As a Chinese Communist Party attack on Taiwan seems more plausible, three current or former high-ranking US Navy officials recently warned of the danger.
Then-US Indo-Pacific commander admiral Phil Davidson last month told the US Senate Armed Services Committee that China is “developing systems, capabilities and a posture that would indicate that they’re interested in aggression.”
Their intention to take Taiwan could “become manifest in the next six years,” Davidson said.
Two weeks later, US Admiral John Aquilino, Davidson’s successor, testified that Beijing could act against Taiwan even sooner.
“My opinion is this problem is much closer to us than most think,” Aquilino said.
He noted the strategic surprises Beijing has sprung already.
“We’ve seen aggressive actions earlier than we anticipated, whether it be on the Indian border or whether it be in Hong Kong or whether it be against the Uighurs,” he said. “We’ve seen things that I don’t think we expected, and that’s why I continue to talk about a sense of urgency. We ought to be prepared today.”
Retired US admiral James Stavridis penned an article reinforcing his navy colleagues’ concerns and warned of the likelihood of “a lightning strike that involves establishing sea control around Taiwan” to prevent the US from intervening.
As to how the US can deter China from making a fateful move with potentially catastrophic consequences, all three officers grappled with Washington’s decades-long policy of strategic ambiguity.
When Chinese military officials in 1995 asked the administration of then-US president Bill Clinton how it would respond if China attacked Taiwan, they were told: “We don’t know... It would depend on the circumstances.”
So Beijing spent the next two-and-a-half decades creating the circumstances that would deter Washington from intervening in such a conflict.
Called area denial, or anti-access, it relies on attack submarines and anti-ship ballistic missiles to keep carrier task forces away. While US carriers have been active in the South China Sea in recent years, since 1995 only one has transited the Taiwan Strait.
By contrast, China’s new carriers make regular passages to declare that the international waterway actually belongs to it.
The US’ “we don’t know what we would do” policy has kept Beijing guessing and avoiding overt kinetic action — for now. It has deterred an attack on Taiwan for 26 years, but it has not dissuaded China from planning and preparing for an attack at an undetermined time.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) has said it cannot mean another generation, and former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger has warned that “China will not wait forever.”
Recognizing that time is running out under existing circumstances, Davidson said that “strategic ambiguity ... has helped keep Taiwan in its present status,” but now “it needs to be re-examined” given the significant changes in the military balance China has achieved.
Aquilino agreed, saying: “I would be open to conversations with the [US] secretary of defense to understand the risks and rewards of a potential policy change to ensure our efforts are supporting Taiwan and ... maintain[ing] peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and within the region.”
Stavridis joined in the growing call for strategic clarity, saying that “US support for Taiwan’s security is bipartisan — but the longstanding US policy of strategic ambiguity, supporting Taiwan militarily without a formal commitment to defending it, is dangerously fuzzy. It could lead to a miscalculation by the Chinese (or the Taiwanese) and set off a larger conflict, if the US chose to respond with direct military force — a big if.”
Based on such comments, and the actions of the administration of US President Joe Biden, Washington appears to be accelerating the moves of previous administrations toward a public commitment to defend Taiwan.
Former US president Donald Trump warned that “China knows what I’m gonna do.”
However, last week a starkly contrary message came from US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, who took an entirely different tack from the admirals.
“From our perspective, if we were to see a US shift from strategic ambiguity, as you’ve identified it, to clarify our willingness to intervene in a Taiwan contingency, the Chinese would find this deeply destabilizing,” Haines said. “It would solidify Chinese perceptions that the US is bent on constraining China’s rise, including through military force, and would probably cause Beijing to aggressively undermine US interests worldwide.”
The statement is problematic on all three points.
It ignores the “deeply destabilizing” trajectory already created by a lack of clarity. Beijing has been accusing the West of “constraining China’s rise” throughout four decades of engagement policies that enabled and accommodated that rise. And as for “aggressively undermin[ing] US interests worldwide,” in 2011, then-US National Intelligence director James Clapper called China “America’s greatest mortal threat.”
Haines said that a further risk of strategic clarity is that it could tempt Taiwan into moving toward formal independence from China and invite a military response.
“I would say that already Taiwan is hardening to some extent towards independence, as they’re watching, essentially, what happened in Hong Kong, and I think that is an increasing challenge,” she said.
Yet, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and the Democratic Progressive Party have been highly responsible by not providing Beijing with any pretext for aggression, even as China escalates its threats and provocative actions.
Haines accepts at face value Beijing’s warning that “independence means war.”
It is long past time for Washington and its allies to advise China of the reverse dynamic and announce that war means independence — the US’ own red line: It will not only defend Taiwan against attack or blockade, but will immediately recognize Taiwan as an independent, sovereign member of the international community.
Given the strong performance thus far by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, Haines’ words were music to Beijing’s ears.
As a partial corrective, Sullivan the next day told the Aspen Institute: “We are going to continue to approach the Taiwan issue going forward with steadiness, clarity and resolve with respect to our view that there should be no unilateral changes to the status quo.”
He pledged “straightforward” continuity with previous administrations’ policies under the Taiwan Relations Act, the “six assurances” and the “one China” policy.
However, even Biden himself must reinforce a message of clarity and resolve to end the ambiguity on defending Taiwan.
If Biden has delivered a private warning to Beijing, as Trump said he did, Xi will decide whether a deniable message is even less credible than former US president Barack Obama’s public “red line” on Syria proved to be.
Meanwhile, Kissinger is left to ponder whether the policies he helped create and perpetuate for four decades have now brought the US and China to the verge of a “colossal” conflict.
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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