Issue: 2023: Vol. 22, No. 2

Taiwan Symposium: Taiwan, Strategic Ambiguity, and U.S.-China Engagement

Article Author(s)

Mao Lin

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Dr. Mao Lin is an associate professor of history at Georgia Southern University. His research specialty is US foreign relations with a focus on US-China relations. 
2023: Vol. 22, No. 2
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In recent years, U.S.-China relations have experienced unprecedented challenges. While both Beijing and Washington publicly deny the coming of a second Cold War, strategic competition, if not rivalry, is now the frame through which the U.S. government views its relationship with China. The transition to an increasingly mutually destructive Sino-American relationship was highlighted when the former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the end of America’s engagement policy toward China in July 2020.1 As a result, the future of Taiwan has once again emerged as the single most dangerous challenge not just for America and China but also for the entire globe. Policy makers and analysts on both sides of the Pacific agree that if not properly managed, the Taiwan issue could trigger a war between Beijing and Washington. In this sense, the Taiwan issue is more dangerous than the war in Ukraine or the Middle East conflicts.

Washington’s general policy toward the U.S.-China-Taiwan triangle is often called “strategic ambiguity.” By refusing to spell out whether and how America would intervene in a war between China and Taiwan, the U.S. was attempting to deter military conflicts in the Taiwan Strait and protect America from being dragged into a war not on Washington’s own terms. With the rising tensions between Beijing and Washington, the increasingly bipartisan consensus to end U.S.-China engagement, and China becoming more assertive both in its rhetoric and actions toward Taiwan, Washington has seen a growing call to replace strategic ambiguity with strategic clarity. Critics of the former argue that strategic ambiguity can no longer deter China from taking Taiwan by force, and America must clearly make a commitment to defend Taiwan if the island is attacked by mainland China. Unsurprisingly, the proposed shift to strategic clarity has immediately become controversial, as it does not fully explain how this shift can be made considering the long and complicated U.S.-China-Taiwan triangular relations. While strategic clarity has yet to replace strategic ambiguity as Washington’s official stance — notice how the White House tried to assure China that there was no change in America’s Taiwan policy after President Joe Biden’s 2021 statement that America would defend Taiwan should China launch a military attack2—America has increased its support for Taiwan short of supporting the island’s de jure independence through high-profile visits, trade agreements, arms sales, and naval patrols of the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea. With Beijing being angered by those moves, policy makers and analysts are rightly concerned that the Taiwan Strait may become a military flashpoint between two nuclear powers. 

The current call for strategic clarity, however, suffers from two flaws. First, critics of strategic ambiguity more or less ignore the historical context of that policy and underestimate its usefulness in maintaining peace in the Taiwan Strait. After all, there has been no war between America and China over Taiwan in the past decades despite multiple Taiwan Strait crises. Second, supporters for strategic clarity focus too narrowly on defending Taiwan against a possible Chinese military attack and fail to address the security of Taiwan in the broader context. In other words, the future of Taiwan does not rely exclusively on the military balance across the Taiwan Strait. Rather, it involves complicated historical and political issues, many of which are beyond American control. 

Strategic ambiguity has its origins in the historical context shaped by the Korean War, the two Taiwan Strait Crises in the 1950s, and the Cold War confrontation between America and China. As the historian Nancy Bernkopf Tucker has put it, strategic ambiguity functioned as “an excellent tool of triple deterrence. It protected the United States against demands from and miscalculation by Taiwan and China. China would not seek to capture Taiwan or the offshore islands because it could not know what the United States would do, and Taiwan would not take provocative actions since it could not be certain of U.S. support.”3 Indeed, strategic ambiguity was largely successful in preventing multiple Taiwan Strait crises from escalating into shooting wars between America and China. 

To argue that strategic ambiguity was successful is not to ignore the changed historical context since the 1990s. The rise of China as a major economic and military power certainly has changed the strategic environment of the Taiwan Strait, and critics of strategic ambiguity rightly point out that with China becoming stronger, strategic ambiguity might be understood in Beijing as strategic weakness and thus encourage Beijing to launch a war against Taiwan. This leads us to the second flaw of strategic clarity, that is, America’s policy toward Taiwan must be viewed in the context of broader U.S.-China relations and not purely as a military issue. 

The root problem of the Taiwan issue is the legal status of Taiwan, which is mainly expressed via the so-called One China principle despite the different interpretations of that principle held by Beijing, Washington, and Taipei. Beijing’s stance has been consistent since 1949: Taiwan is part of China and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) should be the sole legitimate government of China. Taiwan under the Nationalist rule accepted the One China principle but insisted that the Republic of China was the sole legitimate government. While the call for a de jure independent Taiwan became louder after Taiwan became a democracy, the majority of Taiwanese still prefer maintaining the status quo.4 The Nixon administration “acknowledged” the One China principle, although Washington has never accepted that the PRC should be the sole legitimate government of China. While America’s understanding of the One China principle is subject to various interpretations, Washington has been consistent on two points. On the one hand, America has never claimed itself to be the ultimate arbitrator of the Taiwan issue. On the other hand, successive American administrations have insisted that the problem of Taiwan must be solved peacefully. The effectiveness of strategic ambiguity, which continued after the U.S.-China rapprochement, should be measured against this context. A good policy should align means with ends. The goal of America’s Taiwan policy had been deterring a war across the Taiwan Strait, and strategic ambiguity was a sufficient means to achieve that end. Washington has never officially pursued the goal of making Beijing abandon the One China principle, which both sides understand is out of the question. The current call for strategic clarity, if not properly managed, could be constructed as America’s de-recognition of the One China principle. In fact, the recent Taiwan White Paper issued by Beijing already suggested that China now believes America is doing so.5

The effectiveness of strategic ambiguity, furthermore, was embedded within the larger U.S.-China relations. History has proven that Beijing and Washington were willing to downplay or postpone the Taiwan issue when the two shared larger common strategic interests. During the U.S.-China rapprochement negotiations, for example, both sides downplayed the Taiwan issue to pursue an anti-Soviet alliance. Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai told Henry Kissinger that China did not want to use force to reunite Taiwan with the mainland, although China did not want to see “two Chinas” in the world. Kissinger told Zhou that the Nixon administration was “prepared to begin reducing our other forces on Taiwan as our relations improve” and America would “not [advocate] a ‘two Chinas’ solution or a ‘one China, one Taiwan’ solution.”6 The Chinese stance, which did not insist on immediately terminating diplomatic relations between Washington and Taipei and setting a firm timetable for withdrawing American forces from Taiwan, made it possible for the two sides to negotiate a joint communiqué for the anticipated Nixon visit. When Nixon told Zhou that the two sides should refrain from making Taiwan “a big issue” in the next two or three years, Zhou agreed that “we would rather let the question of Taiwan wait for a little while.”7 During the normalization negotiations under the Carter administration, Deng Xiaoping told Leonard Woodcock, head of the U.S. Liaison Office in Beijing, that “we hope the U.S. will be very cautious and prudent in tackling your relations with Taiwan and will not prevent China from finding a rational and peaceful solution with Taiwan.” Woodcock ensured Deng that America would not try to “fulfill the defense treaty in a different form” by arms sales. Deng agreed that “we can continue to discuss this question later on without affecting the issuance of the [joint] communiqué [on normalization].” Deng hoped that if the issue of arms sale was raised by the American media, “the President will be very vague and ambiguous in answering this question so that no problem will be raised.” He also agreed that China would not contradict American statements that the Taiwan issue would be solved peacefully.8 While the anti-Soviet rationale disappeared after the Cold War, both sides continued to believe that the overall relationship was too important to be destroyed by the Taiwan issue. That’s why Beijing and Washington tried to repair relations after each crisis, including Lee Teng-hui’s visit to America, the NATO bombing of Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Chen Shui-bian’s visit to America, and the mid-air collision of a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese jet. The George W. Bush administration’s War on Terror provided another rationale to downplay the Taiwan issue in exchange for China’s cooperation. 

America’s strategy to deter a cross-strait war, therefore, worked best when China believed that the overall relationship was on a constructive track. The push toward strategic clarity, especially in the context of the death of engagement, may backfire and force Beijing to accept war as the only option to take Taiwan. Strategic clarity implicitly assumes that China’s use of force against Taiwan is inevitable, unless checked by America. This assumption, however, needs to be further analyzed. Beijing, despite its harsh rhetoric, is fully aware of the domestic and international implications if a war breaks out in the Taiwan Strait. A recent study even suggested that domestic support in China for a war against Taiwan is much lower than the official propaganda assumes.9 While it’s difficult to know Beijing’s exact intention, the Chinese perception that America will defend Taiwan and delay unification may force China to risk a war, given the central role of Taiwan in the Chinese nationalism. Moreover, strategic clarity can encourage Taipei to take increasingly provocative actions, thus making war a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead of focusing solely on beefing up Taiwan’s defense, therefore, America should continue to engage China to build up constructive relations and shape China’s strategic behavior. Some strategic clarity is needed after all: America should make it clear that America will not be the ultimate arbitrator of the Taiwan issue and it’s not in China’s interests to use force against Taiwan. 

  1. Michael R. Pompeo, “Communist China and the Free World’s Future,” July 23, 2020, https://2017-2021.state.gov/communist-china-and-the-free-worlds-future-2/index.html
  2. Jeff Mason and David Brunnstrom, “White House Repeats No Taiwan Policy Change,” Reuters News, October 22, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/china/white-house-repeats-no-taiwan-policy-change-experts-see-biden-gaffe-2021-10-22/
  3. Nancy Bernkopf Tucker, “Strategic Ambiguity or Strategic Clarity?” in Nancy Bernkopf Tucker, ed., Dangerous Strait: The U.S.-Taiwan-China Crisis (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), p. 191.
  4. See polls conducted by the National Chengchi University, https://esc.nccu.edu.tw/PageDoc/Detail?fid=7801&id=6963
  5. State Council, “The Taiwan Question and China’s Reunification in the New Era,” August 2022, https://www.gov.cn/zhengce/2022-08/10/content_5704839.htm
  6. Memo of Conversation, July 9, 1971, NSC Files, FPF, Box 1032, Nixon Presidential Materials (NPM).
  7. Memo of Conversation, February 22 & 28, 1972, NSC Files, HAKOF, Box 91, NPM.
  8. Woodcock to Washington, “Meeting with Deng,” December 15, 1978, CVF, Box 40, Jimmy Carter Presidential Library.
  9. Adam Liu and Xiaojun Li, “Assessing Public Support for (Non-)peaceful Unification with Taiwan: Evidence from a Nationwide Survey in China,” March 7, 2023. 21st Century China Center Research Paper No. 2023-1, https://ssrn.com/abstract=4381723