The Taiwan Strait is likely to be ground zero for a confrontation between the United States and China. Increased Chinese rhetoric and actions aimed at Taiwan are accompanied by warnings from Beijing for America not to interfere. Likewise, American rhetoric continues to warn Beijing over its aggression, insisting America’s commitment to Taiwan is rock solid. While ninety-five percent of Americans understand China is a threat, in a poll conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, only forty-one percent favored using U.S. troops to defend Taiwan. The gulf between these two polls represents a disconnect in America’s cross-strait policies. Taking a clearer stance on Taiwan is an important step in arresting Chinese incrementalism, which America has failed to do. China's newest coast guard law; invasion exercises off the Taiwanese coast; and Chinese military aircraft intrusions into Taiwanese airspace are the latest products of U.S. policies that have remained unchanged since the Taiwan Relations Act, the three joint communiques, and the six assurances despite China’s growing harassment of Taiwan and subsequent erosion of the rules-based international order. Strategic clarity, whereby the U.S. Congress authorizes use of force to defend Taiwan from PRC-initiated military aggression, is the liberal order’s best bet at checking Chinese aggression and maintaining stability. For Beijing, Taiwan is a critical piece of territory: the Taiwanese semi-conductor industry, thriving economy, center position within the first island chain, and the historical notion that reunification will solidify China’s position atop a Sino-centric world. For the United States, PRC control of Taiwan would be a strategic disaster by changing the balance of power calculus in Beijing’s favor while upsetting the rules-based system. Deterring China’s Taiwanese annexation plans is paramount to any American strategy to contain China. It is time that the United States match cross-strait policies to America’s commitment to maintaining democracy and the liberal order.
Although strategic ambiguity historically worked, it is now failing to deter increasingly aggressive military, economic, and diplomatic Chinese actions aimed at Taiwan. Adopted in the 1970s, ambiguity deterred through overwhelming American economic and military might. Strategic ambiguity kept both the PRC and Taiwan in check and kept peace in the Taiwan Strait. However, the security environment is drastically different today. Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in September 2020 that the decreasing disparity between the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and American military capabilities in the Taiwan strait means that the effectiveness of strategic ambiguity had “run its course.” Under strategic ambiguity, China is executing a terror campaign against Taiwan. Political warfare, disinformation campaigns, election tampering, and military harassment define PRC policy and its attempt to force “peaceful” reunification. Taiwan today has little desire for close relations with Beijing and identifies as more Taiwanese than ever before. Any hope to win the Taiwanese people over with a “one country, two systems” promise was dashed with the brutal opposition takedowns in Hong Kong. As the U.S. Naval Service’s tri-service maritime strategy Advantage at Sea notes, China already has the world’s largest naval force and is modernizing at blistering speeds. According to internal Chinese military literature, the PLA’s top three war plans are about Taiwan. This has led many to speculate that the PRC may be nearing its declared intention to forcibly annex Taiwan. Yet, despite a clear demonstration of Chinese intentions, America has not reconsidered strategic ambiguity. This needs to change.
Critics argue that strategic ambiguity prevents other countries from being caught in the middle of the proverbial Thucydides trap, allowing them to remain flexible in their relations with the PRC and the United States. However, as Beijing continues to change the norms, countries are already having to choose. This is particularly evident as the PRC forces countries to acknowledge its One China principle before establishing closer ties, and those who want to do business with Beijing to sever diplomatic relations with Taipei. A solution to rolling back Chinese aggression towards Taiwan and stopping incremental efforts to isolate Taiwan is for like-minded countries to change Taiwan’s international narrative. Advocating for Taiwan’s inclusion in the international arena, including the World Health Assembly (WHA), is too provocative under ambiguity, probably why no one stopped China from pressuring Taiwan out of the WHA in 2016. A clarity policy boldly counters China’s assertiveness.
Allies have already demonstrated their willingness to counter Chinese incrementalism. Enacting and coordinating a clear policy with allies and partners would strengthen this willingness to check Chinese malign behavior and act as a deterrent against Chinese aggression in the Taiwan strait. Within hours after a dozen Chinese warplanes flew over the Taiwan strait, Australian Defense Minister Linda Reynolds reaffirmed “the unbreakable alliance” with her U.S. counterpart. Japan is already at odds with the PRC over its new Coast Guard law, which Japan believes threatens Japanese sovereignty around the Senkaku Islands. In early January, Britain and France threatened to dispatch vessels into East Asia to address regional stability in response to Beijing’s aggression. The liberal order is awake to Chinese incrementalism. America must seize the momentum and focus on the immediate flashpoint – PRC annexation desires over Taiwan. The United States may still be the most powerful country in the world, but its real comparative advantage over China is its alliances and partnerships, working together maintaining the international rules-based order in the Taiwan strait.
Ambiguity signals to Beijing that there are questions over America’s commitment to the region, exasperated by four years of an America first mantra that shrunk U.S. leadership in the world. Clarity provides the opposite. It signals to Beijing that the United States is committed to its allies and its regional strategy for a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific." If joined by partners and allies, clarity will be an important step in rolling back strategic gains made by China.
Strategic clarity should not be a declaration of independence for Taiwan, tacit support of provocative Taiwanese actions, or an escalation. It is admitting what most already believe to be true, backed by historical evidence during previous strait crises, that the United States is prepared to commit forces should the PLA try to annex Taiwan. The CCP is gaining momentum in creating its vision of a Sino-centric order. It has redefined the status quo by exploiting weaknesses in the liberal system: maritime militia enforcing Chinese nationalism in other states’ territory; unrelenting military shows of force in the Taiwan strait; constructing and arming artificial islands in the South China Sea. The PRC no longer hides its intentions for regional domination or its desire to annex Taiwan. If the United States does not take strong policy stances on Chinese overreaches like Taiwan, then the CCP will achieve its Sino-centric world vision. The American people can no longer delay on firm, concise action. Policymakers should seize the next evolution of U.S. policies, one that embraces strategic clarity, builds consensus for free and open seas, and solidifies America’s commitment to defend democracy.
Commander Michele Lowe is a Foreign Area Officer in the U.S. Navy with over twenty years of great power competition experience in Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. She is the Federal Executive Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
Alice Cho is the Global Security intern at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. She is studying international politics, minoring in Chinese, at Georgetown University.