A Shift away from Strategic Ambiguity?
The Strategic Ambiguity that Washington maintained over Taiwan is slowly fading away. Is the US shifting away from the age-old strategic ambiguity policy? If so Why?
Strategic Ambiguity on the matter of Taiwan was maintained so that Washington would have enough time to plan its course of action in any case of a military altercation. If there was strategic clarity over the matter of Taiwan that the US would defend Taiwan against China if and when it invades, China would seek to launch pre-emptive strikes on American military bases in the region, including Guam, South Korea, the Philippines, and Japan. While the Sino-American treaty, usually referred to as the Taiwan Relations Act, mandates the United States to help Taiwan defend its democracy. i.e., supply weapons, it doesn’t state the US has to get militarily involved.
The treaty isn’t as clear as NATO article 5 and is open to interpretations. Earlier, the US recognized the one-China policy both in practice and policy. But as China grew to a position to counter American influence in the Pacific, Washington was forced to reconsider.
The US is already a decade late to the game. Today the consensus in Washington is that China is the only tier 1 threat to the US. But just half a decade ago, before 2016, this consensus was somewhat mixed. Early in the 2010s, there were policymakers who even considered the rise of China as a positive thing. China, too, was cautious in its rise and didn’t contradict the US on many occasions. Deng Xiaoping’s ideal of “hide your strength, bide your time, and never take the lead” was Beijing’s core strategy before 2016. Ever since Xi Jinping assumed power in 2012, this strategy was discarded and replaced by Wolf Warrior Diplomacy. The US, on the other hand, was heavily invested in the war on terror and other campaigns in the middle east, which distracted core institutions of the US, including the CIA. After spending about 20 years in anti-terror work, US departments will take time to adjust to the new challenge. Against the backdrop of all these, China had an ample amount of space to move around.
Taiwan and other Southeast Asian partners were largely neglected in these years. In the meantime, China has developed a formidable A2/AD (Anti Access Area Denial) strategy with robust missile tech. The recently unveiled DF-21D missiles, dubbed as the carrier killer, have set in new fears in Washington on its capabilities in the South China Sea around Taiwan. Also, the DF-26 long-range missile, dubbed as the Guam killer, further increases the threat China’s increasingly robust A2/AD capabilities pose to the US in the region. The CRS(Congressional Research Service) report published on March 8, 2022, underlined these concerns and further stated that China is working on many more projects of hypersonic ASBMs. With all this improved tech that China now possesses, it is much more difficult to deploy an aircraft carrier near the Taiwan strait during an invasion. If carriers are deployed, the US might suffer at least one causality of an aircraft carrier in the region. For the US, it would be the question of 14 billion dollars, and not just that the damage a loss of one carrier would cause on the morale is just too high to afford. In the case of a military altercation, the one who lands the first blow will have a definitive edge over the other. If the first blow is hard to recover from, then the US might be forced to pull out. And added to this is the growing anti-war sentiments among the US population in the past decades. All these work against the US. Therefore, a strategic ambiguity would mean that China would not go for any preemptive strikes on the US bases. Therefore, any first blow on the US can be avoided, and also it would give the US enough time to gather up resources and respond better. The US had maintained a strategic ambiguity on the matter for a long period of time until recent times. But the recent visit of Pelosi to Taiwan complicates things. The visit didn’t actually change or help anything on the ground. But again, Pelosi had to visit because the US couldn’t step down, and they couldn’t afford to do that. The US has already made the mistake of stepping down before, under the Trump admin, when China occupied the islands that belonged to the Philippines. The muted response of the US boosted China’s confidence and decreased US allies’ confidence in Washington’s policies. So, Pelosi(the US) couldn’t do that again. Comments made by President Biden(of going to war with China) alone wouldn’t have made much difference. But these comments, coupled with the visit to Taiwan, endanger the Strategic Ambiguity. But this doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. Washington might be adopting a different strategy, focused more on deterrence, a strategy that is less passive and more aggressive.
The ambiguous stance looked weak in front of China’s wolf warrior diplomacy. Countering China needed a different policy. Added to this lies the task of preparing the American public for war. If China invades Taiwan today, it is highly unlikely that US citizens would support any decision to engage militarily. Therefore, the population has to be readied for a war-like situation. In my opinion, repeated statements from Biden and other lawmakers about the US going to war to protect Taiwan are to serve this purpose.
The US also has to maintain Taiwan in the limelight. If the US hopes to isolate China to the maximum extent in case of an invasion, the plight of Taiwan must be well known to people around the world. Until the last few years, most countries, companies, and media outlets referred to Taiwan as China. Therefore, the case of Taiwan was out of sight to many people around the world. By claiming the US would defend Taiwan, the US will have to maintain a strong public opinion against an invasion by China.
China has been a risk-averse country throughout history in military campaigns. Be it the invasion of Tibet or the wars with India. All these happened at a time when China was certain that its counterparty couldn’t win. The same goes for Taiwan; if there is strategic ambiguity on the matter, it would further enhance China’s confidence in the matter. The US might have also drawn interpretations from China’s response to the border standoff with India. India has been the only country that responded decisively to China’s bullying and land grab policy. Also, according to many reports, about 30 Chinese soldiers were killed in the altercations that followed. Following this, China was much more cautious and risk-averse in engaging India. Therefore, strategic ambiguity or any passive approach might not be enough to deter China, and in the times to come, an aggressive approach towards China would yield a better return.