In early October, China deployed nearly 150 warplanes near Taiwan, breeching its air defense identification zone. Tensions between Beijing and Taipei are ramping up, causing alarm in Taiwan and among its friends, including the United States. But first, a little historical context.
Back in Time
The animosity dates back to the years after World War II. Taiwan, a small, independent, and democratic island separated from China by the Taiwan Strait, came under the control of the Republic of China at this time. The civil war between Mao Zedong’s communist forces and the nationalist forces under the command of Chiang Kai-shek ended with Mao establishing the People’s Republic of China, a communist government based in Beijing.
The nationalist forces then fled to Taiwan, with the Republic of China government under Kai-shek setting up shop in in Taipei. Since then, Taiwan has operated with a degree of autonomy under a one country, two systems principle. In spite of the autonomy, though, China views Taiwan as a renegade province and Beijing’s ultimate goal is Taiwan’s reunification with China – by force, if necessary.
In Comes the United States
The third key actor in this dispute is the United States. After World War II, the Republic of China was a close and important U.S. ally, signing a mutual defense treaty – akin to the ones the U.S. signed with Japan and South Korea during that same decade – in 1954. At this time, the United States recognized Kai-shek’s government in Taipei as the official government of China. Subsequently, in 1979, the U.S. ditched the treaty and established diplomatic ties with Beijing’s Communist government. Since then, the United States has adhered to a One China policy, which recognizes that there is “only one China.” This recognition, however, comes with the understanding that Taiwan’s fate will not be decided by force.
The United States did not cease its diplomatic relationship with Taiwan entirely. Instead, that same year, the U.S. Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which governs U.S. relations with Taiwan and ensures that the United States will help the island defend itself against an attack from China. This Act outlines a policy of strategic ambiguity, a policy that essentially allows the United States to “remain deliberately ambiguous” about Taiwan’s defense. As a result, there are no guarantees that the United States will militarily defend Taiwan in the event of an attack from China. Though, the Act authorizes the United States to sell weapons to Taiwan to “maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.”
What Do We Do Now?
The policy of strategic ambiguity became even more ambiguous during what may be considered a presidential gaff. When asked about the rising tensions between China and Taiwan at a recent CNN townhall in Baltimore, President Joe Biden reiterated the United States’ commitment to Taiwan. “Yes, we have a commitment to do that,” he replied. This is not the case. White House staffers quickly raced to clarify that there was no change in U.S. policy despite the president’s statement, which garnered responses from both Beijing and Taipei.
The recent incursion and President Biden’s seemingly erroneous remarks have sparked debate in Washington over the depth of its commitment to Taiwan in the face of a Chinese invasion, raising the question of whether the United States should, in fact, defend Taiwan? If this scenario were to ever occur, the United States should maintain its strategic ambiguity policy as defending Taiwan would inevitably lead to war with China.
If the United States went to war with China, there is a possibility it could lose. At least according to a recent war games analysis published this week by the Center for a New American Security. According to the report, the United States has “few credible options” in responding to Beijing, as the war games anticipated that China would invade the Pratas islands in the South China Sea and capture the 500 Taiwanese troops stationed there. During the game, the United States and Taiwan were unable to persuade China to withdraw without escalating the crisis. Interestingly, the analysis found that multilateral cooperation – particularly with Japan – could help deter limited Chinese aggression against Taiwan.
While the United States has arguably the world’s most powerful military, the scenario of defeat is not implausible. In the era of great power competition, China has been rapidly building up its military capabilities over the past few decades. A 2020 Pentagon report concluded that parts of China’s military surpassed that of the U.S. On top of that, China is a nuclear power and retains an expanding cache of nuclear weapons. Beijing is looking to expand its regional footprint by increasing its military capability. This is particularly true in the South China Sea, where Beijing continues to develop its artificial islands in the disputed waters.
Now, China’s latest focus appears to be Taiwan. Moreover, there is little belief in the fact that Taiwan could defeat the Chinese military, especially without the support of the United States. For that reason, the United States needs to maintain its strategic ambiguity policy as a way of helping Taiwan in light of China’s increasing military capabilities.
Thick as Thieves
Through its strategic ambiguity policy, the United States and Taiwan, while not sharing official diplomatic relations, enjoy remarkably close ties. This was further reiterated in a comment from Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who noted in early October that the United States and Taiwan’s relationship is “rock solid.” As part of the Taiwan Relations Act, the United States sells weapons to Taiwan in an effort to help the tiny island ally.
The most important aspects of the U.S-Taiwan relationship is that the United States continue its efforts to ensure that Taiwan is able to properly defend itself without actually coming to Taiwan’s defense. The first part of this effort is the arms sales. For decades, the United States has sold arms to Taiwan, which totaled over $5.1 billion in 2020 alone, to help Taiwan’s ability to defend itself.
Beyond the arms sales, the U.S. government and military experts believe that deepening ties between the U.S. and Taiwanese militaries is the best course of action to combat any potential Chinese aggression. For the past year, as the Wall Street Journal reported, a U.S. special operations unit and U.S. Marine contingent are secretly operating in Taiwan to train its military forces.
While China reacted angrily, as expected, to the news of the U.S. military forces. Building up Taiwan’s military capabilities in the face of China’s increased military capabilities and the arms sales to Taiwan remain the most efficient and effective ways of ensuring Taiwan’s ability to defend itself in case of an invasion from China. And the only way for the United States to fulfill its promise to Taiwan is through the continuation of strategic ambiguity.
Needless to say, relations between the United States, Taiwan, and China are complex. Through its policy of strategic ambiguity, the United States has tried to balance its need to balance its strained relationship with Beijing while also honoring its commitment to helping Taiwan defend itself by not really holding a definitive position. And, this is a policy the United States must maintain to avoid falling into war with China over Taiwan.