Bringing Clarity to “Ambiguity” on Taiwan

A View of Taipei with the Taipei 101 Skyscraper. Photo by Karson Elmgren.

Since Tsai Ing-wen was re-elected as president of Taiwan in January of this year, long-simmering tensions with China across the Taiwan Strait have risen yet again to a near boil. Over the years, the U.S. has repeatedly expressed its strong interest in a consensual, peaceful resolution of “the Taiwan issue.” Most forcefully, the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979 legally binds the U.S. both to provide defensive arms to Taiwan and to maintain a capability to resist aggression against the island, which the act states would be “a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.”[i]

Despite this, according to a policy often referred to as “strategic ambiguity,” it remains the case that the United States has never explicitly committed to come to Taiwan’s defense in the event of a Chinese attack. The U.S., after all, faces many threats to regional peace and security and many grave concerns, not all of which can or should elicit military intervention. The closest an American leader has come to doing so was when President George W. Bush stated that the U.S. would do “whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself[ii] (emphasis added). Although interpreted by some as forgoing strategic ambiguity, even this does not necessarily imply that the U.S. would deploy military force in the event of a Chinese invasion. “Helping Taiwan defend herself,” rather than “defending Taiwan,” could plausibly be interpreted as providing support in any of a variety of forms short of sending American troops to physically do the defending themselves.

Now, some scholars and policymakers think it is time to leave so-called strategic ambiguity by the wayside. Richard Haass and David Sacks argue that the U.S. should move to a policy of “strategic clarity,”[iii] against objections from others that such a move would be overly risky, ineffective and even illegal.[iv] Haass & Sacks proffer Bush’s statement of support for Taiwan in 2001 as a precedent for removing “ambiguity” which strengthened (or so they claim) deterrence rather than sparking precisely the conflagration the U.S. sought, and still seeks, to avoid.

But if Bush’s statement, as discussed above, was itself ambiguous (even if ambiguously so) regarding what concrete actions the U.S. would take in response to Chinese military action against Taiwan, and what Haass & Sacks advocate for is exactly this kind of statement, then is there really a disagreement at all? The problem is that “ambiguity” implies a binary pair of options, which, while it may describe the vague U.S. stance on whether Taiwan is properly sovereign territory of the PRC, does not apply to the myriad strategic choices the U.S. would face in response to Chinese aggression against Taiwan. No one believes that the U.S. would do precisely nothing in such a contingency. At the extreme minimum, the U.S. would certainly publicly denounce the Chinese action. However paltry, this alone would already constitute political “support” to Taiwan. The debate should therefore focus not on the false dichotomy of “ambiguity” versus “clarity,” but rather on what degree of resolve the U.S. should communicate, and what specifically the U.S. should do to clarify the implications of our resolve beyond that most fundamental and feeble commitment. Should the U.S. publicly reiterate, in similar terms as previously used, its interest in a peaceful resolution of the cross-straits dispute? Should the U.S. clearly announce an intention to impose sanctions on China in response to an invasion of Taiwan? Should the U.S. clarify a willingness to deploy military forces to prevent a coerced “reunification?” At the minimum, I suspect most would agree that a public restatement of long-standing U.S. policy would be a useful tonic to those who may overestimate the U.S.’ weakness at the moment; at the other extreme, no one would advocate we show all our cards and describe in detail how we plan to play them.

Furthermore, we should not be led astray by trying to compare these actions to the letter of the “one China” policy. In fact, there is no letter to this law, only spirit. U.S. policy has only ever been to acknowledge the fact of the PRC’s position that there is only one China, and Taiwan is a part of China, and to remain silent on whether the U.S. agrees with that characterization.[v] This silence only necessarily applies to the narrow question of Taiwan’s de jure sovereignty. Besides official legal recognition, what actions do or do not count as breaking the silence is decided in a delicate dance of implicit negotiation in which the U.S. makes the requisite rhetorical contortions and geopolitical compromises to assure the Chinese they will not defect too egregiously on the spirit of “one China,” and the Chinese decide whether they are willing to accept the performance. In a notable example, the Chinese side had initially assumed the “one China” policy entailed an end to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan upon normalization of U.S.-PRC relations. Deng Xiaoping, the leader of the Chinese Communist Party at the time, decided to concede this interpretation of the policy, prioritizing normalizing ties first.[vi] Similarly, what matters today is only whether China will be willing to countenance a given U.S. action, as ultimately it is they who hold the moving target of “one China.”

As a thousand minor irritants may have the same cumulative effect as a single major provocation, it is especially critical to maintaining peace across the Taiwan Strait that U.S. action towards Taiwan be maximally productive while minimally provocative. It’s hard to imagine greater bang for the provocation buck than, as Bonnie Glaser suggests in her essay in Foreign Affairs, reiterating long-standing U.S. policy that “any Chinese use of force against Taiwan would be viewed as a threat to peace and stability and a grave threat to the United States.”[vii] Policymakers could likely agree on at least some additional commitments the U.S. could make in response to possible Chinese aggression. They should do so, and make these commitments clear. In the meantime, the U.S. should refrain from actions which are symbolically loaded but practically inconsequential, such as exchanging visits of senior officials. Arms sales should be restricted to only those items which most augment the reorientation of Taiwan’s forces[viii] away from major combat operations and associated equipment — such as the Abrams tanks sold in previous arms deals by the Trump administration — and ideally towards greater guerrilla and small-scale capabilities. The U.S. should also do what it can to encourage and support this reorientation. Staying somewhat coy about the full range and scale of support the U.S. would be willing to provide in a conflict with China might help in this regard. While Tsai may be a reliable pragmatist on the issue of Taiwanese independence for the remaining 4 years of her term, the U.S. should recognize that there may be such a thing as going too far in emboldening pro-independence forces. Not only is there no guarantee that her immediate successor will be so cautious, there is also the risk that others in her party may not maintain such discipline. It was not so long ago that an enterprising nationalist ideologue well below the level of head of state catalyzed a crisis between neighboring Japan and China.[ix] In the current environment, a similar black swan event in cross-straits relations could prove much more dangerous.

While the coronavirus has spread throughout the human biosphere this year, in the Sinosphere a certain phrase has also enjoyed unusual circulation: 天時地利人和, “the time is right, the position advantageous, the people united;” prime conditions for a successful adventure. The United States should make clear to Xi and the world that such placid weather for a jaunt across the strait is not in the forecast.


[i] “Taiwan Relations Act (Public Law 96-8, 22 U.S.C. 3301 Et Seq.).” American Institute in Taiwan. July 10, 2018.

[ii] “Bush Vows Taiwan Support.” ABC News. April 25, 2001.

[iii] Haass, Richard, and David Sacks. “American Support for Taiwan Must Be Unambiguous.” Foreign Affairs. September 24, 2020.

[iv] Glaser, Bonnie S., Michael J. Mazarr, Michael J. Glennon, Richard Haass, and David Sacks. “Dire Straits.” Foreign Affairs. September 24, 2020.

[v] Garver, John W. China’s Quest: The History of the Foreign Relations of the People’s Republic of China. Oxford University Press, 2018, 303.

[vi] Ibid, 407.

[vii] Glaser, Bonnie S., Michael J. Mazarr, Michael J. Glennon, Richard Haass, and David Sacks. “Dire Straits.” Foreign Affairs. September 24, 2020.

[viii] Myers, Steven Lee, and Javier C. Hernández. “With a Wary Eye on China, Taiwan Moves to Revamp Its Military.” The New York Times. August 30, 2020.

[ix] “Tokyo’s Rightwing Governor Plans to Buy Disputed Senkaku Islands.” The Guardian. April 19, 2012.

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