In his recent commentary, Elbridge Colby argues that a report from Taiwan’s National Ministry of Defense that highlights the shifting cross-Strait military balance, should be of grave concern to the United States. While Colby acknowledges that there is “no silver bullet on the Taiwan question,” he argues that if the United States is to uphold its alliance commitments to Taiwan and other states in the region, it should project unambiguous strength, defined in terms of investment in specific military capabilities (primarily those associated with AirSea Battle). Colby is of course correct that the report is noteworthy, and that Washington must remain attuned to allies’ defense concerns, particularly in the Pacific region. What his analysis misses, however, is that the China-Taiwan conflict is fundamentally a political dispute with a military dimension. For more than three decades, the United States’ policy of “Strategic Ambiguity” towards Taiwan has been remarkably successful, precisely because it has recognized this fact. A cross-Strait policy that is primarily focused on building up for AirSea Battle could potentially undermine this carefully-calibrated balance, and with it, broader US interests in the region.
The United States’ policy of Strategic Ambiguity towards Taiwan was adopted in in 1979, with the passage of the Taiwan Relations Act. An Act of Congress, the TRA effectively replaced a longstanding mutual-defense treaty between Washington and Taipei, which was abrogated as part of the Nixon administration’s historic decision to open diplomacy with China. The TRA states that any efforts to determine Taiwan’s fate by nonpeaceful means will be considered a threat to the “peace and security of the Western Pacific,” and “of grave concern” to the United States. It also guarantees that the United States will continue to sell Taiwan military hardware so that it may provide for its own defense.
The history of this act is important, because it was an effort to wrestle with several complex political goals. First, despite having formally ended the security treaty, the United States was interested in deterring any efforts by Beijing to settle the Taiwan conflict with force, and ensuring that Taiwan could defend itself it did. Second, Washington wanted to support Taipei while also encouraging restraint—the language of the TRA is not as strong as most US mutual-defense treaties. Third, the TRA was born in the first place because the United States had decided to pursue rapprochement with China. Had recognition of and cooperation with Beijing not been politically important, Washington could have kept up the mutual-defense treaty and none of these calculations would have been necessary. But US presidents from Nixon onwards have recognized that Washington has a fundamental interest in a working relationship with Beijing, and this more ambiguous stance over Taiwan created the space necessary to pursue that. This arrangement struck many as tenuous balancing act when it was first implemented, and this triangular relationship has certainly seen its ebbs and flows. But it has been remarkably successful at ensuring the United States’ three strategic cross-Strait goals.
So what does the recent NMD report mean for those goals? If it is true that by 2020, Beijing may have “the comprehensive military capability to deter any foreign aid that comes to Taiwan’s defense,” US defense planners must take this seriously, as it could undermine the first goal of opposing a change in Taiwan’s status by force. Defense analysts have been grappling with this shifting balance for several years, however, and have proffered multiple ways that Washington and Taipei might seek to offset these shifting forces. More important than any particular technology or tactic, however, is the expert assessment that even with the military balance in its favor, an invasion of Taiwan would be “a bold and possibly foolish gamble on Beijing’s part.” If Beijing was able to establish air superiority, an invasion of Taiwan would still require a large and costly amphibious assault in which Taipei would possess the defensive advantage. A war like this one could decimate the PLA, in which China’s leaders have been investing for decades. And perhaps most importantly, after invading and destroying Taiwan, Beijing would then have to rule it—hardly a propitious solution to a decades-long national political dispute.
In contrast to the grim realities of what a China-Taiwan war might look like, however, cross-Strait relations are currently at an all-time high. Of course, this fact could change on short notice. But the basic point is that even a militarily superior Beijing with the ability to impede US access to the theater would still have ample reason to pause before choosing this kind of conflict. And ultimately, even if China is capable of deterring foreign aid to Taiwan that does not presume that Beijing effectively employs those capabilities or that the United States stands down as a result. Deterrence is not a unilateral military endeavor, but is fundamentally a strategic and political one.
The primary reason to approach prescriptions for the shifting cross-Strait balance with caution, however, is because a less-than-careful military buildup aimed at Beijing could easily undermine US strategic goal number three. Maintaining and expanding the United States’ working relationship with China is more important now than it has ever been, precisely because Beijing is more capable and powerful. When the TRA was passed in 1979, Beijing did not possess military capabilities anywhere close to sufficient to pose a real threat to Taiwan, and it also posed little direct danger to other US allies in the region. The United States continues to have an interest in the peaceful settlement of the Taiwan dispute, but it also seeks the peaceful settlement of maritime conflicts in the East and South China Seas. Mutual interests between Washington and Beijing go far beyond territorial conflicts, and include quandaries like North Korea’s nuclear program. Efforts to “dissuade Beijing” through shows of military strength as Colby suggests could easily backfire—there is not much evidence to suggest that Beijing currently sees a “military option as an attractive solution to its problems” with Taiwan. Less-than-cautious efforts by the United States to reinforce Taipei militarily may redound manifold in ways that are destructive to broader US goals in the region. Ensuring that the United States possesses the capability to fight and win potential conflicts should not take priority over averting them altogether.
As China rises, the United States’ allies in the Pacific will be vital. Their concerns, political and military, should be heard and addressed and this region should absolutely be a defense spending priority. But the surprisingly successful history of the United States’ Taiwan policy is a diplomatic story as much as anything else, and a testament to how deliberate, cautious ambiguity can bring balance to seemingly irreconcilable political forces. Colby’s recommendation that the United States make itself AirSea Battle-ready and project unambiguous strength risks damaging one vital leg of a strategic triangle that has been carefully calibrated and recalibrated over the course of decades. If the United States is to maintain its alliance commitments and influence in the Western Pacific at an acceptable cost, it will need that balance more than ever.
Mira Rapp-Hooper is a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Mira can be found on Twitter at @MiraRappHooper.