP’s firm belief in reunification.

Via National Chengchi University Election Study Center, 2020


The PRC’s current acceptance of the current compromise rests on the possibility of peaceful reunification at some point in the future. Chinese leaders view the use of force as a last resort only as long as peaceful alternatives remain. If they become increasingly pessimistic about the prospect of peaceful reunification, they may believe an invasion of Taiwan is necessary despite the risks. Thus, worrying trends have opponents arguing that strategic ambiguity lies on shaky ground.


Proponents of strategic ambiguity push back on these claims, arguing that worries about the changing balance of power and political developments in Taiwan are unfounded. The balance of power may be shifting, but it is changing slowly. The U.S. can continue to impose costs on both China and Taiwan if they were to unilaterally change the status quo arrangements. Thus, they contend that policy change for the foreseeable future is unnecessary and more risky than attempting to uphold the current compromise.


Strategic Clarity

Some opponents of strategic ambiguity believe that strategic clarity is the solution to the status quo’s policy woes. According to experts like Richard Haass and David Sacks, the U.S. should clarify that it will defend Taiwan from China. This would give Taiwan a formal defense commitment from the U.S. Compared to strategic ambiguity, which lacks a firm commitment, the deterrence signal from strategic clarity is far stronger.


In addition to an unambiguous policy of defending Taiwan, strategic clarity may also call for enhanced arms sales to Taiwan and revisions to Taiwan’s military structure and reservist system to improve readiness.


Benefits

Advocates of this policy assume that the most likely scenario for conflict is a lack of credibility that the U.S. will defend Taiwan. In this scenario, Chinese leaders question American resolve, believing that when push comes to shove, the U.S. will not sacrifice Los Angeles for Taipei. Aware that the window for reunification is closing, President Xi may decide an invasion now will tip over an already unsteady opponent. Adherents fear that strategic ambiguity opens the door for such thinking by Chinese leaders, which increases the likelihood of military conflict. After the invasion of Ukraine, more foreign policy experts in Washington D.C. have adopted this view. They point to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine to show America’s ambiguous commitment to Ukraine in the vague Budapest Memorandum and promise of admitting Ukraine into NATO later – but not now – is exactly what caused the war. If the U.S. had integrated Ukraine into NATO in 2007, the argument follows, Putin’s invasion would not have occurred, and the same may be true for Taiwan.


If implemented, an unconditional assurance that the U.S. will come to Taiwan’s aid may also strengthen its people’s will to fight. Deterrence strategies involve imposing costs that the adversary is not willing to bear. By improving Taiwan’s military morale, the likelihood of a successful Chinese invasion is reduced. This makes it less likely that Chinese leaders will attempt such an operation.


Risks

One problem is that strategic clarity risks undermining the one-China policy. As a key pillar of strategic ambiguity, the one-China policy assures China that the U.S. and Taiwan will not cross any red lines it deems a casus belli — a reason for war. This assurance reduces the likelihood that China sees a reason to strike. Credible threats must be paired with credible assurances, otherwise deterrence will fail.


China has made it clear it views any move by Taiwan towards formal independence as intolerable. An official commitment to defend Taiwan would give China good reason to question the credibility of America’s assurances of neutrality. There is every indication Chinese leaders would view strategic clarity as a hostile act. At a November 2022 Summit in Bali, Indonesia between President Xi and U.S. President Joe Biden, Xi is reported to have said that “the Taiwan question is at the very core of China's core interests, the bedrock of the political foundation of China-U.S. relations, and the first red line that must not be crossed in China-U.S. relations.” This is not bluster: U.S. support for Taiwanese independence is the reddest of all red lines for the CCP. Furthermore, actions by the U.S. to strengthen higher level cultural, economic, and diplomatic engagement with Taiwan have riled Chinese officials and confirmed fears that the U.S. will do exactly that. A high-profile visit to Taiwan by Speaker Pelosi in August 2022 has only exacerbated those fears.


In many ways, China relies on the U.S. to help keep the Taiwan Strait stable. In the past, when Taiwan has elected pro-independence leaders, China has signaled to the U.S. to rein in Taiwan. This arrangement where both sides are kept in check has maintained a fragile peace for decades. Announcing a formal commitment to defend Taiwan would be a dramatic shift in policy, upending this stable balance of relations.


China has good reason to be concerned about an announcement of unconditional support for Taiwan. A November 2020 survey done shows that support for Taiwanese independence among the Taiwanese people will likely go up as a result.


Variation in U.S. Support and Taiwanese Respondents’ Willingness to Fight

Via War on the Rocks. Johnston, Chia-Hung, Yin, & Goldstein 2021


Even if strategic clarity is successful at deterring China in the short term, the shifting balance of power could threaten the credibility of future deterrence. An antagonistic relationship over Taiwan has motivated China to build up its military strength such that the U.S. has no chance of competing. In this way, strategic clarity may hasten military modernization and great power competition by cutting off pathways to peaceful reunification.


Limited Accommodation

In response to the risk of worsening relations over Taiwan spiraling into conflict, some experts including Charles Glaser have recommended a policy of limited accommodation. According to this policy, the U.S. would offer to end its commitment to defend Taiwan — if and only if China peacefully resolves its maritime disputes in the South and East China Seas and officially accepts the United States’ long-term military security role in East Asia.


Limited accommodation seeks to solve a very different problem than strategic clarity. Whereas strategic clarity sees the problem with the current policy as a failure of deterrence, limited accommodation envisions the problem as a security dilemma. A security dilemma is “a situation in which actions taken by a state to increase its own security causes reactions from other states.” Thus, the greatest threat to world peace isn’t Chinese aggression. Instead, the most likely scenario is that China, driven by suspicions of U.S. containment, enters into protracted great power competition with the U.S. In this scenario, even a small accident would very likely get out of control. The solution must then be to reduce tensions and Chinese suspicions by showing willingness to accommodate China’s core security interests.


Benefits

First, limited accommodation would reduce the risk of great power war over Taiwan. Taiwan may be forced to acquiesce to Chinese control without a fight. Second, the policy would reinvigorate U.S.-China relations since the agreement would quell Chinese suspicions of a U.S. containment or encirclement strategy. Also, China’s peaceful resolution of its maritime disputes would demonstrate that the nation seeks to be a responsible great power and rejects regional hegemony. Finally, broader military competition becomes less likely, because much of China’s military modernization is aimed at creating the conditions for a successful invasion of Taiwan.


Risks

If China’s regional goals for dominance are beyond Taiwan, then accommodating China’s territorial aims will only embolden further expansion. Additionally, China would then be more likely to renegotiate its maritime disputes after Chinese control over Taiwan is consolidated. With Washington having no enforcement mechanism to hold Beijing to its word, backtracking on the deal is very possible. Such fears are part of why there is no political will in the U.S. for this kind of an arrangement. Double the political resistance towards this strategy for Taiwan, where there is little interest in reunification. In the eyes of many Taiwanese, China’s “one country, two systems” model has already been proven a farce by its dealings with Hong Kong. Moreover, sacrificing Taiwan as part of this deal could be interpreted as a Faustian bargain in direct violation of the democratic principle of self determination, whereby free people should decide for themselves how they are governed. Taiwan would not be the only thing sacrificed, but core American values as well. America’s image as a shining city on a hill standing for democracy and liberty would be deeply tarnished across the world.


However, the greatest risk would be to America’s alliances with Japan and South Korea. They may question the United States’ willingness to come to their defense and decide they must nuclearize to defend themselves. Bilateral consultations and continued joint defense exercises could help strengthen alliance credibility, mitigating the risks of limited accommodation. Nevertheless, the reliability of U.S. commitment and resolve in East Asia will suffer.


Where We Go From Here

The diverse set of policy recommendations presented shows both the depth of the debate and the enormity of the stakes. Each policy has tradeoffs. Strategic ambiguity emphasizes weak compromise over lasting resolution. Strategic clarity upholds deterrence at the expense of assurance and positive relations, which may be necessary for cooperation over global issues like climate change. Finally, limited accommodation advocates peaceful resolution and positive relations to the detriment of deterrence, credibility, and democratic values. Each represents a different vision of the likeliest scenario for conflict that must be managed cautiously and attentively.


Critically, the direction of U.S.-China relations depends not just on the U.S., but China as well. While the U.S. is at a crossroads, China may soon face a similar fork in the road. From Beijing’s perspective, Washington has been meddling in Chinese internal affairs since 1949. However, China has been invaded by foreign powers since at least a century before that during the First and Second Opium Wars (1839-1860). During this period, the weakness of China’s Qing Dynasty allowed Britain, Japan, and other imperial powers to impose their will on China, forcing them to open their markets to extremely addictive opium products. The lessons the CCP has taken from this so-called “century of humiliation” is that China will be ruthlessly exploited and divided unless it is militarily and economically strong enough to secure its sovereignty and territorial integrity. They believe that the West continues to this day to exploit China’s territorial division by protecting Taiwan, and therefore see their actions to reunify with Taiwan as just and righteous. From their perspective, China’s rise to great power status has been faced with increasing hostility and anti-Chinese sentiment from the West rather than peaceful relations. In that sense, they see the U.S. as the provocateur responsible for deteriorating relations. From this perspective, the U.S. sending a congressional delegation to Taiwan to meet with President Tsai Ing-wen in April 2022, and Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan in August 2022, are just the latest signs of the United States’ belligerence.


China may not want war, but if their core national interest requires it and they have exhausted all avenues for peaceful settlement, then the CCP sees itself as having no choice. Washington’s reliance on deterrence during the three Taiwan Strait crises may have convinced President Xi Jinping that the only thing the U.S. responds to is force. The perceptions of great powers can be a canary in the coal mine, warning us of where the relationship is headed. We are entering dangerous waters when leaders of both nations not only believe that their positions are righteous, but also that their righteousness justifies a catastrophic conflict.


War is a choice. So is peaceful compromise, no matter how politically difficult. Many lives, present and future, depend on getting it right.



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