For six decades, US policy toward China has been shaped by a scheme called “strategic ambiguity.” However, the summit meeting between US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) suggests that “strategic ambiguity” should be retired in favor of “strategic clarity, tactical ambiguity.”
After the communists led by Mao Zedong (毛澤東) came to power in Beijing in October 1949, then-US president Harry Truman and his administration struggled with a dilemma: They did not want the US to get into a war with the new Chinese regime. Nor did they wish to see Taiwan, the island to which the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) had fled, fall under mainland control.
Therefore, in January 1950, Truman issued a statement saying: “The United States government will not pursue a course which will lead to involvement in the civil conflict in China.”
However, Truman and his advisers would not say what the US would do to enforce their policy.
Then, in June the same year, their ambiguous policy was hardened when North Korea attacked South Korea, starting the Korean War.
Truman, fearing that Beijing would launch a parallel attack on Taiwan, ordered the US Seventh Fleet in the Western Pacific to prevent that assault and to block any KMT offensive against the mainland.
In the succeeding decades, “strategic ambiguity” was the watchword during the Vietnam War, the shift in diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979 and the emergence of China as a regional economic, political and military power.
The intent was to keep the Chinese guessing about what the US would do.
However, over those years, Chinese leaders have become more firm as they have identified what they call their “core interests” and at times have been more aggressive, even belligerent.
At the California summit between Obama and Xi, the tone emitted by Xi, as explained by Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi (楊潔篪) — a former Chinese minister of foreign affairs — stands in contrast to that of Tom Donilon, a senior staffer for the US’ National Security Council.
They briefed the press separately after the summit meeting in an estate on the edge of the desert.
Yang was clear-cut in stating the Chinese position, which included Beijing’s claim to sovereignty over Taiwan and large portions of the South China Sea. He also made an adamant denial that China was responsible for hacking into US cybertransmissions.
Yang appeared to assert that Xi had set the course of the conversation by proposing a four-point program for improving China-US relations, including elevating the level of dialogue between Chinese and Americans and having the US relax restrictions on high-tech exports to China.
In addition, he said Xi had called for China-US coordination on hotspots such as the Korean Peninsula and Afghanistan, as well as with peacekeeping and cybersecurity.
Finally, the Chinese proposed fostering new China-US military relations, a proposal Yang said Obama responded positively to.
By contrast, Donilon indicated that Obama did not respond to those proposals and dwelled on the eight hours of conversation and the atmospherics of the meeting instead.
Among the few substantive points, Donilon said Obama had warned Xi that continued Chinese hacking into US cybersystems would have adverse consequences, but those consequences were not identified specifically.
In sum, Obama’s stance on China came off as soft, vague and perhaps even indecisive — much like the policies of several previous administrations, whether Democratic or Republican. That lack of clear-cut US objectives and interests has made the chances of a strategic miscalculation more likely.
A few instances of a US policy of “strategic clarity” would look like this: On Taiwan, the US insists that any change in the “status quo” be peaceable and in accord with the freely expressed wishes of Taiwanese.
On the South China Sea and every other international body of water, the warships of all nations will have freedom of navigation in accordance with international maritime law.
On intellectual property rights, the US recognizes that there are cultural differences in what constitutes such rights and is willing to negotiate agreements on them.
In substance, these policy suggestions are not too far off from the stands that the US has already taken in recent years, under Republican and Democratic administrations, but the nuance would be more clearly stated and the posture given greater strength.
In the execution of those and other policies, the US would reserve the right to decide the means, timing and place in which Americans would seek to protect their national core interests and that would be the essence of “tactical ambiguity.”
Richard Halloran is a commentator in Hawaii.