Will Biden provide strategic clarity or further ambiguity on Taiwan?

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As a Chinese Communist attack on Taiwan seems more plausible, three current or former high-ranking Navy officials recently warned of the danger.

Retiring Indo-Pacific Commander Adm. Phil Davidson told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month 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.”

Two weeks later, Adm. 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.” 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 Uyghurs. 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 Adm. 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 United States from intervening.

As to how the United States 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 asked the Clinton administration in 1995 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 counter-deter America from intervening in a China-Taiwan conflict.

Called area denial/anti-access, it relies on attack submarines and anti-ship ballistic missiles to keep carrier task forces away. While U.S. 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 China. 

America’s “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 leader Xi Jinping has said it cannot mean another generation, and Henry Kissinger has warned “China will not wait forever.” 

Recognizing that time is running out under existing circumstances, Davidson said “strategic ambiguity … has helped keep Taiwan in its present status” but now “it needs to be reexamined” given the significant changes in the military balance China has achieved.

Aquilino agreed: “I would be open to conversations with the 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: “U.S. support for Taiwan’s security is bipartisan — but the longstanding U.S. 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 U.S. chose to respond with direct military force — a big if.”

Based on such comments, and Biden administration actions, the administration appears to be accelerating its predecessor’s moves toward a public commitment to defend Taiwan. (Former President Trump warned that “China knows what I’m gonna do.”)

But a starkly contrary message came from the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) last week. Avril Haines took an entirely different tack from the three admirals.  

“From our perspective, if we were to see a U.S. 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. … It would solidify Chinese perceptions that the U.S. is bent on constraining China’s rise, including through military force, and would probably cause Beijing to aggressively undermine U.S. interests worldwide.” 

The statement is problematic on all three points. It ignores the “deeply destabilizing” trajectory already created by a lack of clarity. Further, 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] U.S. interests worldwide,” in 2011, James Clapper, the Obama administration’s DNI, called China “America’s greatest mortal threat.” 

Haines said 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.”

Yet, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen and her 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. America’s 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 Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan, Haynes’s words were music to Beijing’s ears.  As a partial corrective, Sullivan told the Aspen Institute the next day, “[W]e 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.   

But the president 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 President 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 China and the United States to the verge of a “colossal” conflict.

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. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.

Tags Antony Blinken Avril Haines China aggression Cross-Strait relations Donald Trump Jake Sullivan James Clapper One-China policy Taiwan–United States relations

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