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Why it makes sense for the U.S. to not commit to defending Taiwan

‘Strategic ambiguity’ is partly about deterring China — and partly about keeping Taiwan’s aspirations realistic.

Taiwanese soldiers take part in a military exercise simulating an invasion of the island by the Chinese military in Pingtung, Taiwan, on May 30, 2019. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

When President Biden responded “yes” to a reporter who asked whether the United States would be “willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan,” the debate over the policy of “strategic ambiguity” toward the island was reawakened. The White House quickly clarified that, despite the president’s off-the-cuff remark, there was no policy change: The United States continues to recognize Beijing as the sole legitimate Chinese government, while supplying arms to Taiwan — and not comment on what further actions it would take to defend it.

Yet some observers suggested that we have been overdue for tougher talk. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), for example, tweeted that Biden’s answer “was the right thing to say” and that making a formal military commitment was “the right thing to do.”

But those who endorse abandoning strategic ambiguity in favor of a more hawkish stance fail to appreciate the full range of the policy’s benefits. Strategic ambiguity is not merely designed to deter China, after all — though that is one key aim. It is intended to also keep Taiwan’s ambitions from becoming overly aggressive.

Considered from all angles, the policy is an important framework that keeps Taiwan secure. There is no “benefit” to Biden’s comments, as some have said; rather, they chip away at an admittedly complicated arrangement that has effectively kept the peace since the passing of the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979.

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To begin with the basics, strategic ambiguity tries to mitigate two potential pathways to war. First, China might attack Taiwan because it perceives that Taiwan is moving too close to independence. Second, China might attack Taiwan to prevent the United States and Taiwan from becoming too closely allied. (International law scholars know that wars to deter alliance formation are all too common.)

In the first case, supplying arms to Taiwan and leaving open the possibility of stronger U.S. intervention obviously aims to deter China from attacking a Taiwan it perceives as trying to break free. In the second case, ambiguity reduces the perception that there is an impending formal alliance — a true mutual-defense pact — between Taiwan and the United States, which ought to ease China’s mind. The lack of that formal, binding commitment also encourages Taiwan not to take strong steps toward independence, which itself could provoke the mainland.

Calls to abandon the U.S. policy of ambiguity have gained steam in recent years, however. A significant number of politicians and pundits believe that today’s China is sufficiently militarily strong to be undeterred by an intervention that is less than certain. “The policy known as strategic ambiguity … has run its course,” wrote Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, and David Sacks, a research fellow at the council, in September 2020.

China’s growing strength does reduce the deterrence effectiveness of an ambiguous policy, but there are other things to consider. Calls to abandon ambiguity altogether ignore the effect of U.S. defense commitment in Taiwan politics. The Taiwan public is already overconfident about U.S. defense support: in surveys conducted in Taiwan between 2002 and 2020 (overseen by Duke University and National Chengchi University scholars), between 60 to 75 percent of survey respondents in Taiwan consistently expressed that they believe the United States would send troops to help Taiwan if China attacked.

This confidence has been bolstered by reassuring gestures from U.S. policymakers, which have increased in recent years. In the Trump administration, the State Department lifted rules prohibiting interactions between American and Taiwanese diplomats, for example, and in both the Trump and Biden administrations, U.S. congressional delegations frequently made visits to Taiwan. In April, for instance, one such delegation with leaders of both parties traveled to Taiwan on a military aircraft and met with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, as well as Taiwan’s foreign minister and minister of national defense.

Taiwan’s confidence, however, is out of step with more qualified public opinion for Taiwan in the United States, where about half support defending Taiwan (a figure that is up significantly from historical trends). More important, Taiwanese overconfidence is not supported by concrete U.S. military actions that would ordinarily demonstrate support to assist a partner. Unlike the United States and its formal military allies in East Asia — Japan and South Korea — the American and Taiwanese militaries do not have an institutional structure to manage military cooperation; nor do the United States and Taiwan engage in joint large-scale military exercises or base-sharing. And the Taiwanese certainly don’t benefit formally from the security of the U.S. nuclear umbrella.

Those arrangements are consistent with strategic ambiguity, but recent hawkish rhetoric from many in the United States isn’t. Comments like Biden’s — even if it was a “gaffe” — do not match American military preparations either, and contribute to Taiwanese overconfidence.

An underappreciated purpose of strategic ambiguity is to allow the United States and Taiwan to cooperate informally without provoking a military reaction from China. This cooperation includes arms sales to Taiwan, low level U.S. military training in Taiwan, and a de facto U.S. embassy in Taiwan, among other things. China might well not tolerate such ties if a formal defense commitment were announced.

When any military alliance is considered, there is always a dangerous window before it is formally implemented in which adversaries of the alliance might attack to block the alliance. Russia’s recent attack on Ukraine was, in part, motivated by its desire to block Ukraine from ever joining NATO, and in 1954, China attacked islands in the Taiwan Strait to try to prevent the United States and Taiwan from implementing a mutual defense treaty. A new formal U.S. commitment to Taiwan’s defense today would take time and effort to pose a credible and capable defense of an island fewer than 100 miles away from China. China would face incentives to strike during that period.

What the Biden administration should be doing is making genuinely ambiguous statements in public — and, in private, reminding our Taiwanese friends that U.S. intervention is not a sure thing. At the same time, the U.S. should continue to give military advice, direction, and weapons to Taiwan to help the Taiwanese to defend themselves.

The war in Ukraine is providing lessons about the kinds of weapons (such as antitank and anti-ship missiles) and tactics that are most effective in fending off an invasion by a more powerful military. Arms-sales packages and military advice should be updated to account for this new information. In addition, the United States should work with Taiwan to counter looming unconventional threats to Taiwan, including Chinese threats to Taiwan’s cybersecurity. The United States should also quietly beef up its capability in East Asia so if a China-Taiwan war breaks out, we would be able to make it very expensive for China — if we decide to get involved. But we shouldn’t say in advance that’s a sure thing.