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The US will defend Taiwan against a Chinese invasion, for now

Washington's policy of strategic ambiguity on Taiwan means something very different today

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US Marines conducting amphibious assault exercise during Talisman Sabre 19 in Bowen, Australia, in 2019. (US Navy photo)

US Marines conducting amphibious assault exercise during Talisman Sabre 19 in Bowen, Australia, in 2019. (US Navy photo)

TAICHUNG (Taiwan News) — For a while now, it has been clear to me the United States' policy of “strategic ambiguity” on what it would do if China were to attack Taiwan has taken a new form. This current version of strategic ambiguity is: the U.S. would intervene militarily, for now.

There are two key elements in this new strategic ambiguity that remain ambiguous and crucial to pay attention to: “Taiwan” and “for now.” Both have big implications that require careful consideration in Taipei and Beijing.

The previous iteration of strategic ambiguity was that the U.S. refused to clarify whether it would intervene in the event of a Chinese invasion. After the U.S. cut diplomatic ties and ended its military alliance with Taiwan in 1979, the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) was passed to govern relations.

It does not specifically rule in or out defending Taiwan, only stating that any threat to peace would be of “grave concern” and making it law “to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.”

As long as the U.S. was the lone superpower, Taiwan had a strong military and China did not, this was considered a useful balancing act. The status quo was maintained, it kept Beijing mollified publicly, and it allowed the U.S. to maintain pressure on Taiwan to keep it from doing anything “provocative” like declaring “independence.”

A realization began during the Trump administration and has deepened in the Biden years that China’s military is a “near-peer competitor” to the United States and that the military balance in the Taiwan Strait is shifting dramatically. It has also become clear that Beijing is the provocative one and more likely to alter the status quo, not Taipei.

The U.S. has become increasingly open about preparing for war over Taiwan and is openly coordinating with countries like Japan and Australia to prepare for the possibility. The presence of a limited number of U.S. troops in Taiwan is now confirmed.

For the third time, U.S. President (and Commander-in-Chief) Joe Biden affirmed Monday (May 23) that the U.S. would intervene militarily if China attacked Taiwan. "You didn't want to get involved in the Ukraine conflict militarily for obvious reasons. Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?" a reporter asked.

"Yes," Biden replied. "That's the commitment we made."

Speaking alongside Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, Biden went on to say China using force against Taiwan would “just not be appropriate,” adding that it “will dislocate the entire region and be another action similar to what happened in Ukraine.”

While the White House quickly released a statement saying that American policy on the issue had not changed, it was clear from the video of Biden’s comments that this was not a gaffe, nor was he having a “senior moment” as some have alleged. He meant what he said, though it was a little unclear what he was referring to by “that’s the commitment we made.”

Watch the video carefully. His comments prior were a perfect setup for the reporter, and when the question about defending Taiwan was asked, Biden answered “yes” immediately and forcefully.

The setting also suggests this was no accident: He was in Asia on a major tour and standing next to the Japanese prime minister. Kishida has been following and expanding on his predecessor Abe Shinzo’s strengthening of Japan's military and sounding the alarm about the dangers a Chinese attack on Taiwan would pose.

Abe, who is still a major figure in the ruling party, recently wrote a forceful piece calling on the U.S. to end strategic ambiguity and move to “strategic clarity,” and this drew widespread attention. At the very least, Abe’s piece reflected what many in the party and in the government are thinking, but it’s also entirely possible it was coordinated with the Japanese government — as a former PM, he can say things that carry weight and get people talking while giving the government plausible deniability.

In this context, Biden’s comments in essence gave the Japanese the reassurance Abe has been calling for, but the White House staff announcement that U.S. policy remains the same gave the U.S. diplomatic wiggle room.

The U.S. stance has clearly changed, so the U.S. has changed strategic ambiguity to something like the interpretation I laid out in the beginning of the article, which is a marked shift from what it meant traditionally. The U.S. is not likely going to officially fully abandon strategic ambiguity because of concerns it would incense and provoke China — and also to keep some ambiguity around “Taiwan” and “for now.”

The U.S.-Japan Security Treaty obligates the U.S. to come to the military aid of Japan if China attacks the uninhabited Senkaku Islands, which China claims as the Diaoyu Islands and has threatened repeatedly (Taiwan claims them as the Diaoyutai Islands). The U.S. does not want to be in a similar situation regarding Taiwan.

While the U.S. has made it clear it will get involved militarily to defend “Taiwan,” in the absence of a formal treaty or agreement, the U.S. retains ambiguity on what it would do if China were to attack Taiwan’s islands in the South China Sea or even Kinmen, Matsu or Penghu.

The U.S. could decide that China taking some or all of those islands simply is not worth a war with a fellow nuclear power. It would also be very easy for China to take those islands and very hard to dislodge them once they were under Chinese control.

This is probably obvious to strategic thinkers in Beijing and Taipei. Not being sure how the U.S. will react will give Beijing pause and Taipei a lot to think about regarding its defensive capacities.

There is also no obligation for this new “strategic ambiguity” to last forever; it is “for now.” It was fairly obvious under the Trump administration that the U.S. would intervene, and it is blindingly obvious the Biden administration would follow suit.

But what about future administrations? Lacking any clear and specific commitment by the U.S., future presidents might have a different view on the value of defending Taiwan. This uncertainty serves U.S. interests in pushing Taiwan to not be complacent about its own defensive capabilities, which Taiwan most certainly needs to continue to strengthen.

Courtney Donovan Smith (石東文) is a regular contributing columnist for Taiwan News, the central Taiwan correspondent for ICRT FM100 Radio News, co-publisher of Compass Magazine, co-founder of Taiwan Report (report.tw), and former chair of the Taichung American Chamber of Commerce.