The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

China is getting tough with Taiwan. How will that affect U.S. policy?

The U.S. posture of “strategic ambiguity” has helped keep the peace for decades

A Taiwan air force personnel walks past jets inside a hangar during a visit by President Tsai Ing-wen to a military base in Penghu, Taiwan, on Sept. 22. (Ritchie B. Tongo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

China dispatched more than 30 warplanes on combat drills in the Taiwan Strait last month, reportedly to show its displeasure at the news that the Trump administration is prepared to sell long-range missiles to Taiwan’s military. With China-Taiwan tensions on the rise, where does that leave the United States?

When Chinese officials in 1995 asked how the United States would react to a crisis in the Taiwan Strait, Assistant Defense Secretary Joseph Nye replied, “We don’t know and you don’t know; it would depend on the circumstances.”

Today, this posture suggesting “strategic ambiguity” in regard to American intervention to defend Taiwan is an approach many members of Congress and foreign policy specialists might call inappropriate, or even dangerous. Instead, they argue, U.S. foreign policy should include unequivocal support for Taiwan, as expressed in one recently proposed piece of legislation — “The Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act.”

Don’t miss any of TMC’s smart analysis! Sign up here for our newsletter.

But a closer look at the history of U.S. policy in the region suggests that making an unambiguous commitment to defend Taiwan would not necessarily serve stated U.S. interests in the area. Here’s why.

U.S. policy has been to avoid entanglement in a potential conflict

From the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949 until the United States established normalized relations with China in 1979, the primary objective of Washington’s policy in the area was to prevent a clash between China’s communist government and the exiled Republic of China regime on Taiwan. Such a clash, U.S. analysts believed, would inevitably involve the United States.

Even during the height of the Cold War in the 1950s, the policy of the United States was to use its military presence and diplomatic influence in the area to restrain Taiwan and deter China. The goal was not to resolve the conflict, but to maintain a stable and peaceful status quo that would avoid possible U.S. involvement in an unwanted war.

Preventing war relied on “dual deterrence”

After recognizing China in 1979, the U.S. government changed its policy objectives. Avoiding entanglement in a potential cross-strait conflict remained paramount, but there was now an added objective — to maintain a working relationship with both China and Taiwan. Consistent with this goal is why some analysts have preferred to use “dual deterrence” to embody the spirit of strategic ambiguity, which expresses the possibility of U.S. intervention, should either side threaten the status quo (if China used force to unify Taiwan, for instance, or Taiwan sought independence).

In short, the ambiguity in the strategy is not about what conditions might trigger the United States to intervene but more about the timing and nature of that intervention — providing maximum initiative and flexibility to U.S. policymakers to address any potential crisis.

The U.S. government thinks TikTok is a national security threat. So why can’t the government decide what to do?

In 2003, as I document in my recent book, the George W. Bush administration reined in Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian, who was making gestures toward independence that threatened to provoke a response from Beijing, and entrap the United States in a cross-strait conflict. Bush welcomed Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at the White House, and declared: “We oppose any unilateral decision by either China or Taiwan to change the status quo … the comments and actions made by the leader of Taiwan indicate that he may be willing to make decisions unilaterally, to change the status quo, which we oppose.” This statement reflecting dual deterrence worked to avert a crisis and to restrain a Chinese response to what Beijing considered a “period of high danger.”

An outright pledge to defend Taiwan now would probably provoke Beijing

In 2020, with rising Chinese assertiveness and a shifting military balance across the Taiwan Strait, many U.S. officials and specialists have argued that resolve and deterrence, not ambiguity, should become the essence of U.S. policy. Yet the existing Taiwan Relations Act, dating back to 1979, already provides for support for Taiwan, ranging from arms sale to possible “appropriate action” in response to “any threat to the security or the social or economic system of the people on Taiwan.” As such, a statement of unambiguous support from the White House is likely to be mostly symbolic, lessening American initiative and flexibility in addressing a future crisis in the Taiwan Strait.

The U.S. has dialed up the rhetoric on Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea

A guarantee of protection would limit the flexibility and leverage of the United States in any future cross-strait conflict and have two inherent risks: it could embolden independence forces in Taiwan to provoke a cross-strait conflict, leading to possible American involvement. And it could add an especially volatile issue to an already contested and extensive slate of differences between Beijing and Washington.

Beijing has bitterly criticized dual deterrence as an unacceptable interference in its domestic affairs that favors Taiwan’s present status. However, numerous discussions with Chinese officials, as well as the fact that Chinese writings on a potential cross-strait clash assume American intervention, confirm Beijing takes dual deterrence seriously. This strategy appears to have helped to keep the peace in the area.

In the past, strategic ambiguity certainly complicated the bilateral relationship, but it did not foreclose Washington and Beijing addressing other issues. To abandon this position and tilt further to Taiwan, at this low point in U.S.-China relations, seems likely to accelerate the deterioration of the present relationship — but also make any future resolution of present differences considerably more difficult. Those who want to preserve U.S. interests in a peaceful Taiwan Strait may find that a policy of strategic clarity would be counterproductive at best, and catastrophic at worst.

Professors: Don’t miss TMC’s expanding list of classroom topic guides.

Steven M. Goldstein is an associate at the John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University and author of “China and Taiwan.”