Thrice has President Biden declared that the U.S. would fight if China invaded Taiwan. Thrice has his staff in the White House contradicted him, patiently explaining there has been no change in the 50-year-old policy of strategic ambiguity: to wit, America may or may not militarily defend Taiwan.
On the other hand, Chairman Xi Jinping of China has been quite forthcoming, instructing his military to “be ready by 2027” to invade Taiwan. It is time for the U.S. to adopt a public policy of equal strategic clarity. Tiny Taiwan (population 25 million) cannot defend alone against mighty China (population 1.5 billion).
Already our allies are hedging to stay out of any fight. On his recent visit to China, French President Emmanuel Macron said “the great risk” Europe faces is that it “gets caught up in crises that are not ours, which prevents it from building its strategic autonomy…The worse thing would be to think that we Europeans must become followers on this topic and take our cue from the U.S. agenda and a Chinese overreaction.”
Similarly, Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo recently said the Philippines “will not allow U.S. troops to refuel, repair and reload” at airfields and ports inside his country. His intent was to assure China that U.S. forces would not use the Philippines for a jumping-off point to defend Taiwan. Ironically, the U.S. Marines had just finished resizing its force in order to deploy anti-ship missile units on Philippine atolls in the South China Sea, should a fight against China become imminent. The longer we cling to “strategic ambiguity,” the more irresolute we appear and the more our allies duck for cover.
Should China succeed in taking Taiwan by force, our position in the Pacific becomes untenable. South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines will accede to China’s rules of the sea, determining the passage of $5 trillion in goods annually. With China in charge of the western Pacific, the U.S. will retrench back to Guam and Pearl Harbor. Seaborne trade ties with a tepid Europe will persist, but America will no longer be viewed as a global superpower.
We cannot duck the consequences of appeasement: If Taiwan is swallowed up, America will recede, perhaps content with subservient status as the Brazil of North America. Given Xi Jinping’s intransigent ambition, strategic ambiguity invites eventual aggression. Conversely, strategic clarity—America will fight for Taiwan—is the most powerful deterrent.