While Biden hedges, Gates says 'strategic ambiguity' must go — sort of

While Biden hedges, Gates says 'strategic ambiguity' must go — sort of
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Last week, Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenHillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — Tech groups take aim at Texas Republican lawmakers raise security, privacy concerns over Huawei cloud services The evidence is clear: The US must recognize genocide in Myanmar MORE presented President BidenJoe BidenUkraine's president compares UN to 'a retired superhero' Biden touts 'progress' during 'candid' meetings on .5T plan Biden to tap law professor who wants to 'end banking as we know it' as OCC chief: reports MORE’s Interim National Security Strategy Guidance. Based on what it said and left unsaid, the guidance importantly implicates Taiwan and the prospects of U.S.-China conflict over Taiwan: “We will support Taiwan, a leading democracy and a critical economic and security partner, in line with longstanding American commitments.”  

America’s basic commitment is enshrined in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), which states that “any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes [would be] a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.”

To meet that security mandate, the TRA promises “to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character; and to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion.”


What the act does not do is commit the U.S. to intervene directly in a conflict initiated by China.  The ambiguity regarding that commitment is the single most important factor in deterring Beijing’s aggression and in dissuading it from even preparing and planning for it. Thus far, it has succeeded tenuously in the first, but manifestly failed at the latter.  

Over the past 36 years, three different administrations were asked what Washington would do if China were to attack Taiwan. In the midst of the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait crisis, the Clinton team told Chinese officials, “We don’t know and you don’t know; it would depend on the circumstances.”

In 2001, George Bush said America would do “whatever it took” to defend Taiwan, a statement quickly relegated by agitated aides and foreign policy experts into the ether of rash presidential statements to be dismissed and forgotten.

In a little-noticed interview during the 2020 campaign, Donald TrumpDonald TrumpUkraine's president compares UN to 'a retired superhero' Collins to endorse LePage in Maine governor comeback bid Heller won't say if Biden won election MORE answered the question this way: “China knows what I’m gonna do,” obliquely implying a U.S. military response. There was no subsequent affirmation or retraction, but his administration was perceptibly edging toward strategic clarity.

During his eight years in office, Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTo Build Back Better, improving Black women's health is a must Rahm Emanuel has earned M since leaving Chicago's city hall: report 60 years after the Peace Corps, service still brings Americans together MORE was never asked the question by either China or the media. But nothing his national security team said or did indicated any disagreement with the legacy policy of strategic ambiguity.


President Biden, who has gone longer without a press conference than any new administration in a century, has not been queried yet on Taiwan. So, neither the American or Taiwanese people, nor the Chinese or Taiwanese governments, know this administration’s bottom-line position on defending Taiwan.

The guidance recitation that America will meet its vaguely-defined “commitments” sheds no new light and skirts the Taiwan question, as Biden did two weeks ago at the Defense Department when he distinguished between “allies” and mere “security partners.”   

The guidance similarly promises a two-tiered security posture: “We will strengthen and stand behind our allies, work with like-minded partners, and pool our collective strength to advance shared interests and deter common threats. We will lead with diplomacy.” 

Robert Gates, secretary of defense in the Obama-Biden administration, recently said it is time to shift American policy away from what he and his government colleagues advocated for decades.  Because of the “really dangerous situation” he sees, “We ought to think seriously about whether it is time to abandon our long-time strategy of strategic ambiguity toward Taiwan,” which he now finds counter-productive. “I worry that as China builds its military strength there is the risk of either a move on their part that they think they can get away with or an unintended confrontation that escalates.”

Given the “really dicey situation,” the normally cautious Gates said, “we ought to … basically tell the Chinese that if unprovoked, they take actions against Taiwan, the United States will be there to support Taiwan, and at the same time tell the Taiwanese if they take actions unilaterally, to change the status quo, to go for independence or something like that, they will be on their own.”

If the Biden administration were to publicly adopt Gates’s suggested policy change, it would remove some of the dangerous doubt clouding America’s security commitment to Taiwan and tempting Beijing to make a strategic miscalculation. But, while necessary, Gates’s formulation is not sufficient to achieve effective deterrence because it leaves a perception gap large enough for China to drive a nuclear submarine through.  

Gates says Washington should respond to an “unprovoked” attack. But paranoid Chinese leaders find Taiwanese provocation everywhere. Even Taiwan’s stellar pandemic performance invites invidious comparisons to China’s deceitful, incompetent, possibly criminal handling of the virus outbreak. Beijing sees Taiwan’s very existence as a democratic Chinese society and de facto independent state as an ongoing provocation.  

China hungers to control the island 100 miles closer to the resources and maritime domain it covets in Southeast Asia. Gen. Douglas MacArthur called Formosa “the unsinkable aircraft carrier” that enabled Japan to launch its invasion of the Philippines and the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, an earlier “win-win” proposition from an aggressive regional power.

Gates leaves too much leeway for Chinese aggression when he advises Taiwan against any effort “to change the status quo, to go for independence or something like that.” His language resonates with China’s 2005 Anti-Secession Law, which declares that if “‘Taiwan independence’ forces should act under any name or by any means to cause the fact of Taiwan’s secession from China, or that major incidents entailing Taiwan’s secession from China should occur, or that possibilities for a peaceful reunification should be completely exhausted, the state shall employ non-peaceful means” to conquer and rule Taiwan. But the prospects for Taiwan’s ”peaceful” submission to Beijing died at Tiananmen Square in 1989 and were cremated in Hong Kong over the past two years.

More recently, China’s defense ministry threatened, “Independence means war.” Biden should turn the warning back on Beijing by declaring that war means independence: Not only will America defend Taiwan, but it will formally recognize Taiwan’s sovereign independence, which was withdrawn in 1979 on the condition that Taiwan’s future status would be determined “peacefully.”

The only conceivable justification for China to attack Taiwan would be in self-defense against an inconceivable Taiwanese attack.

The Biden administration is in a position to correct the mistakes of prior administrations and avert the conflict with China that now portends — but it will only be accomplished by the force-based diplomacy required in confronting an adversarial China. The Interim National Security Strategy Guidance commits Biden to “convene a global Summit for Democracy to ensure broad cooperation among allies and partners.” Presumably, Taiwan will be invited.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute.