Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan showed that the U.S. can still define the rules of the game and take a decisive (albeit risky) approach to geopolitics, instead of blundering from crisis to crisis. The trip, however, also shows that keeping the Taiwan strategic ambiguity policy is nonsense, and America must overhaul its policy toward China-Taiwan relations as soon as possible.
The dominant doctrine of the United States on Taiwan is ill-suited to the current challenges and does nothing to ensure peace and stability in the Pacific.
By definition, it is contradictory and vaguely specified. The United States assumes there is only one China and says it opposes Taiwanese independence, but at the same time sells weapons and holds quasi-official relations with Taiwan. The U.S. says it is committed to peace and democracy in the region but remains purposefully ambivalent on what should be done if China attacks Taiwan. This policy of purposeful incoherence worked for a while but is unusable nowadays.
While Putin’s bloody invasion of Ukraine has rightfully taken all the media attention, it is ascending China, not decaying Russia, the power that presents the biggest threat to U.S. interests abroad. The struggle with Beijing will define the next century, and the epicenter of such conflict is China’s ambitions towards Taiwan, if America drops the ball in Taiwan, Beijing will have carte blanche in the pacific.
The outdated rationale of the Taiwan strategic ambiguity
For decades the United States has played a delicate game in the Taiwan Strait. On one hand, it needed to recognize that Beijing was the only legitimate Chinese government (One China policy) in order to first triangulate the Soviet Union and then open the Chinese markets to American companies. On the other hand, the United States wanted to prevent encouraging China to violently annex Taiwan and depose a friendly (and since the 1990s, democratic) government in Taipei.
How to square this diplomatic circle? How could the U.S. keep the One China policy without risking a PLA attack on the island? Well, the answer was strategic ambiguity.
By not officially recognizing Taiwan’s claims on China or its potential independence, and also deciding not to make an official commitment to defend the island, the U.S. kept faithful to the One-China policy. However, by not explicitly ruling out a defense of the island and keeping selling weapons to Taiwan, the U.S. sowed enough doubts in Beijing so the CCP did not try to attack the island, as the American navy was vastly superior to China’s navy.
During that time China mostly refused to engage in the classic geopolitical game of chicken, as it knew the American navy would blow any attempt of invasion out of the water. However, as the parity between both navies increases, the PLA has made it more clear that they are more than willing to play chicken with America, and the U.S. has mostly sent mixed signals, saying it (kind of) supports Taiwan while not asserting its supremacy in the Pacific.
Strategic ambiguity worked as long as it kept in line with U.S. interests at the time and ensured stability in the Taiwan Strait. This is no longer the case, strategic ambiguity is useful when you want to keep all options open, but in Taiwan time goes by and Beijing becomes evermore clear on its aggressive intentions, the U.S. must adapt to this new reality.
The effective death of strategic ambiguity
All things must come to an end and the usefulness of strategic ambiguity today is far less certain than before. It is very difficult to argue that the strategic challenges of the United States today are the same as those of the 1970s and 1980s, and recent crises have shown that peace and stability between China and Taiwan is something more elusive than getting a straight, coherent answer from Joe Biden.
The most daunting challenge the U.S. faces today is not the Soviet Union or even Islamist fundamentalist terrorism (as present as that threat still is) but the rise of an aggressive and economically powerful China. Beijing has effectively ended Hong Kong’s autonomy, executed a systematic campaign against the Uyghur people, tried to disrupt American military bases with Huawei technology, made a concerted campaign to steal American intellectual property, rebuilt its military, and its incompetence was guilty of the biggest pandemic the world has seen in a hundred years.
China knows that in order to assert itself in the region it must take control of Taiwan. Conquest of the island would be a massive propaganda and strategic victory for the CCP. Moreover, it looks increasingly likely that China is planning to move on Taiwan over the next few years, as the PLA increases its military maneuvers near the island, and prepares its military to challenge the American navy.
Strategic ambiguity is useless in this new scenario. It does not help to keep good ties with China because other factors have made the U.S-China relationship a very fraught one, while it also does absolutely nothing to deter a potential invasion of the island because the PLA can arguably challenge American naval dominance in the Taiwan straits.
In fact, it could be argued that strategic ambiguity has done the opposite of bringing peace and stability to the region. Since there is no direct commitment of the U.S. to aid Taiwan, China could calculate that America will not come to the island’s defense and try to take Taiwan before the island strengthens its defenses. A calculus, by the way, that might very well be true.
Whether Americans want to ensure China does not expand its influence in the region or decides to completely retreat from global affairs is up to American decision-makers. Either way, the time of strategic ambiguity is over: A decision must be made.
Daniel is a Political Science and Economics student from the University of South Florida. He worked as a congressional intern to Rep. Gus Bilirakis (FL-12) from January to May 2020. He also is the head of international analysis at Politiks // Daniel es un estudiante de Cs Políticas y Economía en la Universidad del Sur de la Florida. Trabajo como pasante legislativo para el Representate Gus Bilirakis (FL-12) desde enero hasta mayo del 2020. Daniel también es el jefe de análisis internacional de Politiks.