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‘Strategic ambiguity’ on Taiwan is not working

AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying
Two soldiers lower the national flag during the daily flag ceremony on Liberty Square of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei, Taiwan, July 30, 2022.

For a small place, Taiwan gets a lot of attention. This mountainous island of 12 million people just across the Taiwan Strait from southern China is constantly in the news.

In a carefully worded trip description, Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, said she will be “transiting” the United States through New York and Los Angeles while on her way to Central America this week. That is diplomatic lingo for avoiding any appearance that the United States is cozying up to Taiwan. But don’t worry and don’t overact, according to the White House.

Maybe it is time to worry a little. China will interpret anything related to Taiwan as provocative especially if there are any formal meetings with the Taiwanese leader such as with a member of Congress. Remember when then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) went to Taiwan? Things got dicey. Some argued that it destabilized the entire region.

But you can be forgiven for wondering whether Taiwan is its own country, where our allegiances lie and why it is so hard to figure out the China-Taiwan puzzle. It is complicated.

Many nations, including the United States, recognize Taiwan, unofficially. But we respect what is known as the “One China” policy. That means we deal extensively with Taiwan on issues across the board even though China says Taiwan belongs to China. China argues that it has one country with two systems, a nod to Taiwan’s democratic practices but not recognition of its status as a separate country — a tricky balancing act.

Taiwan matters to the U.S. Taiwan is the United States’s eighth-largest trading partner, and the U.S. is Taiwan’s second-largest trading partner. U.S. exports of goods and services to Taiwan supported an estimated 188,000 American jobs in 2019. That sounds like more than just a system — more like a nation, and a very important one.

But the Chinese are very unambiguous about all this. As a Chinese defense official said in a recent press conference, “Taiwan has never been a country, and it never became one.”

The upshot of all this confusion is the prospect of war. China could use force against Taiwan, and we might use force to protect the Taiwanese. Many experts believe it is inevitable.

Now, perhaps you understand why the United States has tried to maintain a policy of “strategic ambiguity” vis-à-vis Taiwan — hedging our bets and leaving both Taiwan and China purposefully confused about our position. It is time for the U.S. to abandon “strategic ambiguity” and be more openly supportive of Taiwan.

We are already building naval bases in the region, preparing for the eventuality of Chinese incursions. Let’s admit that we intend to protect Taiwan if it is attacked.

Most Taiwanese like their independence and their own constitutional government and are fast-becoming leading practitioners of democracy. In a recent report by the well-respected Freedom House, a non-profit organization, Taiwan scores a 94/100 on the freedom scale; China gets a 9/100 for its increasing repression. Two systems indeed.

And let’s face it. China is not behaving well. Between spy balloons, repression of the Uyghurs and assistance to Russia against Ukraine, not to mention a lack of transparency about the origins of COVID-19, we are not in a very trusting mood toward Beijing. When it comes to Taiwan, American military experts say China is busy figuring out how to disrupt life in what I am willing to call a separate country.

Armed with the facts (or alarmed by them), Americans can decide for themselves how they want events with China and Taiwan to unfold and pressure Congress and the U.S. government to act one way or another. Or they can simply stand by and let “strategic ambiguity” provide deterrence. I don’t think it will; not anymore.

What we need more in this chaotic world is clarity — clarity of purpose and goals and a shared sense of norms. Let’s be clear about democracy, wherever it is practiced. And let’s be clear where we stand on Taiwan.

Tara D. Sonenshine, a former U.S. undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, teaches at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Tags China strategic ambiguity Taiwan Taiwan independence Taiwan Strait Taiwan–United States relations Tsai Ing-Wen United States US-China relations US-Taiwan relations

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