Over the past year, the questions of whether China will forcibly move against Taiwan and how best to deter Chinese aggression have moved to the center of debates about U.S. foreign policy. This is due to a combination of factors. Officials and analysts in Washington increasingly recognize that China now has the capability to fight a war with the United States over Taiwan—a notion that once seemed far-fetched. There is also a growing sense among American observers that Chinese President Xi Jinping, having suffered few consequences for his crackdown in Hong Kong and his aggressive moves in the South China Sea and convinced that the United States is in inexorable decline, feels emboldened to force the pace of unification with Taiwan.
In response to this increasing concern, the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has prioritized strengthening relations with Taiwan and signaling that it is taking the threat to Taiwan seriously. The Department of Defense has rightly termed China its “pacing challenge” and has described a potential conflict over Taiwan as its “pacing scenario,” while the commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command has stated that the greatest danger in the region comes from the threat of China using force against Taiwan. But the administration’s budgetary priorities and global force posture do not reflect a sense of urgency. The administration has also failed to explain to Congress and the American people why Taiwan matters enough to put American lives on the line to come to its defense.
What the Biden administration has done has also been flawed. It has officially embraced the long-standing policy of strategic ambiguity, refraining from stating explicitly that the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense if China were to use force against the island. But this approach is unlikely to deter an increasingly assertive, risk-tolerant, and capable China. The playbook that worked when Taiwan and the United States had a military edge over China is unlikely to keep at bay a People’s Liberation Army that has spent the past two and a half decades preparing for a Taiwan conflict. What Washington needs now is a policy of “strategic clarity.” As we argued in Foreign Affairs a year ago, the best way to reduce the risk of war would be to make explicit to China that the United States would respond to an attack against Taiwan with all of the tools at its disposal, including severe economic sanctions and military force. Washington needs to make it clear to Beijing that the cost of aggression would vastly outweigh any potential benefits.
In the year since we made that argument, Biden has more than once seemed to articulate a version of strategic clarity, suggesting that the United States would help defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack. In each case, however, administration officials have later walked back Biden’s statements, in the process signaling a lack of will to China and unsettling allies and partners that are looking to the United States for clear guidance so they can adjust their postures accordingly. Adding to the confusion is the fact that despite the official insistence that nothing has changed, the administration has made visible moves to upgrade U.S. ties with Taiwan: its actions have often been more in line with Biden’s informal comments than with its official position. The net result is that the risk of a Chinese miscalculation and the odds of a conflict have grown.
That said, although strategic clarity would reduce the chance of conflict, it is not a silver bullet. It would need to be accompanied by sizable investments in U.S. capabilities to enable a defense of Taiwan. And Washington needs to complement military upgrades with diplomatic efforts that would signal to China the economic and political costs it would suffer if it acted aggressively. Think of it as pursuing clarity to bolster deterrence.
The United States should also provide a measure of reassurance to China, stressing that Washington continues to adhere to the “one China” policy and does not support Taiwanese independence. In practice, this would entail lowering the public profile of U.S.-Taiwanese relations while at the same time improving Taiwan’s economic security, increasing the island’s resilience to Chinese pressure, and partnering with it on supply chain security.
The bad news is that the window of opportunity to carry out this shift is narrow and arguably closing. The good news, however, is that it’s possible for the United States to achieve clarity in its policy and enhance its capabilities in a manner fully consistent with a commitment to preserving a working relationship with China. Properly designed and implemented, such an approach would not just avoid conflict but allow for selective U.S.-Chinese cooperation.
THE CASE FOR CLARITY
One factor strongly favoring more clarity about Washington’s position on Taiwan is the way in which doubts regarding U.S. reliability have grown in recent years. Despite assurances that the United States provided to Ukraine in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, when Russia invaded Crimea and moved to annex the territory in 2014, Washington limited its response to economic sanctions. Last year, when China dealt fatal blows to Hong Kong’s democracy in violation of a treaty it had signed with the United Kingdom, the United States and its partners largely stood aside. Most recently, the United States abandoned its partners in Afghanistan rather than taking a conditions-based approach to its withdrawal.
Combined with the intentional ambiguity of U.S. policy toward Taiwan, faltering American credibility feeds the potential for a dangerous Chinese miscalculation that could lead to war. Historically, uncertainty regarding the other side’s intentions has often been a major driver of instability and conflict, with both World War I and the Korean War serving as examples. Clarity reduces the risk of a conflict beginning because one party misjudges the other side’s intentions and capabilities.
Although strategic clarity would reduce the chance of conflict, it is not a silver bullet.
Some have argued that abandoning strategic ambiguity would lead to a rupture in relations between Washington and Beijing. But nothing in the three joint communiqués that established the basis of modern U.S.-Chinese relations would preclude such a change in U.S. policy. Indeed, it is important to remember that the United States adopted a policy of strategic ambiguity because successive presidents determined that such an approach was the best way to safeguard U.S. interests, not because it was a condition of normalization or a pledge that Washington made to Beijing. It has always been a unilateral policy choice for the United States, one that should be adjusted to changing circumstances.
Others have argued that strategic clarity would embolden Taiwan to seek formal independence. Public polling, however, reveals that even as the degree to which the residents of Taiwan identify primarily as Taiwanese (as opposed to Chinese or both Taiwanese and Chinese) has risen dramatically over the past 15 years, less than six percent favor independence as soon as possible; a majority want to maintain the status quo indefinitely or decide at a later date. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, from the nominally pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, has repeatedly stated that Taiwan does not need to declare independence because it is already an independent country. Nonetheless, the United States would make clear that its pledge to come to Taiwan’s aid was not unconditional and would not necessarily cover a crisis initiated by Taipei.
TOO MUCH AMBIGUITY
Officially, the Biden administration has chosen to maintain the long-standing policy of strategic ambiguity. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines stated that China would view a shift away from that tradition as “deeply destabilizing.” Kurt Campbell, the White House coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, argued that a change would carry “significant downsides.” Nicholas Burns, Biden’s pick to become U.S. ambassador to China, recently reiterated that the administration remains committed to strategic ambiguity.
In practice, however, the Biden administration’s embrace of strategic ambiguity has been more, well, ambiguous. In August, Biden remarked that the United States had the same “sacred commitment” to Taiwan that it has to its treaty allies. Just two months later, Biden was asked whether the United States would defend Taiwan if China attacked the island. “Yes, we have a commitment to do that,” he responded.
In both instances, the White House quickly walked back Biden’s statements, sowing confusion about the true nature of the administration’s policy. Meanwhile, the administration has taken a number of steps that seem to suggest a strengthened commitment to Taiwan. Even before Biden took office, he invited Taiwan’s representative to the United States to his inauguration, the first time in four decades that a U.S. president-elect had extended such an invitation. In its final days, the Trump administration had removed long-standing restrictions on U.S. officials having contacts with Taiwanese counterparts. Rather than reversing that decision, the Biden administration has pushed it even further, sending the U.S. ambassador to Palau to visit Taiwan, the first time a sitting U.S. ambassador has done so since the United States established diplomatic relations with China. And the Biden administration has repeatedly emphasized its “rock solid” commitment to Taiwan and has underscored the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait in joint statements with Japan, South Korea, the European Union, and the G-7.
In the face of Washington’s inconsistency, U.S. allies have moved toward their own versions of strategic clarity, likely in an effort to encourage Washington to do the same. This past June, Japan’s then Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi stated that “the peace and stability of Taiwan is directly connected to Japan,” seeming to imply that Japan would respond to a Chinese attack on Taiwan. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has argued that “the front line of the clash between authoritarianism and democracy is Asia, and particularly Taiwan.” Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who still wields significant influence in Japanese politics, has been the most forward-leaning of all, bluntly warning: “A Taiwan emergency is a Japanese emergency, and therefore an emergency for the Japan-U.S. alliance. People in Beijing, President Xi Jinping in particular, should never have a misunderstanding in recognizing this.”
Australia has gone even further. In November, Defense Minister Peter Dutton publicly declared that it would be “inconceivable” for Australia not to join the United States in defending Taiwan and warned that acquiescing to Chinese aggression would lead to a new regional order. This support from two of Washington’s most important regional allies reveals just how high the stakes have risen.
The United States must accompany a declaration of strategic clarity with major efforts to demonstrate its ability and will to overcome Chinese aggression. Above all, Washington needs to make preparing for a conflict over Taiwan the top priority for the Department of Defense and resource it accordingly. This would mean investing in long-range strike capabilities, shifting additional military assets to Guam, and improving the range and redundancy of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets in the region.
Ideally, the Biden administration would cover these new costs by increasing overall defense spending; failing that, the only way to pay for them would be to scale back in other theaters, above all Europe and the Middle East. Doing so, however, would not be easy (or wise) given the challenges posed by Russia and Iran. All of which means deterring a more capable China is likely to require more in the way of military and diplomatic resources alike.
Increasing coordination with Japan will be critical, given that it is home to the U.S. bases closest to Taiwan, at which are stationed over 50,000 American troops. The United States should modernize its command-and-control structure in Japan, establish a rotational troop presence in the country’s westernmost islands, and discuss dividing responsibilities with Japan in the event of a military conflict over Taiwan. Given Australia’s willingness to take a firm stance on this issue, Washington should also explore trilateral cooperation with Canberra and Tokyo.
There must be no doubt that were China to attack Taiwan, the United States would respond forcefully.
Defending Taiwan would severely strain U.S. logistics, requiring the United States to quickly move critical supplies into the region. The Pentagon should start practicing for that challenge by regularly conducting exercises in which forces surge to the region and by prepositioning additional supplies in Guam and Japan.
The United States should also make clear that a Chinese use of force would not only invite an American military response but also put China’s continued economic growth at risk, which in turn could threaten the Chinese Communist Party’s grip on power. To that end, Washington and its European partners should devise a sanctions regime to put in place in the event of a Chinese attack—and should reveal the scope of those potential sanctions to China. The United States should also develop a plan to offset the economic sanctions that China itself would levy against countries that aided in the defense of Taiwan.
Recognizing that a shift to clarity would likely prompt China to increase pressure on Taiwan in the short run, the United States should also help Taiwan become more resilient to Chinese pressure and become a more difficult military target. This would include assisting Taiwan with election security and cyberdefenses and helping the island diversify its economy by negotiating a U.S.-Taiwanese free-trade agreement. On the military front, Washington must continue to press Taipei to increase its defense spending, assist the island in reforming its reserve forces, and introduce a security assistance initiative that would provide U.S. funding to Taiwan if it invests its own money in asymmetric capabilities such as missiles, drones, sea mines, and fast-attack ships.
At the same time, the United States should refrain from symbolic steps that Beijing would interpret as precursors to a “one China, one Taiwan” policy and that would not substantively prepare Taiwan for an invasion or make the island more capable of withstanding Chinese pressure. U.S. military vessels should refrain from visiting Taiwanese ports, and bilateral military exercises should continue but be kept quiet. U.S. diplomats should meet with their Taiwanese counterparts but do so without announcing every meeting to the world. And members of Congress should refrain from asserting a U.S. interest in keeping Taiwan separate from China, emphasizing instead that any resolution of cross-strait differences must be arrived at with the consent of the people on Taiwan.
ADJUSTING TO MAINTAIN THE STATUS QUO
Whether or not the Biden administration pursues a policy of strategic clarity, there must be no doubt within the U.S. government that were China to attack Taiwan, the United States would respond forcefully. A failure to do so could very well prompt the unraveling of the U.S. network of alliances in Asia and irreversibly undermine Washington’s position in the world’s most economically dynamic region. The 24 million people of Taiwan would see their hard-won democracy crushed. China would subsume the world’s main hub of semiconductor manufacturing and the United States’ ninth-largest trading partner. U.S. allies such as Australia, Japan, and South Korea would likely either accommodate China or seek to become strategically self-reliant. Emerging U.S. partners, such as India and Vietnam, would likely make the same calculation. Nuclear proliferation would become a real danger. U.S. influence would plummet, and regional stability would suffer. China, in breaking the so-called first island chain that has traditionally hemmed in its military, would gain the ability to project power throughout the western Pacific and pose a more serious threat to Guam and Hawaii. Standing aside in the face of Chinese aggression would imperil the international order that the United States has painstakingly built for the past three-quarters of a century.
As Russia masses troops on its border with Ukraine, it is worth addressing why the United States should defend Taiwan but not send armed forces to defend Ukraine. In both regions, geography works against U.S. military options, and in neither instance is the United States bound by an ironclad security commitment. But in the case of Ukraine, U.S. allies and partners are not prepared to defend against a Russian attack and are not expecting the United States to do so. With Taiwan, by contrast, U.S. allies and partners in the region are both prepared to resist Chinese aggression and have every hope and expectation that the United States will be there with them to frustrate any Chinese bid for regional hegemony. As a result, viable military options exist.
Of course, a war with China over Taiwan would be disastrous even if China were rebuffed. That is why, despite growing frustration in some quarters that the United States does not maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan, Washington should eschew calls to treat Taiwan as a sovereign country, which would likely trigger a war. On the other hand, those who argue that the United States should essentially cut Taiwan loose often fail to consider what the region—and the world—would look like the day after a forcible Chinese takeover of Taiwan.
Deterring a war is the best option by far. This is another way of saying the United States should seek to maintain the status quo. The status quo, however, is not static, and Washington needs to shift gears in order to preserve it. Strategic ambiguity was a shrewd and effective approach for decades; now, however, it has run its course. Clarity on the U.S. commitment to Taiwan will push some American policymakers out of their comfort zones. But it is the only way to bolster deterrence, reassure allies, defend Taiwan, and protect U.S. interests. It is time to become clear on clarity.