The End of ‘Strategic Ambiguity’ Regarding Taiwan

Questioning the ambiguous nature of America’s commitment to Taiwan’s defense has gone mainstream. Members of Congress have issued statements and drafted legislation calling into question the longstanding policy of strategic ambiguity—in which Taipei could not be sure the United States would come to its defense, and Beijing could not be sure the United States wouldn’t. Even the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, a high priest of the so-called foreign policy establishment, has co-authored a recent piece—titled “American Support for Taiwan Must be Unambiguous” and subtitled “To Keep the Peace, Make Clear to China That Force Won’t Stand”—making the case for strategic clarity. More seriously, the Financial Times recently reported “there were discussions within the administration on the future of ‘strategic ambiguity.’” Clearly, for the first time in decades, American security policy toward Taiwan is under serious rethinking.

The need for a reassessment is clear. China’s president and Communist Party chairman, Xi Jinping, is driven by challenges and opportunities that may well point toward greater risk for a possible cross-strait conflict. On the domestic front, with a Party Congress just over the horizon, Xi is pushing to extend his rule beyond the two terms that each of his two predecessors served—and do so, perhaps, indefinitely. With an economy that has not continued its swift upswing as in years past and—for structural reasons—unlikely to do so, Xi’s program of consolidating Beijing’s hold on territories that China argues it lost to imperial powers of the past potentially gives greater legitimacy to his case for staying in charge. Put another way, in taking Taiwan, Xi would achieve what neither Mao Zedong nor Deng Xiaoping could.

And, indeed, for all the opprobrium coming from the United States and other democracies about China’s decision to stamp out freedom in Hong Kong, Xi may wonder if it is just bluster. From his point of view, Taiwan, part of “one China,” may well be seen by the outside world as little different from Crimea after the Russian invasion and occupation—few accepted Moscow’s claims to the peninsula, but even fewer were willing to do anything meaningful to reverse Russian gains. Although war in Ukraine’s Donbass drags on, and is seen as a serious irritant in Washington and European capitals, few in the halls of government believe that returning Crimea to Ukraine is in the cards or that it’s a deal breaker when it comes to resetting relations with Moscow. Disabusing Xi Jinping of such an appraisal should be a central element of America’s approach to security in Asia.

Losing Taiwan would cost the U.S. in numerous ways: its credibility as a defender of democracy and as the primary guarantor of the security in the Asia-Pacific region. It would also mean losing access to Taiwan’s high-end, microchip manufacturing and giving China a strategic gateway to pressure allies immediately north and south of Taiwan, while opening up the wider Pacific to its military. A posture of strategic ambiguity is increasingly less defensible.

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