Maintaining Strategic Ambiguity with Today’s Cross-Strait Status Quo

The United States should optimize the tools it possesses to improve the current policy of strategic ambiguity towards Taiwan.

The United States’ policy of “strategic ambiguity” towards Taiwan is under intense debate in the U.S. policy community. Under this policy, the U.S. historically has not stated whether it would intervene militarily should a conflict arise between Taiwan and China. In recent years, however, some experts have begun to argue that the U.S. should choose a policy of “strategic clarity” by explicitly committing to defend Taiwan if it were attacked by China.

To be sure, this is not the first time that the debate over strategy ambiguity has taken place. However, today’s debate is unfolding in a different context as China demonstrates growing capability to use force to reunify Taiwan while the U.S. deepens defense ties in response. Still, a U.S. move toward a policy of strategic clarity merely heightens the risk of cross-Strait conflict. Instead, the United States should adjust its policy of strategic ambiguity to improve its deterrent capabilities and bolster international norms through its alliances and partnerships across the Indo-Pacific region.

The 2021 Status Quo

Strategic ambiguity in its current form dates back to the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979. The TRA establishes the U.S. position on cross-Strait relations that only peaceful means will be used to resolve tensions between Taiwan and China. Stopping short of any explicit defense commitment, the TRA lays out the policy of providing Taiwan with arms for its self-defense, as well as maintaining the U.S.’s own ability “to resist any resort to force” against Taiwan.

In an effort to deter both sides of the Strait from making a move that could upset the status quo—typically understood as an attack by China or a formal declaration of independence by Taiwan—the United States’ policy of strategic ambiguity aims to leave it uncertain whether the U.S. military would intervene to defend Taiwan.

Since the U.S. established a policy of strategic ambiguity under the TRA, relations among the U.S., Taiwan, and China have evolved. On the part of the U.S., its engagement with Taiwan has deepened particularly in recent years, including several actions by the Trump administration to expand relations and increase arms sales. Taiwan has also become key to U.S. interests in East Asia, holding an important position in the first island chain and playing a role as a vibrant Asian democracy. In contrast, U.S.-China relations have become increasingly tense across the board, with the U.S. now identifying China as its main strategic competitor.

China has changed as well. Over the past few decades, Beijing’s efforts to modernize the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has decidedly shifted the cross-Strait military power balance in favor of Beijing. Moreover, Beijing considers Taiwan a “core interest” and continues to reserve the use of force for reunification.

In Taiwan, its leadership has so far taken a non-provocative stance on cross-Strait relations.  Locals generally prefer to maintain the status quo—a sign that reunification would be a challenge. But without willingness from Beijing to reopen formal communication channels, which have been closed since the election of President Tsai Ing-wen in 2016, and reduce cross-Strait friction, tensions remain elevated.

Under this 2021 status quo, U.S. strategic ambiguity seems to have limited utility. The threat from China to Taiwan seems to be growing, and the United States has many reasons to defend Taiwan. So, is strategic clarity the better policy to deter cross-Strait conflict?

In Search of Strategic Ambiguity for the Current Status Quo

Despite the status quo, a move by the U.S. to a policy of clarity brings its own risks. The U.S. would need buy-in from its regional partners like Japan and South Korea, since they will face the effects of any conflict in the region. The U.S. would also need to maintain an overwhelming deterrent, even when Beijing tests it with incursions that stop short of attacks. Furthermore, the change of policy would need to hold even when U.S. administrations change.  In some ways strategic clarity simply articulates what many already anticipate—the U.S. would most likely respond if Beijing attempted to use force against Taiwan. That said, clarity may reduce the flexibility that strategic ambiguity still grants. For China, clarity may be interpreted as a signal that time is running out for reunification, prompting Beijing to actively look for an opportunity to move. Or it may be seen as a chance to test U.S. mettle at another time when U.S. commitment to the region seems to falter. In any case, Taiwan, along with other U.S. allies in the region, would bear the consequences of such a policy change, introducing new risks into the U.S.-Taiwan-China dynamic.  

Instead of an explicit policy change, the United States should examine ways to adjust strategic ambiguity for today’s status quo. The U.S. can strengthen its deterrent by bolstering relationships with allies and partners across the Indo-Pacific, especially those hosting U.S. forces that would play a role in a Taiwan contingency. The security deterrent is key for the U.S. to support the implicit threat of strategic ambiguity with military power vis-à-vis Beijing. The U.S. and its partners can also strengthen international norms in every sphere—political, security, and economic—and expand bilateral and multilateral unofficial cooperation with Taiwan, ensuring that Taiwan is recognized as a valuable partner. The cooperative strength of international norms is key for building an understanding across the Indo-Pacific region that a peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues is the only acceptable option. 

The debate over strategic ambiguity will continue, especially as China’s growing military capabilities continue to alter the balance of power in the region. But before committing to a new policy that places Taiwan in a more precarious position, the United States can and should optimize the tools it already possesses to make the current policy of strategic ambiguity work better.

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