Strategic Ambiguity and the Defense of Taiwan

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

As with so many foreign policy and national security issues today, the U.S.–Taiwan relationship stems back to World War II and U.S. policy in the post-war period.

During the Second World War, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt believed that the post-war world would be secured by the “Four Policemen”—the wartime alliance of the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and China. This idea morphed into the United Nations, with the four great powers (plus France) becoming permanent members of the Security Council. The fall of China to Mao Tse Tung’s Communists in 1949 led to the retreat of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government to the island of Taiwan, but the Republic of China (ROC) continued to hold China’s seat in the United Nations until 1971.

During the Korean War, the Truman administration extended economic and military aid to the ROC on Taiwan and employed the U.S. Seventh Fleet to neutralize the Taiwan Strait. After the intervention of the Chinese Communists in Korea in the fall of 1950, General Douglas MacArthur argued for the employment of ROC troops in the conflict. Truman declined to do so but placed a Military Assistance Advisory Group and the U.S. Taiwan Defense Command on Taiwan. In 1955 the U.S. Senate ratified a Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty, which was in force until January 1, 1980, one year to the date after the United States recognized the People’s Republic of China.

Since then, the relationship between the United States and Taiwan has been one of deliberate strategic ambiguity. The United States maintains de facto if not de jure diplomatic relations with Taiwan. The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act states “the United States will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.” U.S. arms sales—under both Democratic and Republican administrations—to Taiwan have included advanced fighter jets, air defense missiles, naval frigates and anti-ship missiles, attack helicopters, anti-tank weapons, tanks, and other weapons and equipment. The United States does not explicitly guarantee it will come to the defense of Taiwan should China attack, but as late as 1996 the U.S. Seventh Fleet intervened to neutralize the Taiwan Strait following Chinese missile tests and naval exercises put in motion to protest the granting of a visa to Taiwan’s President Lee Teng-hui to allow him to attend a reunion at his alma mater, Cornell University.

Officially, the United States supports a “One-China policy,” which asserts that China and Taiwan are parts of a single sovereign state. The United States seeks a political solution to the issue, rather than a declaration of Taiwanese independence or the forcible reunification of Taiwan with China. China and Taiwan also follow this principle, albeit with intractable disagreement over which is the legitimate government of the one China. This ambiguity has kept the peace, more or less, since 1949. But recently Chinese President Xi Jinping has refused to renounce the pursuit of unification via force of arms. China’s increasing military capabilities and bellicose nationalist rhetoric threaten to inflame tensions, especially as the Taiwan independence movement grows.

The United States has three broad policy options: 1) to formalize a defense treaty with Taiwan to protect its sovereignty, 2) to retain the concept of strategic ambiguity, or 3) to renounce the defense of Taiwan, leaving it to defend itself in any conflict with mainland China. The Taiwan Relations Act commits the United States to “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.” This continues to be sound policy. A U.S. guarantee of Taiwan’s sovereignty would thrust the United States and China into a cold war, with grave and uncertain consequences for East Asia and the world. Abandoning Taiwan publicly would inevitably lead to an invasion of the island, which would entail horrific consequences for the Taiwanese people and have a chilling effect on the nations of the region. Best to deter conflict by keeping China guessing.

But should China invade Taiwan, the United States should come to the island’s defense. Failure to do so would send a message that the United States will no longer protect the world’s democracies from aggression, and seriously undermine U.S. power and prestige. China’s rise as an Asian hegemon would then become inevitable, much to the detriment of the United States and its allies in the region. The United States currently maintains defense capabilities adequate to bolster this policy. But given China’s rapid military buildup, the military balance may soon tilt in China’s favor. Given Xi’s rhetoric, it behooves the United States to take his bellicosity seriously and to acquire the capabilities to win any conflict over Taiwan, whether outright warfare or the kind of gray zone hybrid operations that have typified Chinese operations in the South China Sea in recent years.

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