“Strategic Clarity” is a Dangerous Answer to the Taiwan Question

“Strategic Clarity” is a Dangerous Answer to the Taiwan Question

Strategic clarity is a rhetorical rather than a substantive change in U.S. policy—one which ultimately does not make Taiwan safer and may be dangerous enough to trigger a crisis by pushing the PRC to invade.

 

Bombastic foreign policy rhetoric obfuscates that the CCP’s greatest worries have always been internal threats. Among these, reunification is characterized as an internal issue and remains extremely salient in the mainland. In the face of slipping economic growth and unpopular zero-covid measures, the CCP was willing to emphasize Taiwan as a priority at the 20th Party Congress, positioning the issue as a goal on which leaders will be judged. A policy challenging CCP leadership would further polarize the issue, empowering hawkish voices within the Party.

There Will Be No Unprovoked Invasion of Taiwan Any Time Soon

 

Proponents of strategic clarity present a narrative where any day Xi Jinping may surprise the world with a full-scale invasion of Taiwan, or engage in such as a domestic diversion. It is because of this potentiality, they argue, that strategic clarity is necessary.

This position is untenable. While there are building internal frustrations, and Xi may wish he could easily invade Taiwan, the current diplomatic environment and strategy of the CCP undercuts any justification that Xi is gambling the continued existence of his government on an unprovoked and costly invasion.

Invading Taiwan would perhaps be the most difficult military operation ever. Sea conditions in the Taiwan Strait limit the window of large-scale invasion to only two small windows in April and October, and preparations for such would be transparent in the months leading up. Routes would be predictable and could be mined or ambushed by aircraft and submarines. The island itself is also highly defensible. Suitable landing areas are few and narrow, denying a massive amphibious landing necessary to leverage the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) overwhelming numbers. Beaches are prone to becoming jammed with ships entering, exiting, and sinking. PLA’s massive arsenal of missiles would be severely limited by targets to attack. Moreover, Taiwan has significantly increased purchases of difficult-to-detect anti-armor, anti-tank, and anti-ship missiles since 2017. The island’s mountainous and foliage-covered geography ensures that many positions would remain undetected and intact to repel incoming forces. This is to say nothing of the capabilities of the United States, Japan, and Australia, which have all indicated involvement in the event the PRC attempts an invasion, bringing the possibility of success far lower. And even if a limited or full invasion were successful, the PRC would face disastrous economic and diplomatic costs.

In short, Taiwan faces a low risk of being invaded. Only 10 percent of experts in a recent survey believed that an amphibious assault with the goal of taking Taipei was likely in the next ten years. This starkly contrasts with 64 percent of those polled believed that the PRC would respond “negatively and significantly, provoking a crisis” if the United States ended strategic ambiguity. Over 70 percent agreed that the PRC believes the United States is willing to bear at least substantial costs in a conflict over Taiwan. Current U.S. policy is already explicit: the Taiwan Relations Act contains language almost as strong as in U.S. defense treaties, and in the Three Communiques—from which the One China Policy is based—the United States exclusively ties Taiwan and peaceful settlement. In a separate poll, a majority of experts expressed that they do not approve of strategic clarity on Taiwan.

America’s position is already clear enough toward the audience that matters the most: the PRC. Why kill a policy which continues to work?

The United States Should Support Taiwan… Just Not through Strategic Clarity

Strategic clarity is a rhetorical rather than a substantive change in U.S. policy—one which ultimately does not make Taiwan safer and may be dangerous enough to trigger a crisis by pushing the PRC to invade either Kinmen, Matsu, or both. The inability of the United States to respond to a Kinmen or Matsu fait accompli—the very public idea of Taiwanese territory being captured by the PRC—would severely weaken not just Taiwan’s position, but also the perception that America can support its alliance commitments across the world.

Instead of high-profile diplomatic gestures, the United States can make Taiwan safer under current strategic ambiguity without risking conflict from highly provocative actions.

First, the United States should focus on providing Taiwan with defensive assets at a rate that keeps the PLA uncertain about its capability to invade Taiwan. These assets should be capable of reaching operational capacity in the next few years, not be easily targeted by PLA missiles, and should not be tied to airstrips or ports which will be PLA priority targets. This requires clearing existing backlogs, as well as signing deals on new smart naval mine-laying craft, smart artillery, and redundant, robust intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance capabilities across the whole range of battlespaces. Dispersing assets that mitigate missile effectiveness and Chinese intelligence gathering such as more anti-air defenses as well as shore-based anti-ship and anti-submarine warfare tools are also key parts of making Taiwan’s defense equation add up. The United States can build up credibility that it will come to Taiwan’s defense by posturing more forces capable of responding quickly and affecting conflict from outside the missile range of the Chinese mainland.

Second, there is no military solution that denies an invasion of Kinmen or Matsu. However, this has been the case for years. The islands remain Taiwanese because of astute diplomacy in maintaining the cross-strait status quo. The United States should pursue a diplomatic goal of motivating allies—particularly non-regional allies who may not otherwise willingly damage relations with the PRC—on board with sanctions against non-peaceful attempts to change the status quo. Sanctions can change the calculus of a potential invasion in a way the U.S. military power cannot.

The Taiwan Strait will remain a geopolitical flashpoint, and the United States will play a deciding factor in its direction. Sober diplomacy, smart military investment, and leadership of allies can maximize the security of Taiwan.

Ike Barrash is an independent consultant working with think tanks on Indo-Pacific security and technology. He has an MA in political science from Iowa State University and has been an intern at the Department of State, CSIS’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, and the Stimson Center’s Defense Strategy & Planning project.

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