As Tensions Over Taiwan Increase, The U.S. Must Walk A Fine Line

In recent months, concern over the threat of conflict between mainland China and the democratically self-governed island of Taiwan has been growing. At a Senate hearing last month, Admiral Philip Davidson, the top United States military commander for the Asia-Pacific region, warned of the possibility of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan within the next six years. China has ramped up its military activity around the Taiwan Strait, including more frequent incursions into Taiwan’s airspace and waters to display its military force without reaching the threshold of conflict. This persistent military harassment, coupled with steady economic pressure and efforts to deepen political and social divides, is intended to isolate and wear the island down on all fronts. 


Beijing’s recent crackdowns have aggravated fears of a military invasion of Taiwan in Xinjiang and Hong Kong and its efforts to increase its presence in the South China Sea – all indicators of President Xi Jinping’s extensive military power and his determination to assert control over China’s autonomous regions. Some analysts and officials call on the U.S., Taiwan’s most important unofficial ally, to take a firmer strategic approach, while others argue that this would only provoke China further. In 1949, Chinese nationalists formed Taiwan’s democratic government after the Chinese Communist Revolution. The formation of the government was a great humiliation for Beijing, and eventual “reunification” has been the stated goal of every Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. The People’s Republic of China still officially claims Taiwan as its own. Under the One China Policy, the United States also officially recognizes Taiwan as belonging to China. Even though the U.S. provides ample political and military support for the island’s democracy, it does not recognize Taiwan’s independence.


If China launches a full-scale invasion, the United States has no explicit, binding commitment to support Taiwan’s defence. People refer to this policy as “strategic ambiguity,” and it has been in place since the 1970s. The goal of strategic ambiguity is to display just enough support for Taiwan to discourage China from attempting to seize control of it while at the same time discouraging the government in Taipei from attempting to declare its formal independence. China is deterred by the potential threat of war with America (should America choose to come to Taiwan’s aid), and the lack of American support deters the Taiwanese government (should America choose not to come to Taiwan’s aid). This ambiguous approach has been effective thus far. However, as Beijing seems to become increasingly emboldened and more willing to take risks to further its expansionist ambitions, many people worry that ambiguity will no longer be enough to prevent China’s subjugation of Taiwan. That was the stance that Admiral Davidson took in his comments last month. Richard Haass and David Sacks also argue in Foreign Affairs that the time has come for the U.S. to send a clearer message with its strategic policy in order to deter China and prevent conflict.


Navigating a fraught relationship with China will undoubtedly be one of the defining challenges of Joe Biden’s presidency. In his first news conference as President on Thursday, March 25, Biden described what is at stake: “This is a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies,” he said. Geopolitically, Taiwan is extremely important; it is by far the largest island in the so-called “first island chain” in the East China Sea and also the closest to mainland China. The first island chain is a choke point – an important strategic obstacle that hinders China’s expansion of its naval power in the West Pacific. Many strategists believe that gaining control of Taiwan, which would assure control of the rest of the first island chain as well, would allow China to replace the United States as the dominant military power in the region. Taiwan is also economically valuable. In particular, the island has in recent years become a leading producer of semiconductors – an important technology the production of which, along with wireless networks and artificial intelligence, China is keen to dominate. But Taiwan is not simply a military and economic asset, nor is it simply a pawn in the twisted relations between the U.S. and China. Taiwan is a prosperous nation of 24 million people, and it is their safety, democratic freedom, and fundamental rights that hang in the balance.


Biden has described his government’s commitment to Taiwan as “rock solid,” reaffirming America’s support for the island. This support was strengthened under the Trump administration, particularly in the second half of Trump’s presidency, as his feud with China escalated. Under the Trump administration, the United States not only increased its diplomatic support for Taiwan, angering Beijing; it also increased its military support. U.S. arms sales to the island were in the billions of dollars during Trump’s presidency. This is nothing new – the U.S. has been supplying Taiwan with everything from torpedoes to fighter jets for years the goal of bolstering the island’s own military capabilities. But many worry that America’s increased show of support for Taiwan is aggravating tensions with the mainland, not to mention further jeopardizing U.S.-China relations.


Another fear is that increased American support, especially a shift away from the policy of strategic ambiguity and toward a more explicit commitment to Taiwan’s defence, might embolden a movement toward formal Taiwanese independence. Taipei’s declaration of formal independence would almost certainly provoke China to declare war, which the United States emphatically wants to avoid. (Some have also argued that it is unlikely that the U.S. would be able to defend the island in case of a Chinese invasion.) Beijing has shown that it is more than willing to flex its considerable military muscle, and in a statement in January, a spokesperson for China’s Defence Ministry declared that “Taiwan independence means war.” It is important to keep in mind that China’s interests in Taiwan are not only strategic and economic. The island’s status is also a matter of posturing and affirming the legitimacy and authority of the Communist Party. And so a change from autonomy to formal independence, or from unofficial American allyship to explicitly declared support, would be extremely provocative, even though such changes may seem largely symbolic.


Whether or not Biden decides to rethink strategic ambiguity toward Taiwan, he must walk a fine line to ensure peace and stability in the region. The United States must maintain a delicate balance between taking too weak a position, leaving Taiwan vulnerable to subjugation and jeopardizing the freedom of 24 million people, and being too confrontational, risking provoking China to declare war.


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