Strategic Ambiguity, China, and Taiwan: The US-Taiwan Quagmire

Andrew Erskine
Source: Nikkei Asia

The US-Taiwan quagmire has long been resolved through an understanding of strategic ambiguity. Before President Xi Jinping and President Biden, the two great powers used this strategic outlook to maintain peace and prosperity over the Taiwan Strait and its place within China. However, marking the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party, President Xi declared that China would never be bullied, oppressed, or subjugated by a foreign force under his leadership. Adding to the strong assertion was his proclamation of China’s unshakeable commitment to unification with Taiwan. Thus, with growing diplomatic tension and strategic competition between the two great powers, Taiwan has emerged as one of the most contested international issues of this period that could trigger a great power-armed standoff or conflict. 

Overview of Sino-Taiwanese Relations

Portraits of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen & Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Source: The New York Times

During the early decades of the 20th century, China underwent a series of civil wars between the Kuomintang Nationalist-led government of the Republic of China and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of Mao Zedong. Conflict occurred in two phases—1927 to 1936 and 1945 to 1949—resulting in the Nationalist-led government retreating to Taiwan in 1949. Being victorious the CCP asserted that there was only “one China” and that Taiwan was part of that policy. Since attaining power, the CCP has maintained that it is the only legitimate government of China and has proclaimed a One-China principle that declares Taiwan’s eventual unification with the mainland.

In the closing decade of the 20th century, China claimed that the 1992 Consensus bound Taiwan to China as it declared an understanding of the two geopolitical sides of the strait belonging to the CCP’s One-China Policy while “working together for national reunification.” This understanding between the two political groups led to eventual closer ties between Taiwan and China. However, when Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), under the leadership of Tsai Ing-wen, won the 2016 election and was re-elected in 2020, and the DDP explicitly refused to accept the 1992 Consensus. Instead, the DPP leader argued that they were elected according to the Kuomintang Nationalist Constitution.

Overview of US-Taiwan Strategic Ambiguity

Source: Brookings Institute, 2019

Under the Nixon administration, the US established formal diplomatic relations with the CCP’s China, resulting in America severing its diplomatic ties and abrogated its mutual defense treaty with Taiwan. However, the US has maintained an unofficial relationship with Taiwan and continues selling weapons to the Taiwanese military for its self-defense. These tactical decisions contributed to three Sino-US communiques in 1972, 1978, and 1982; the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979; and the Six Assurances conveyed to Taiwan in 1982. As a result, US diplomatic efforts towards China and Taiwan have developed a “strategic ambiguity” in America’s role in maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.

With China’s more assertive foreign policy gaining traction under President Xi and then-president Obama’s foreign policy pivot to the Indo-Pacific, the US deepened its diplomatic ties with Taiwan. During the Trump presidency, the US sold more than $18 billion of weapons to Taiwan’s military and unveiled a $250 million complex for its embassy in Taipei. President Biden has continued with Trump’s US strategic approach to Taiwan, going so far as to invite Taiwanese representatives to attend his presidential inauguration.

The Chinese Dream & President Xi

Source: The Economist, The Chinese Dream

Unlike his predecessors, who held a national policy that formulated China’s stance on living with the status quo of a de facto independent Taiwan, Chinese President Xi Jinping has on numerous occasions publicly called for the progression of Taiwan’s unification with the mainland. 

“Complete national reunification is an inevitable requirement for realizing the great juventation of the Chinese nation.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping in The Governance of China

For President Xi, the Taiwan quagmire has vital consequences for his Chinese Dream—Xi’s personal promise to advance China’s pinnacle of power and prosperity by 2049—that will finalize China’s realization of its great renewal as the regional hegemon and a reputable and vital global great power. Lastly, the Chinese Dream will correspond with the 100th anniversary of the CCP’s founding. As can be seen, Taiwan’s unification with the mainland is personal to President Xi and is complicated with his political desire to be projected into the same legacy stature as Mao Zedong.

The acceleration of China’s hard push for Taiwan’s reunification can be observed further through the nationalistic opinion among the Chinese population, the military, and bureaucratic elites. If public opinion polls are correct, 70 percent of the Chinese population strongly support using military force in unifying Taiwan with China, with 37 percent favouring war with Taiwan over unification in the next three or five years. Moreover, President Xi is surrounded by military and bureaucratic advisers confident in China’s military power to regain Taiwan by force.

China’s recent assertive conduct to Taiwan, notably through its use of aircraft incursions into Taiwan’s airspace, is worrisome. Nonetheless, it also needs to be observed through President Xi’s diplomatic takeaways from the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1995-96. In this moment of military escalation, China fired two sets of missiles intended to intimidate Taiwan’s then-president Lee Teng-hui from further contending the One-China policy and pressure the presidential electorate in the run-up to the Taiwanese 1996 election. Unfortunately for China, this event occurred during America’s unipolar moment, and when the US dispatched two aircraft carrier battle groups to the Strait, China immediately ceased its armed operation. 

This moment in Sino-Taiwan relations has remained in the CCP’s collective memory, and China has since used the following 25 years to modernize its military to avoid similar deterrence from happening. With China’s military nearing its modernization and expansion into new technological forms of warfare, combined with its collective strategic desire to regain Taiwan, China now perceives the balance of power to absorb Taiwan to be in its favor. 

America’s Fear of Sino-Taiwan Unification

Source: Japan Times, a cartoon highlighting the problems of strategic ambiguity to Taiwan

The American approach to defend and deter conflict in the Taiwan Strait has been defined through strategic ambiguity. However, in the wake of growing Chinese dominance in military and hybrid capabilities, foreign policy experts and analysts—namely Richard Haass and David Sacks—argue for an unambiguous strategy to the Taiwan quagmire. They remark that US superiority in prevailing over a Taiwan conflict is no longer certain, along with emphasizing America’s ill-mannered strategy lacking clarity to the means for preparing the US military for an armed conflict and intervention in the Taiwan Strait. The overall lack of clarity to America’s strategic ambiguity places American Asia-Pacific leadership and power in jeopardy as “losing” Taiwan to China will have consequential effects on American security interests in the Indo-Pacific. 

The first consequential fear is with China using Taiwan to project its hegemonic footprint across the region. For American military leaders, Taiwan’s natural geography as an island makes it a formidable and unsinkable aircraft carrier to project the state’s military capabilities. By absorbing Taiwan, China would have a suitable tactical advantage by fortifying its anti-access/area-denial (AS/AD) capabilities by extending China’s naval reach for its attack and nuclear-armed submarines. Additionally, China would station its new DF-26 ballistic missiles in Taiwan. These military features provide China with extensive first-strike capabilities against US bases, naval flotillas, and its Asian allies.

The second consequential fear is the unraveling of the US regional hub-and-spoke system of alliances. With the fear of being unsuccessful in defending Taiwan from a Chinese military invasion or hesitant in defending the island, there is a worry that America’s like-minded Asian allies would feel abandoned and isolated by the existing US hub-and-spoke system. Such a blunder would see some allies—like Japan and South Korea—yield more readily to Chinese territorial demands or lead US allies to desire and develop nuclear weapons. The aforementioned fear contributes to the anxiety of the hub-and-spoke system of alliances to be dismantled, thereby removing the US as a pivotal power in the Indo-Pacific, undermining its Asia-Pacific security interests and capabilities to influence regional norms and rules.

A third consequential fear concerns China nearly becoming self-sufficient in the manufacturing of semiconductor chips. As a quasi-independent actor, Taiwan holds an important place among the world’s top economic powers. For instance, it is the 10th largest trading partner for the US and is a dominant global leader in semiconductor manufacturing. Semiconductor chips are foundational for most civilian and military electronics, and if Beijing were successful in unifying Taiwan, it could use this superiority with its powerful economy to leverage countries that criticize China’s hegemonic projection. As the US has limited industrial capacity to manufacture these semiconductors, experts argue that this reality constitutes a threat to America’s national security in the Asia-Pacific.

Refining America’s Strategic Ambiguity

Source: The New York Times, a flotilla of ships belonging to the American Pacific Fleet

To maintain peace and prosperity in the Taiwan Strait, the US needs to refine its strategy towards the US-Taiwan quagmire. Unlike Charles Glaser—who proposes a retrenchment strategy—and Blake Herzinger—a traditional realist hawk—the best strategy is still one of ambiguity. Although China has increased its belligerent diplomatic and military outlook towards Taiwan, China will likely only consider initiating armed unification when President Xi is confident in the PLA’s ability to gain control of the island. Suppose American strategy towards Taiwan was clarified and outlined US commitments to protect the island’s autonomy and future independence, the probability of China initiating an armed unification towards Taiwan would undoubtedly increase and outright occur as President Xi regards this issue as an internal affair that puts Chinese sovereignty in jeopardy.

Strategic ambiguity, meanwhile, has a proven track record for affixing US security interests to Taiwan. With that said, strategic ambiguity to Taiwan needs refining to include specific tactical directives to prepare Taiwan and the US—and to an extent, US allies—for an armed conflict with China. Initiating such a process provides the US with strategic insight over how to make explicit that any acts by China towards armed unification will end President Xi’s Chinese Dream. To accomplish such a feat, the US needs to maintain and push forward more substantial trade agreements with Taiwan, including but not limited to anti-tank and anti-air missiles, ornaments and systems to medical supplies.

While China will condemn and demand a halt to such activities, the US should argue that these actions are simply maintaining the status quo that has provided peace and prosperity in the Taiwan Strait since the 1970s. However, America needs to emphasize to Taiwanese leaders that it will continue to conduct trade activities, even in the wake of a Chinese invasion. Although these strategic measures put US civilian and military forces in danger of Chinese first-strike capabilities, such commitments will have significant morale benefits for Taiwan.

For China to successfully unify Taiwan, it needs the complete capitulation of Taiwan’s leaders and civilian population. Such a mission is difficult today as more than 64 percent of the Island’s residents consider themselves exclusively Taiwanese. If this population was guaranteed continued support from the US in supplying “public goods,” it would be likely that Taiwan could assemble a considerable resistance to the PLA. What is more, America’s military and political leaders should be aware of the major difference between successfully invading an area by force and successfully occupying and subduing a national resistance. After all, the US has extensive historical memories of these occurrences in its tenure as a great power.

Source: The Economist, 2021

Supplying and ensuring the success of such resistance will provide the US with sweeping tactical maneuverability. For one, it provides American armed forces, intelligence departments, and diplomatic agencies adequate time to mount a considerable force in response to any acts of aggression from China. Moreover, China will become the aggressor since it would unquestionably prevent American shipping to Taiwan. If China were to attack or block American shipping by force, it would confirm American sentiments of Chinese belligerence towards the rules-based order and any actors that defy its great power rise. Such a brash decision by China would undoubtedly merit a reasonable response from the US while generating support from allies within NATO and the US hub-and-spoke system to partner with America to push back against China in the Taiwan Strait. 

For US strategic ambiguity to function, American political and military leaders need to anticipate China contributing a large-scale invasion, thereby showcasing the PLA’s eminent precession at attaining success and China’s great power status. If this occurs, American strategic ambiguity needs directives on the consequential effects it would have on China. First, the strategy should detail how Taiwan will strain a significant portion of Chinese power through mounting a robust resistance to its occupational forces. Second, strategic directives need to emphasize that China has a limited window to divert more resources and personnel to Taiwan before America responds with a well-provisioned, tactically sound, and internationally supported force. Lastly, China needs to be made aware that the US and its allies are geostrategically positioned and supported within the Indo- and Asia-Pacific, resulting in China being enclosed with mounting military casualties and economic paralysis—with Europe, the US, Japan, South Korea and Canada severing trade ties with China while also making the South China Sea inaccessible for China to import or export public goods—as a result of its armed invasion of Taiwan.

By putting forward a refined strategic ambiguity to the Taiwan quagmire, the US can better position its great power competition and coexistence with China over peace and prosperity in the Taiwan Strait while reinforcing its allies in the Indo- and Asia-Pacific. Moreover, by playing off President Xi’s desire to unify Taiwan with the mainland during his presidency, the US should impose upon the Chinese that absorbing Taiwan through force or armed coercion would have notable consequences to its leader’s Chinese Dream.

  • Does the United States need more strategic clarity towards Taiwan that commits its military to defend its autonomy while outright denouncing forceful unification by China?
  • Will China disregard calls for peace and prosperity across the Taiwan Strait to fulfill its Chinese Dream?
  • How will the nations in the Indo- and Asia-Pacific react to the prospect of a Sino-US armed conflict over Taiwan?

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Strategic Ambiguity, Chin…

by Andrew Erskine time to read: 10 min