On March 9, then-commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command Philip Davidson — just over a month before he retired — told a budget meeting that Washington should rethink its decades-long policy of strategic ambiguity toward Taiwan.
Davidson said that the US had to strengthen its defenses in the Indo-Pacific region in the face of the threat posed by China, and its allies in the region are indispensable to US strategy.
However, US National Security Council Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific Kurt Campbell on Tuesday seemed to flip that argument on its head when he said that the US should attempt to maintain the “status quo” in its relations with Taipei and Beijing.
That would be a great idea, except that maintaining the “status quo” implies an unchanging state of affairs.
The situation in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea is anything but unchanging.
The US has warned Taiwan and China to avoid unilaterally changing the status of Taiwan’s sovereignty or the bilateral relationship, but both sides have been doing just that. China has increased its incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. The administration of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), too, has been pushing the envelope, redesigning the nation’s passport, redesigning the fuselages of airplanes flown by the national carrier, China Airlines, and renaming overseas representative offices.
Taipei and Beijing are nowhere near a consensus on anything, and Washington must respond accordingly.
Why should the US care about the risk China poses to Taiwan? US officials over the past several months have reiterated the importance of Taiwan-made semiconductors to the global IT supply chain. On March 25, American Institute in Taiwan Director Brent Christensen attended a groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of a chip factory to “restate the US government’s focus on supply chain security.”
There is also the issue of Taiwan’s proximity to Okinawa. As Davidson said, Japan is indispensable to the US’ strategy in the Indo-Pacific region.
Taiwan New Constitution Foundation founder Koo Kwang-ming (辜寬敏) on Sunday said he once told former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe that if Taiwan ever became part of China, Japan would become a second-tier country — and that Abe agreed.
China has ramped up its activity near the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) — which Japan calls the Senkakus — and if China were to take Taiwan, there is no question that they would be next. An inability by the US to support Japan’s claim to the islands would undoubtedly cast doubt over its importance to its allies.
Campbell said that China might have felt that it “got away scot-free” after its crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong and “could draw the wrong conclusions from that” when it came to its actions toward Taiwan.
It seems odd, then, that Campbell would not agree that a more aggressive approach toward China was warranted.
If democratic leaders hope to avoid irreversible actions committed by China against Taiwan, the best course of action would be a clear, unambiguous statement professing a US commitment to defend Taiwan with arms, and concrete actions, such as the establishment of a US military contingent in Taiwan.
In an ideal world, Taiwan could maintain the ambiguous relationship it has with friendly nations such as the US, and could retain its de facto independence.
However, in reality, the end to that ambiguity might be closer than Taiwan and its friends would hope. Therefore, it is crucial that the US expresses a strong commitment toward the continuation of a free and democratic Taiwan.
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