The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How the U.S. should respond to China’s saber-rattling on Taiwan

A Taiwanese Air Force fighter aircraft, left, flies near a Chinese People's Liberation Army Air Force H6-K bomber that reportedly flew over the Luzon Strait south of Taiwan during an exercise on May 11, 2018. (AP)

For the past week, China has been commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Korean War, which is being touted on China’s state-run media as a great victory over the United States. In Chinese, the conflagration is known as “the war to resist America and support North Korea,” and the emphasis this time around has been on resisting America.

In a blood-curdling jeremiad on Oct. 23, China’s president, Xi Jinping, credited China’s forces with breaking “the myth of invincibility of the U.S. military.” He referred to the United States, which entered the conflict only after North Korea attacked the South, as “invaders” and vowed to speak to them in “the language they understand: so we use war to stop war, we use military might to stop hostility.”

Xi’s saber-rattling and a series of other developments — military exercises by the People’s Liberation Army, aggressive moves over the Taiwan Straits by Chinese warplanes and jingoistic editorials in China’s state-run press — have raised concerns in the West that Xi is readying China for a new war. The target in this case would be Taiwan, one of Asia’s most vibrant democracies and just 100 miles from China’s coast.

Combined with aggressive actions that China has taken to criminalize dissent in Hong Kong, Xi’s increasingly strident tone has sparked a debate in the United States over what to do to better protect the island of 23 million, which China claims as a long-lost province.

Communist China has been threatening to invade Taiwan for decades. However, it has become more of an issue since Xi took power in 2012. He has declared that China could not “wait forever” to take over the island and has said that uniting with Taiwan is part of his “Chinese Dream.”

The United States has responded by selling Taiwan weapons, such as a $1.8 billion package announced Oct. 21, opening its markets to Taiwanese trade and other support. But successive U.S. administrations have always stopped short of giving Taiwan an explicit security guarantee. Instead, they have opted for a policy of “strategic ambiguity,” which leaves open only the possibility that U.S. forces would fight to defend the island in the case of a Chinese attack.

Now, prominent American strategists, including Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, have urged the United States to opt for “strategic clarity” and put Beijing on notice that an attack on Taiwan would be met with an American military response. The idea is all the more urgent, its proponents argue, during this period of unprecedented political division in the United States.

But a new report, perhaps the best ever on America’s ties to Taiwan, cautions against such feel-good measures. Put out by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “Toward a Stronger U.S.-Taiwan Relationship” argues that “effective deterrence requires more than public statements, no matter how clear.” While it urges the United States to study whether it needs to drop “strategic ambiguity,” it focuses far more on the numerous practical, and more consequential, steps the United States and Taiwan could take to ensure Taiwan’s existence as a robust and secure democracy.

Steps such as a free trade agreement, which the Trump administration seemed to be signaling last month when it dispatched Undersecretary of State Keith Krach to attend the funeral of the father of Taiwan’s democracy, Lee Teng-hui. Krach is in charge of economic affairs at the State Department. In August, Taiwan opened its market to U.S. beef and pork, a key condition for any movement on trade.

The report also argues that the United States could do more to help Taiwan regain its international voice, defend itself against Chinese cyberattacks and disinformation, and bring Taiwan, which plays a key role in memory chip production, into talks on IT supply chains. Taiwan’s expert handling of the covid-19 pandemic is a clear indication that Taipei has a lot to teach other countries about how to cope with the pandemic.

Taiwan also won’t necessarily benefit from a newfound American “strategic clarity.” For one, a U.S. military commitment to Taiwan could backfire. Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party has traditionally focused on building up Taiwan’s health-care system, for example, over the island’s defense. American strategists, such as Phillip Saunders of National Defense University on a panel last week at the Hoover Institution, have worried that Taiwan might use the American pledge as an excuse to “neglect its own defense.”

Saunders also noted something else. China has already baked in the possibility that the United States might intervene. In 1996, after China fired missiles near major Taiwanese ports in a failed attempt to influence the course of Taiwan’s presidential election, the United States dispatched two aircraft carriers to the region as a show of support. Since then, China has invested in its capabilities in case of U.S. intervention.

So, while China’s Xi bellows about using “war to stop war,” the United States might want to use every other arrow in its quiver to counter his bluster — ambiguity included.

Read more:

Josh Rogin: The pandemic shows why Taiwan is a far better partner than the People’s Republic

Frida Ghitis: Can Taiwan survive a second Trump term?

John Pomfret: The Hong Kong security law could be China’s blueprint to deal with the ‘Taiwan problem’

Arthur Tam: Hong Kong and Taiwan are cultural powerhouses. That terrifies Beijing.

Aaron Huang: Chinese disinformation is ascendant. Taiwan shows how we can defeat it.