Strategic ambiguity – a Cold War fossil
The coming years are crucial in determining Taiwan’s future. The island stands at a cross-roads, with the direction to be determined in Washington D.C. Will Taiwan persevere as a free democracy, or will the world witness another vibrant liberal society atrophy into the abyss of Chinese totalitarianism?
Taiwan’s situation is tricky to say the least, and the American position regarding its defence obligations is not any less complicated. Taiwan has been an international anomaly since 1949 when the Republic of China (ROC) government fled the mainland onto the island. The 1952 San Francisco Treaty further complicated the island’s legal status when Japan renounced its sovereignty over Formosa without designating in whose favour the renouncement was directed.
Acknowledge vs Recognise
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has adamantly claimed sovereignty over Taiwan and has coerced nations, institutions, and businesses to adhere to its ‘One China Principle’. Western nations, including Australia, “acknowledge” but do not “recognise” the PRC’s claim over Taiwan. Here’s the complication: to recognise is to understand something as a fact or truth, or to declare a belief in. To acknowledge is to admit knowledge of something. In practice, this translates to countries like the United States and the United Kingdom saying, “yes we know the PRC claims Taiwan”, and not “the PRC claims Taiwan period”.
Although it may seem semantical or a mere twist on words, this disparity between “acknowledge” and “recognise” makes a world of difference, as it provides the United States and others with room to manoeuvre and formulate policy with ambiguous defence obligations regarding Taiwan.
Strategic ambiguity has expired
Strategic ambiguity, at its core, assumes that shrouding the US’ policy vis-a-vis an invasion would minimise the probability of war and decrease the PRC’s willingness to invade. But even apologists of the existing policy have admitted that the approach no longer deters China effectively, as Beijing’s strength and military build-up has stretched beyond American predictions and expectations.
Developed in the 1970s, strategic ambiguity was formed when the US was attempting to cleave the PRC away from the USSR and required a strong yet vague policy regarding Chinese ambitions towards Taiwan. The possibility of the Americans lending their titanic political, economic, and military aid to Taiwan against China kept Beijing in check and maintained peace in the strait.
This deterrence was effective, until now. RAND Corporation, an American policy research organisation with links to defence, assessed that China may be able to successfully invade Taiwan by 2030, with some predicting even earlier. President of the US Council on Foreign Relations noted in September 2020 that the gap between Chinese and American military capabilities in the Taiwan Strait means the effectiveness of strategic ambiguity has “run its course”.
The US has been ‘lying flat’
US policies since the Cold War toward Taiwan have not changed: the Taiwan Relations Act, the Three Joint Communiqués, and the Six Assurances have remained in place, almost frozen in time numb to changes in reality.
Meanwhile, the PRC passed its Anti-Secession Law in 2005, conducted multiple invasion exercises off the Taiwanese coast, enacted a threatening new coast guard law, and has begun near daily intrusions into the Taiwanese air defence zone since August 2022. Internal Chinese military literature has also indicated the People’s Liberation Army’s top three war plans are regarding Taiwan.
Yet, with such clear indication of the PRC’s intentions, the US has not shifted its policy at all, instead ‘lying flat’. With the rise of the PRC’s military power and assertiveness, strategic ambiguity makes Washington appear weak and confused, no doubt stressing its regional allies. This has the complete opposite effect of strategic ambiguity’s intention.
Deterring Chinese invasion is paramount to the US’ effort in managing competition with the PRC. With the geostrategic calculus shifting away from the American favour, the United States must rejig its cross-strait policies to match its rhetoric in protecting and upholding the rules-based order and global democracy.
A pivot towards strategic clarity
Supporters of strategic ambiguity argue that the policy allows other countries to balance their ties between Beijing and Washington. Increasingly, this argument is losing merit. From the outset, the PRC has forced nations to adopt its ‘One China Principle’ before establishing any diplomatic or commercial ties with it. On the world stage, any efforts by nations to advocate for Taiwan’s participation in international organisations have also drawn the ire of China. With the Communist Party continuously shifting the goalposts to fit its interest, it is extremely difficult for nations to manage their relationship with China and the US.
In this light, the US must also recognise that the game and the players have changed since the Cold War. Any conflict surrounding Taiwan will now predictably draw a multilateral response affecting the entire region and the world in more ways than one.
Partners have demonstrated their willingness to combat the PRC’s incrementalism. The US has effectively enacted and coordinated clear policy strategies and responses to Chinese actions, including creating the AUKUS alliance between the United Kingdom, Australia, and itself. Japan has also indicated Taiwan’s integral importance to its security equation. More recently, former British Prime Minister Liz Truss also affirmed the UK’s commitment to improve Taiwan's self-defence ability and re-highlighted the importance of Taiwan to Britain; a move that is not expected to change under the premiership of Rishi Sunak.
Recently, the Taiwan Policy Act has made headway in the US Congress, and has been signed off by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The proposed Act designates the island as a major non-NATO ally, paving way for further arm sales and defence cooperation. Though the law has been sidelined by American domestic politics, it nevertheless demonstrates a clear appetite to upgrade ties with Taiwan.
Shifting to strategic clarity will only officiate what is already in place, and pave the way for the US to solidify defence ties and its commitment to defend Taiwan – and, by extension, the rules-based order. The policy shift will also dispel any Trump-era doubts on the level of US commitment to the region’s security and Washington’s multiple bilateral defence treaties in the Indo-Pacific.
The fine print: terms and conditions
But as important as strategic clarity may be, any guarantee must inevitably include caveats and conditions. The PRC previously escalated a jurisdictional dispute over Scarborough Shoal with the Philippines by outright taking the island located in the South China Sea. The US watched idly as the island laid beyond the scope of the US-Philippines defence treaty.
Similar to this, the PRC may seize Taiwanese islands close to mainland shores, for instance Kinmen, Matsu, or even the Penghu Islands. Whether the US will go to war with China over these islands or just over Taiwan proper needs to be set straight in any shift.
Strategic clarity also should not be used by the Taiwanese as an excuse or indication of Washington’s support of independence. The aim of strategic clarity is simply to prevent the PRC from invading Taiwan, changing the status quo by force, and maintaining peace in the Taiwan Strait.
A shift to an unambiguous policy signals the US’ sense and grasp of urgency, prioritisation, and purpose. Allies will be reassured, protections of the rules-based order will be strengthened, and the status quo will be maintained. While clarity does not necessarily guarantee deterrence, it would at its root minimise the possibility of war through miscalculation. Strategic clarity aims to stop an invasion before it occurs; strategic ambiguity, a fossil of the Cold War, provides room for an invasion to occur.
Samuel Ng is currently in his final year of a dual Bachelor of Laws (Honours) and Bachelor of International Business at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia. He is also a Westpac Asian Exchange Scholar for Taiwan, previously studying at the National Chengchi University having undertaken units in Taiwanese international relations, diplomacy, and political history.