The year 2020 is turning out to be the year in which the United States transitioned from the well-worn concept of strategic ambiguity to a new vision of strategic clarity in how we counter China’s ambitions to take Taiwan.
While the concept of strategic ambiguity itself has its roots back in the 1950s, it was Clinton Administration official Joseph Nye who stated it most clearly, when asked during the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait missile crisis whether the U.S. would come to the defense of Taiwan, he said: “It depends on the circumstances.” In other words, the best deterrent was perceived to be to keep them guessing.
Some observers, such as former Pentagon official Joe Bosco have long argued that this approach had outlived its usefulness, and that there was a need for strategic clarity.
An increasing consensus on the need for strategic clarity
However, other key observers, have only recently come around to the idea that more clarity from Washington is needed if we are to convince China that the use of force is not acceptable, including Richard Haass and David Sacks, and Jerome A. Cohen.
This much broader support for strategic clarity can be traced back to the fact that, as time went on, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) significantly increased its military buildup. This is true particularly since the election of President Tsai Ing-wen in 2016 and her overwhelming victory in re-election in January 2020. Since 2016, Beijing has ratcheted up the pressure with military exercises, incursions and circumnavigation flights, threatening peace and stability in the region.
Seen in combination with the domestic repression of alternate voices in China itself, the incarceration of several million Uyghurs in East Turkestan since 2016, the increasing lack of freedoms in Hong Kong through the Extradition Law (2019) and introduction of the National Security Law (2020), and the PRC’s increasingly menacing moves in the South China Sea and East China Sea have led many observers to believe that the PRC’s next step might be Taiwan.
A positive move by the Trump Administration
In view of this widely-perceived need that something needed to be done, it is encouraging that a rather broad consensus is emerging that strategic clarity is essential. This point was indeed clearly made in an August 31, 2020 speech by U.S. Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs David R. Stilwell at the Heritage Foundation, who—under the heading “Longstanding Strategic Clarity”—stated:
“We feel compelled to make these adjustments for two reasons. First, because of the increasing threat posed by Beijing to peace and stability in the region, which is a vital interest of the United States (emphasis added).
In recent years, the Chinese Communist Party has targeted Taiwan with diplomatic isolation, bellicose military threats and actions, cyber hacks, economic pressure, “United Front” interference activities—you name it. These actions challenge the peace and stability of the Western Pacific. Let’s be clear: These destabilizing actions come from Beijing, not from Taipei or Washington.
We support the longtime status quo across the Taiwan Strait. Beijing has unilaterally altered it, through flipping of diplomatic partners, pushing Taiwan out of international organizations, stepped up military maneuvers, and other activities. So we must act to restore balance. Other peace-loving countries should do the same.
Looking at Hong Kong, it is clear that Beijing is willing to disregard its international obligations to extend its authoritarian system and box in freedom-loving people. We no longer have the luxury of assuming that Beijing will live up to its commitment to peacefully resolve its differences with Taipei, as it promised us in the three joint communiques.
And while we continue to honor those agreements, I assure you that the United States is fully committed to upholding the Taiwan Relations Act and fulfilling our commitments under the Six Assurances as well. We will continue to help Taipei resist the Chinese Communist Party’s campaign to pressure, intimidate, and marginalize Taiwan. The United States has responded and continues to respond to increased PRC military pressure by providing necessary defense articles and other support.”
The second reason mentioned by Mr. Stilwell for making adjustments in U.S. policy was that “…we have been focusing on our engagement with Taiwan is simply to reflect the growing and deepening ties of friendship, trade, and productivity between the United States and Taiwan.”
In other words, Taiwan is now a vibrant democracy, which is very important (and is discussed later).
Clarity with some ifs and buts
The question with a policy is, of course, how it is implemented. The problem with the approach suggested by Richard Haass and David Sacks in their article, “American Support for Taiwan Must Be Unambiguous” in Foreign Affairs, is that it only “…focuses narrowly on restoring deterrence” and doesn’t look at the broader picture. Haass and Sacks specifically state that “Strategic clarity would not entail that the United States recognize Taipei or upgrade its relationship with Taiwan, nor would it involve a mutual defense treaty or any signed document with Taiwan.”
By phrasing it in this way, Haass and Sacks unnecessarily restrict America’s options. In fact, it should be argued that strategic clarity can only be effective in the long run if it is accompanied by a long-term vision on Taiwan’s place in the international community.
Feet stuck in “One China” concrete
However, in his essay “The Inconvenient Truth about Taiwan’s Place in the World” published here in The National Interest Paul Heer goes in the opposite direction. Heer argues that Washington should cling to the outdated concepts that were devised in the 1970s. The problem with Mr. Heer’s piece is that it is very much stuck with its feet in the “One China” concrete of the 1970. At the time the competition between Chiang Kai-shek’ Nationalists (KMT) and Mao Tse-tung’s Communists was still very much ongoing, although the KMT was obviously losing its legitimacy as “government of all of China” (they didn’t have legitimacy as government of Taiwan either: “Free China” was neither free nor was it China) while the grip of Mao’s regime on China was solidifying. As we all know, the Nixon-Kissinger-Mao-Chou agreements were made over the heads of the Taiwanese people, who subsequently fought hard to achieve democracy, which miraculously happened in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
So now we have a very different Taiwan: a free and democratic Taiwan, that had no part in the Chinese Civil War, and doesn’t understand why its future needs to be held hostage to that Civil War. The United States and other countries are rightfully adjusting their policies to this new fact on the ground, albeit still remaining within the overall framework of the “One China policy” (very different from the PRC’s One China Principle, as emphasized by Jim Kelly in 2004 and reiterated by David Stilwell in 2020).
Against this background, it is essential to emphasize that the fundamental U.S. understanding of moving towards normalization of relations was that Beijing agreed to a peaceful resolution. It is not helpful—as Heer seems to be doing—to create excuses that Beijing never “promised” to resolve the Taiwan issue peacefully. It is the fundamental understanding, so if Beijing is reneging on that understanding (and increasingly using non-peaceful means), then it should expect that the U.S. side will also rethink the basis of the understanding.
Developing a 2020 vision
Thus, rather than emphasizing that “U.S. policy remains unchanged”—as argued by Haass and Sacks, or sticking our feet in “One China” concrete—as done by Heer, we need to develop a vision, based on the fact that Taiwan is now a vibrant democracy, and not ruled by the repressive Kuomintang regime that was in power when we derecognized Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China in 1979. That regime’s claims to sovereignty over all of China was, of course, untenable and led to its political isolation.
Taiwan’s lively democracy, won through hard work by the Taiwanese people themselves and through the assistance of the American “Gang of Four” in the U.S. Congress in the 1980s—Senators Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Claiborne Pell (D-RI), and Congressmen Stephen Solarz (D-NY) and Jim Leach (R-IO)—means that there is now a fundamentally different Taiwan that aspires to be a full and equal member in the international community.
The problem with the current “One China policy” and the current status quo is that it implicitly and explicitly leaves Taiwan dangling out in the cold of international political isolation, which gives Beijing an opening to push Taiwan further into a corner. It is essential that—together with other friends and allies—the U.S. develop a strategy to get Taiwan out of that corner.
Particularly during the Coronavirus crisis many countries in Europe have started to appreciate Taiwan’s precarious position and have begun to counter the PRC’s pressure. The visit by the Czech Republic’s Senate Chairman Miloš Vystrčil and a large delegation to Taipei is one example.
The constructive steps taken by the current U.S. administration—providing strategic clarity, enhancing bilateral relations on a number of fronts as well as supporting a more expanded participation and engagement in international organizations—is a welcome first step.
But to give real substance to the statement—as enunciated by Assistant Secretary David R. Stilwell on August 31, 2020 at the Heritage Foundation—that “America and Taiwan are members of the same community of democracies, bound by our shared political, economic, and international values,” we need to develop a longer-term vision. That vision must focus on Taiwan’s place as a full and equal member in the international family of nations. We need to move away from the convoluted constructs of the past and move toward clear policies that have their basis in the principles of freedom, democracy, and self-determination.