Earlier this month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken presented US President Biden’s Interim National Security Strategy Guidance.
Based on what it said and left unsaid, the guidance importantly implicates Taiwan and the prospects of US-China conflict over Taiwan: “We will support Taiwan, a leading democracy and a critical economic and security partner, in line with longstanding American commitments.”
The US’ basic commitment is enshrined in its 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), which states: “Any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes [would be] a threat to the peace and security of the western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.”
To meet that security mandate, the TRA promises “to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character, and to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion.”
What the act does not do is commit the US to intervene directly in a conflict initiated by China. The ambiguity regarding that commitment is the single most important factor in deterring Beijing’s aggression, and in dissuading it from even preparing and planning for it. Thus far, it has tenuously succeeded at the former, but manifestly failed at the latter.
Over the past 36 years, three administrations have been asked what Washington would do if China were to attack Taiwan. In the midst of the 1995-1996 Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, the team of then-US president Bill Clinton told Chinese officials: “We don’t know and you don’t know; it would depend on the circumstances.”
In 2001, then-US president George W. Bush said that the US would do “whatever it took” to defend Taiwan, a statement quickly relegated by agitated aides and foreign policy experts into the ether of rash presidential statements to be dismissed and forgotten.
In a little-noticed interview during the US presidential campaign last year, former US president Donald Trump answered the question this way: “China knows what I’m gonna do,” obliquely implying a US military response. There was no subsequent affirmation or retraction, but his administration was perceptibly edging toward strategic clarity.
During his eight years in office, former US president Barack Obama was never asked the question by either China or the media, but nothing his national security team said or did indicated any disagreement with the legacy policy of strategic ambiguity.
Biden, who has gone longer without a news conference than any new administration in a century, has yet to be queried on Taiwan, so neither Americans nor Taiwanese, Beijing nor Taipei knows this administration’s bottom-line position on defending Taiwan.
The guidance that the US would meet its vaguely defined “commitments” skirts rather than shining new light on the Taiwan question — as Biden did two weeks ago at the US Department of Defense when he distinguished between “allies” and mere “security partners.”
The guidance similarly promises a two-tiered security posture: “We will strengthen and stand behind our allies, work with like-minded partners, and pool our collective strength to advance shared interests and deter common threats. We will lead with diplomacy.”
Robert Gates, secretary of defense in the Obama-Biden administration, recently said that it is time to shift US policy away from what he and his government colleagues advocated for decades.
Because of the “really dangerous situation” he sees, Gates said: “We ought to think seriously about whether it is time to abandon our long-time strategy of strategic ambiguity toward Taiwan,” which he now finds counterproductive.
“I worry that as China builds its military strength, there is the risk of either a move on their part that they think they can get away with or an unintended confrontation that escalates,” Gates added.
Given the “really dicey situation,” the normally cautious Gates said: “We ought to ... basically tell the Chinese that if unprovoked, they take actions against Taiwan, the United States will be there to support Taiwan, and at the same time tell the Taiwanese if they take actions unilaterally, to change the ‘status quo,’ to go for independence or something like that, they will be on their own.”
If the Biden administration were to publicly adopt Gates’ suggested policy change, it would remove some of the dangerous doubt clouding the US’ security commitment to Taiwan and tempting Beijing to make a strategic miscalculation.
However, while necessary, Gates’ formulation is not sufficient to achieve effective deterrence because it leaves a perception gap large enough for China to drive a nuclear submarine through.
Gates said that Washington should respond to an “unprovoked” attack, but paranoid Chinese leaders find Taiwanese provocation everywhere. Even Taiwan’s stellar response to the COVID-19 pandemic invites invidious comparisons to China’s deceitful, incompetent, possibly criminal handling of the virus outbreak. Beijing sees Taiwan’s very existence as a democratic Chinese society and de facto independent state as an ongoing provocation.
China hungers to control the nation 150km closer to the resources and maritime domain that it covets in Southeast Asia. US Army general Douglas MacArthur called Formosa the “unsinkable aircraft carrier” that enabled Japan to launch its invasion of the Philippines and the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere (大東亞共榮圈), an earlier “win-win” proposition from an aggressive regional power.
Gates leaves too much leeway for Chinese aggression when he advises Taiwan against any effort “to change the ‘status quo,’ to go for independence or something like that.” His language resonates with China’s 2005 “Anti-Secession” Law, which states that if “‘Taiwan independence’ forces should act under any name or by any means to cause the fact of Taiwan’s secession from China, or that major incidents entailing Taiwan’s secession from China should occur, or that possibilities for a peaceful reunification should be completely exhausted, the state shall employ non-peaceful means” to conquer and rule Taiwan.
However, the prospects for Taiwan’s “peaceful” submission to Beijing died at the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre and were cremated in Hong Kong over the past two years.
More recently, the Chinese Ministry of National Defense said: “Independence means war.” Biden should turn the warning back on Beijing by declaring that war means independence: Not only would the US defend Taiwan, but it would formally recognize Taiwan’s sovereign independence, which was withdrawn in 1979 on the condition that Taiwan’s status would be determined “peacefully.”
The only conceivable justification for China to attack Taiwan would be in self-defense against an inconceivable Taiwanese attack.
The Biden administration is in a position to correct the mistakes of prior administrations and avert the conflict with China that portends — but it is only to be accomplished by the force-based diplomacy required to confront an adversarial China.
The Interim National Security Strategy Guidance commits Biden to “convene a global Summit for Democracy to ensure broad cooperation among allies and partners.” Presumably, Taiwan is to be invited.
Joseph Bosco, who served as China country director in the office of the US secretary of defense, is a fellow of the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies and a member of the Global Taiwan Institute’s advisory committee.
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