Speaking at Singapore’s International Institute for Strategic Studies, Secretary of Defense Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinOvernight Defense & National Security — Preparing for the Biden-Putin call Five things to know about Russia's troop buildup near Ukraine Austin warns Congress of 'enormous' negative effects of yearlong stopgap bill MORE recently outlined U.S. interests and commitments in the Indo-Pacific theater. He implied the U.S. would assist Taiwan in resisting China’s coercive measures, saying we will continue to assist Taiwan’s military, uphold our commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act, and that “we will not flinch” when our interests are threatened.
While these words appear strong, the U.S. needs to move away from a policy of strategic ambiguity on whether it would intervene militarily in a Taiwan Strait conflict to a policy of strategic clarity so that Beijing is fully aware of the military, political and economic consequences the U.S. would inflict should China attack Taiwan.
For years, the U.S. has adopted a policy of strategic ambiguity, believing this would give the U.S. flexibility on how and when to respond to China’s aggression. This policy was adopted when the military balance across the Taiwan Strait was roughly equal — which is clearly not the case today. The policy also was designed to keep the Taiwan government in check, allowing policymakers to cajole the Taiwan government from taking measures that the U.S. considered to negatively impact cross-Strait stability.
Although this policy was seemingly effective since the U.S. recognition of the People’s Republic of China, the world situation has changed dramatically to include China’s rapid growth in economic and military power, the annexation of Hong Kong with the concurrent destruction of Hong Kong’s democracy, and China’s continued use of coercive measures against Taiwan and its other neighbors.
In response — and in order to bolster cross Strait deterrence — the U.S. must impress upon Beijing strategic “red lines” and inform China that the U.S. will indeed respond to a military strike against Taiwan.
Obviously, the U.S. does not want military conflict with China. That would be a disaster for both countries. However, if the United States is not clear about the consequences of China’s actions toward Taiwan, then is there not a greater danger that the Chinese Communist Party will think there is an avenue towards military coercion of Taiwan that does not involve the United States? Might they not think there is a way to use a combination of economic leverage, benefits and coercion to force the U.S. to butt out of a cross-Strait conflict?
Perhaps a different U.S. president would determine that the economic benefit of our ties with China outweighs defending democracy and decide to abandon Taiwan. Having the U.S. abandon Taiwan is one of Beijing’s prime objectives and seems to be part of their influence operations in the United States.
Some argue that a policy of strategic clarity will embolden those in Taiwan advocating for “independence.” Taiwan political leaders already see Taiwan as an independent country, i.e., the Republic of China. There is no need to “declare” independence when Taiwan already is a sovereign nation. Moreover, during her time in office, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen has been one of Washington’s most reliable and trustworthy partners in the region. She has been a steady, consistent leader who has not generated surprises for either Washington or Beijing. Strategic clarity is meant to deter China. Taiwan’s leadership can be warned not to try to take advantage of Washington’s commitment of intervention.
This does not mean that Taiwan does not have the primary responsibility for defending itself. After years of neglect and U.S. policymakers urging Taiwan to do more in the defense realm, Taiwan is purchasing large amounts of new U.S. military equipment. Taiwan would be well served to make its society more resilient and aware of the China threat. Many Taiwan nationals dismiss the notion that China would ever attack Taiwan, thinking their shared ethnicity will protect them. Creating a “will to fight” in Taiwan is essential to preserving cross-Strait stability.
Another way in which the Taiwan leadership could enhance deterrence is to plan and be prepared to carry out a “scorched earth” policy should China decide to invade Taiwan. This would involve increasing the size of the Taiwan Army and training it to fight in the sewers and skyscrapers of Taiwan’s major cities and in Taiwan’s mountainous terrain. While Taiwan forces ultimately would lose such a fight, the cost to China would be terrible and could force them to think twice about invading Taiwan.
China’s growing military power and the Chinese Communist Party’s desire to reunify and destroy Taiwan’s vibrant democracy is the great international security issue of this century. Recent congressional testimony by senior U.S. military officers makes it clear that China is creating a military juggernaut designed to fight and defeat U.S. forces in the Pacific. Other governments in the region are paying particular attention to China’s growing power, and it is remarkable that Japan has come forward to express its concern about instability in the Taiwan Strait. Making a clear U.S. strategic commitment to Taiwan will reassure concerned U.S. allies in the region that America is committed to cross-Strait stability.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping has mistakenly equated unification with Taiwan as one goal for the rejuvenation of the Chinese people. He needs to know the consequences to himself, his party and the Chinese people should he pursue a military option to force unification. Absolute power breeds arrogance and contempt. Reminding Xi of U.S. power and making our commitments clear to him should make him think twice about unleashing war against Taiwan.
David Sauer is a retired CIA officer who served as chief of station and deputy chief of station in multiple overseas command positions in East Asia and South Asia.