President Biden sent shockwaves by appearing to announce a shift in U.S.-Taiwan policy during a CNN town hall on October 21. When asked whether or not he would commit to defending Taiwan, President Biden responded with, and then repeated, a rather unequivocal “yes.” This one-word answer signaled a potentially massive shift from the long-standing U.S. policy of "strategic ambiguity" towards the Taiwanese.
Photo Courtesy: Jonathan Ernst/ Reuters
The policy of strategic ambiguity was established in 1979 with the passage of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) and the official recognition of the People's Republic of China. These two acts created under the Carter administration appear to contradict one another: the TRA obligates the U.S. by law to support and protect Taiwan, but the official recognition of the Beijing government required the U.S. to no longer officially support Taiwanese sovereignty. This tension produces strategic ambiguity, where the U.S. essentially refuses to take a definitive stance on Taiwan. Proponents of strategic ambiguity argue that the policy prevents escalation that could result from a definite stance, while detractors think clarity is necessary to deter an increasingly aggressive China.
Almost immediately, the Biden administration walked back the president’s statement, claiming it did not represent a change in official U.S. policy. Despite these attempts at reassurance, the reaction from China was swift and hostile. Speaking on President Biden’s comments, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry stated, "when it comes to issues related to China’s sovereignty ... there is no room for China to compromise or make concessions.” Yet, China’s official stance on the new Biden administration has been described as cautiously optimistic. While President Biden is perceived to be more tactically rational than former President Trump, China acknowledges U.S. strategy is still committed to rivalry and competition but makes space for constructive dialogue on specific issues.
Behind publicly harsh rhetoric, the United States and China have been engaged in some cooperative talks, particularly regarding economic issues like the rolling back of steel tariffs. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken announced at the recent G20 summit in Rome that America would continue to respect its One-China Policy of formally recognizing only the government in Beijing instead of Taiwan. In a similar vein, the Department of State announced that “the United States and China are committed to cooperating with each other and other countries to tackle the climate crisis" following a meeting between the US and Chinese climate envoys. While the broad framework of US-China relations is tense, it is important to acknowledge that both countries have made efforts to join together on specific and compartmentalized issues.
The Situation on the Ground
Like the diplomatic situation, the military balance between the U.S. and China has also been in flux. The ability of the U.S .to militarily deter a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan has significantly degraded recently. While it would still be a monumental and costly effort for China to invade and seize Taiwan, the possibility is no longer unthinkable for the People’s Liberation Army. The United States military may have a global advantage over China, but China is quickly approaching strategic parity in a regional conflict over Taiwan.
Photo Courtesy: Xinhua
For example, the People’s Liberation Navy, a critical component of any invasion of Taiwan due to the need for an invading army to cross the Taiwan Strait, has made massive strides forward in recent years. China has the ability to forcibly recruit thousands of civilian ships for an amphibious invasion and has recently obtained the title of the world's largest navy. While the U.S. still possesses larger and more sophisticated vessels, America's navy is stretched across the entire globe. By contrast, China could concentrate its entire maritime might on the Taiwan Strait. Surging Chinese naval strength has become so worrying that American admiral Phil Davidson believes China will have the confidence to invade Taiwan within six years. Recent U.S. war simulations seem to confirm his fears. The Center for a New American Security determined that China could successfully outflank the U.S. and seize the Prata Islands, a Taiwanese-controlled area, through an amphibious invasion.
However, the situation is not totally hopeless for the United States. The aforementioned CNAP report says stronger defense cooperation with Japan would make the U.S. presence in the region more credible. Other scholars advocate for a so-called “porcupine approach” to deter Chinese aggression. This approach suggests that instead of trying to match China in terms of military strength directly, Taiwan should reorient their domestic industry and arms purchases around asymmetric warfare to make any total capture of the island a brutal slog. These recommendations were formally adopted in the Taiwanese Overall Defense Concept (ODC) but have yet to actually be implemented. Still, others argue that military deterrence is futile and that the U.S. should strangle China economically using blockades if conflict erupts.
Risks Going Forward
To say that Taiwan has always been a flashpoint in U.S.-Chinese relations is an understatement. Even in the long history of tension over Taiwan, the present moment represents a unique threat. After Chinese jets violated Taiwanese airspace in early October, the Taiwanese defense minister, Chiu Kuo-cheng, characterized tensions as the worst in 40 years. To make matters worse, following President Biden's recent comments, China altered its military mobilization structure so it does not need legislative approval. This change would allow China's central government to deploy its armies almost instantaneously and without domestic opposition. Whether or not either side actually wants conflict, heightened tensions raise the chance of miscalculation happening. For the nearly 24 million residents of Taiwan, a war with China represents a potentially existential threat. A theoretical invasion would most likely result in a hostile occupation and countless deaths, not to mention the end of their de facto independence
The present situation has parallels back to previous spikes in tension related to the question of Taiwan. In 1958, the Eisenhower administration came terrifyingly close to using tactical nuclear weapons against China to protect Taiwan in what’s now referred to as the Taiwan Strait Crisis. If the U.S. does follow through on the president's remarks and defends Taiwan, the Biden administration could be looking at another rendition of the 1958 showdown. While one might assume that both powers do not want a nuclear war, recent Air Force wargames show China's nuclear detection systems cannot differentiate between standard U.S. military aircraft and those carrying nuclear warheads. This potential for technological miscalculation, compounded by the U.S. and China rivalry and the president's recent comments could lead to the pull of a nuclear trigger. A president's statement at a town hall may seem inconsequential, but that assumption could not be more wrong. The fates of millions and the consequences of a head-on confrontation between two nuclear superpowers rest on the Taiwan Strait's tenuous military and diplomatic balance.