In an Oct. 31 interview, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said: “The United States will follow the Taiwan Relations Act to ensure Taiwan’s self-defense and will not allow any party to take unilateral actions to break the status quo.”
This seems different from US President Joe Biden’s declaration that “we have a commitment to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack.”
However, a comparison of Blinken’s comment with a speech that he made on April 11 shows consistency. The US will continue to support the peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues.
Any attempt to change the “status quo” by force would be a serious mistake, Blinken said on April 11.
However, he has not answered the hypothetical question of whether the US would send troops to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack.
Does Biden’s phrase “assist the defense of Taiwan” mean that the US’ policy of “strategic ambiguity” has moved toward “strategic clarity”?
For the US, the greatest common denominator for conflict management across the Taiwan Strait is to oppose any unilateral change to the “status quo” under the framework of the Taiwan Relations Act, the “six assurances” and the Three Joint Communiques.
This is also the long-standing consensus between the Democratic and Republican parties in the US.
“Strategic ambiguity” is to constrain Beijing from taking unilateral military action to achieve unification with Taiwan and to prevent Taiwan from unilaterally declaring independence. The US has always used “strategic ambiguity” to form a delicate balance between Taiwan and China.
When the US Department of State speaks, it must consider the stakes at all levels of diplomacy, so it sometimes adopts a neutral or vague stance in striving for the largest operational flexibility.
In other words, a consideration of the position of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the domestic consensus in the US prompts the department to adopt a more neutral statement, which is: “resolutely oppose any unilateral change of the status quo in the Taiwan Strait.”
Biden’s main target audience for his remarks on “assisting in defense of Taiwan” are Americans, US allies — including Taiwan, Japan and South Korea — and the national leader of the CCP.
Regarding Americans, Biden’s aim is to express his stance on China and continue to attract the support of people who harbor anti-Chinese sentiments.
Regarding Taiwan, his aim is to affirm the US’ security commitment and to bolster the confidence of regional allies — Japan, South Korea and others in the Indo-Pacific region — that the US will honor its security assurances.
Regarding the CCP, his aim is nothing more than to urge it not to misjudge the situation and act rashly.
However, Washington must maintain an overwhelming military advantage over Beijing for “strategic ambiguity” to be effective.
When the US military is challenged by the escalating capabilities of the Chinese military — leaving “strategic ambiguity” unsustainable — Washington might move toward “dual strategic clarity,” meaning that it would separately indicate possible actions if either party unilaterally changes the “status quo.”
However, to preserve flexibility in its tactical response, the US could add a new policy of “tactical ambiguity” to its diplomatic repertoire.
Jeff Sheng is chief researcher at the American Chamber of Commerce in Kaohsiung.
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