The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion No one wants a war over Taiwan. But that won’t last forever.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, center, speaks with military personnel in Jiadong, Taiwan. (Taiwan Presidential Office via AP) (AP)
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In dealing with Taiwan, ambiguity has always been the diplomat’s friend. It has allowed Washington and Beijing to say they both favor “one China” in principle — and for Taipei to pursue its own democratic path and self-defense strategy without a formal declaration of independence.

For the moment, Beijing and Washington still pledge allegiance to the pleasant fiction of the 1972 Shanghai Communique that the United States can recognize a unitary China even as it supports an increasingly independent-minded Taiwan. Neither seems ready yet to break that foundation stone of their relationship. But as positions harden on Taiwan, a collision with reality is ahead.

President Biden doesn’t do ambiguity well, so he just blurted out last month what everyone (including China) assumes about Taiwan. When asked by CNN’s Anderson Cooper whether he would defend the island if it were attacked by China, Biden answered: “Yes, we have a commitment.” That sounded like a change in Washington’s formal policy of “strategic ambiguity,” and global media scrambled to report breaking news.

White House officials quickly cautioned reporters that it was a verbal slip rather than a deliberate escalation. White House press secretary Jen Psaki affirmed the next day, “There is no change in our policy.” The Chinese, after momentary indigestion, decided to accept that Biden had just made a gaffe. That’s the blessing and curse in being perceived as an old duffer; people don’t take Biden’s words all that seriously.

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Each side agreed, in effect, to leave the ambiguity unresolved. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman cautioned Washington to “be prudent with its words and actions on the Taiwan question … lest it should seriously damage China-U.S. relations.” Taiwan’s foreign ministry spokesman, meanwhile, thanked Biden for “reconfirmation of the consistent U.S. commitment to Taiwan.”

The problem with Taiwan is that the real world keeps intervening in this tacit agreement to suspend disbelief. Take the question of America’s military presence in Taiwan. The Chinese have known that the United States sends troops to train the Taiwanese military. But as long as the United States and Taiwan didn’t tout that fact, the Chinese could save face.

The fig leaf is gone. A U.S. Army video surfaced last year showing Special Operations forces training in Taiwan. Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported that two dozen Special Operations forces and a number of Marines were training the Taiwanese military. Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen then made it official in an interview with CNN last month: “We have a wide range of cooperation with the U.S. aimed at increasing our defense capability.”

Has the United States crossed a Chinese “red line” with this military presence? You might have thought so. Last year, an annual Pentagon report on China listed “foreign forces stationed on Taiwan” as one of seven issues on which China had said it might use military force against the island. But Newsweek noted that in this year’s version of the report, released Wednesday, the “foreign forces” pretext was dropped.

Military planners can’t afford ambiguity. So China’s war plans for Taiwan assume that the U.S. military will become involved, according to a leading China analyst who requested anonymity. He said China’s goal is to seize Taiwan in five days, before the United States is able to land forces.

America won’t deter such an attack with the aircraft carriers we once sailed boldly into the Taiwan Strait. Today, those behemoths are prey to Chinese precision-guided missiles. Instead, the counterweights against China are three largely invisible factors: America’s alliances with powerful Pacific neighbors such as Japan and Australia; its unmatched dominance of undersea warfare; and its ability to help Taiwan fight an asymmetric war that would be very costly for China.

The rhetoric on both sides of the strait is uncompromising. President Xi Jinping vowed last month to pursue reunification by peaceful means — but that came after China sent waves of planes near Taiwan. President Tsai defiantly replied a day later: “We will continue to bolster our national defense … to ensure that nobody can force Taiwan to take the path China has laid out for us.”

For now, this is a war that nobody wants. It would puncture Beijing’s economy and derail Xi’s march toward what he calls his “China dream.” For Taiwan, the wreckage would be worse; Tsai frankly says that she wants no more than “maintaining the status quo.” The United States doesn’t want a war that past Pentagon war games have predicted it would lose.

The Taiwan straddle continues, because for now it serves everyone’s interest. But the ambiguity won’t last forever. When Xi says he is determined to achieve reunification, you have to assume he means it.