From Strategic Ambiguity to Strategic Clarity: A Shift in U.S. Policy Toward Taiwan is Brewing (below)

Since the second half of last year, a major debate has arisen in U.S. policymaking circles on whether U.S.-Taiwan relations should abandon strategic ambiguity. In this debate, some advocate a strategy of strategic clarity, some advocate continued strategic ambiguity, and some argue that it is better to take a middle ground between strategic ambiguity and strategic clarity. The first view, however, seems to be becoming the dominant voice.

The National Interest, which is regarded as a conservative magazine, published an article on September 29 last year, “Why Strategic Ambiguity No Longer Applies to U.S.-Taiwan Relations. According to the article, strategic ambiguity between the U.S. and Taiwan had its heyday, but now it is time to retire as it continues to lose importance; U.S. policymakers should realize that continuing strategic ambiguity in the new global order will largely leave Taiwan unprepared for an armed conflict with China.

The New York Times and the Washington Post have also discussed the U.S. policy of strategic ambiguity in a series of articles that began to appear late last year. The latest article in the New York Times, “With Biden Administration Strongly Backing Taiwan, Is It Time to Abandon “Strategic Ambiguity”? reflects that the Biden administration is seriously considering whether the United States should change its policy from strategic ambiguity to strategic clarity, and that a consensus is taking shape in the U.S. political, Defense Department, and diplomatic arenas. This dominant voice believes that Chinese leader Xi Jinping could misjudge U.S. strength and question U.S. willingness to defend Taiwan, leading to unnecessary risks of war, and that the United States should therefore make a clearer commitment to Taiwan’s defense.

In an interview with The Washington Post in late February, Robert M. Gates, who served as defense secretary under Presidents Bush Jr. and Obama, said the United States faces many challenges from China, with Taiwan being his biggest concern; given the character of Xi’s administration, he believes the United States should seriously consider abandoning its long-standing ambiguous strategy toward Taiwan. The United States should tell China in no uncertain terms that if they act against Taiwan without cause, the United States will be there to support Taiwan; at the same time, the United States should tell Taiwan in no uncertain terms that if they act unilaterally to change the status quo and take independence or similar actions, then they will be responsible for the consequences.

Gaetz’s views also resonate among some Republicans and Democrats. Senator Rick Scott, Republican of Florida, has introduced a bill that would take the ambiguity out of U.S. intentions by proposing to authorize the president to take military action to defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack. Barney Frank, a former Democratic congressman from Massachusetts and a veteran dove on military issues, said in an opinion piece in The Hill last month that the United States must ensure that a thriving Asian democracy is protected on human rights grounds from “a brutal regime that is shameless and typified by its denial of basic human rights. The United States must ensure that a thriving Asian democracy is protected from “forcible annexation by a ruthless regime whose typical style is to deny basic human rights.

Some scholars, however, argue for continued strategic ambiguity, arguing that strategic clarity would anger China and that abandoning strategic ambiguity would be too costly and expensive for the United States to bear. This view is represented by Bonnie Glaser, director of the China program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Glaser said she was surprised by the Biden administration’s attitude toward Taiwan at the beginning of its term. She does not support a clearer U.S. commitment to Taiwan’s defense because such a policy change could anger China and push Xi Jinping into a corner for desperate measures.

A third position is held by Robert Blackwill, a senior fellow at the Institute of Foreign Relations, and Philip Zelikow, a professor at the University of Virginia, who co-authored the article “The United States, China, and Taiwan: A Strategy for Preventing War” (“The United States, China, and Taiwan: A Strategy for Preventing War”). “The United States, China, and Taiwan: A Strategy to Prevent War”). They argue that the United States should adopt a hybrid version of its strategy toward Taiwan, with both strategic clarity and shades of strategic ambiguity – that is, on the one hand, planning and sharing a defense plan for Taiwan in advance, but not committing to defending Taiwan in advance and working with allies to develop countermeasures against China. In this way, it would not irritate China too much and push it to a dead end.

In addition, Biden’s own views are worth watching. When he was a senator and vice president, he long defended the “strategic ambiguity” about Taiwan, arguing that it was defending Taiwan. Whether he has changed now remains to be seen. However, several moves he has made since entering the White House are interesting. He has sent three of his old friends, including former Senator Christopher Dodd, to Taiwan to give “personal signals” of his commitment to Taiwan’s democracy; second, Biden recently nominated Ely Ratner, special assistant to the secretary of defense and chief adviser for China affairs, to be the assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific affairs. Second, Biden recently nominated Ely Ratner, Special Assistant to the Secretary of Defense and Chief Advisor for China Affairs, as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Affairs, who has been described by most U.S. media as a “hawk on China”; and, the Biden administration recently released news that it will make its first arms sale to Taiwan.

I believe the debate will soon come to a head as to whether the U.S. will stick to strategic ambiguity or change to strategic clarity toward Taiwan.