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‘Strategic Clarity’ on Taiwan Is Clearly Mad

Richard Haass and David Sacks make the case for the very dangerous idea of explicitly committing the U.S. to defend Taiwan:

The policy known as strategic ambiguity has, however, run its course. Ambiguity is unlikely to deter an increasingly assertive China with growing military capabilities. The time has come for the United States to introduce a policy of strategic clarity: one that makes explicit that the United States would respond to any Chinese use of force against Taiwan.

If the U.S. declared its intention to come to Taiwan’s defense, it would be taking on another major security commitment that the U.S. does not have to assume and it would be extending a guarantee that Beijing would not believe. The U.S. is not bound by treaty to come to Taiwan’s defense, and it would be hard for the Chinese government to take such a commitment seriously enough that it would deter them from attacking if that is what they were otherwise determined to do. The authors specifically rule out a treaty with Taipei on the grounds that this would “force Xi’s hand,” but they never explain why making this security guarantee wouldn’t have the same effect.

There is not much public support for coming to Taiwan’s defense. According to a survey conducted by the Chicago Council for Global Affairs last year, just 35% of Americans favor U.S. military action to respond to an attack on Taiwan. 59% oppose doing this. The U.S. cannot make such an important commitment to go to war to defend another country when there is so little public support for doing so. It goes without saying that Taiwan matters far more to the Chinese government and the Chinese people on the mainland than it matters to us, and the U.S. would be at a significant disadvantage in fighting a war to defend Taiwan if this bluff were ever called.

Insofar as an explicit U.S. security guarantee might encourage Taiwan to declare independence, it could end up triggering the very crisis that the guarantee is supposed to forestall. Extending security guarantees can have destabilizing effects as well as stabilizing ones. When a government believes that it has full U.S. backing, it can start to behave more recklessly than it otherwise would. Haass and Sacks say that the DPP-led government has behaved pragmatically in recent years, so why would we want to change U.S. policy in a way that gives them incentives to take greater risks? We should be wary of encouraging yet another government to engage in what Barry Posen calls “reckless driving” because it thinks that the U.S. will bail them out.

There is no compelling reason to abandon strategic ambiguity. The authors say it has “run its course,” but there is no evidence that it no longer does what it is intended to do. They admit that it “kept this powder keg from exploding,” so why do away with it now? They point out the growing power imbalance between Taiwan and the mainland, as if this were a good reason to make an explicit security guarantee to the weaker side. They note that it is no longer certain whether the U.S. could prevail in such a conflict, and they actually think this is an argument in favor of their position. What Haass and Sacks propose is to increase tensions between China and Taiwan through a new provocation on our part. In Beijing’s view, this would be equivalent to their making a security guarantee to part of our country. They would react angrily, and it is possible that it might provoke them to take the military action that the guarantee is supposed to stop.

It is also necessary to look at the state of Taiwan’s defenses and decide whether it makes sense to commit to defend a country whose own military is in such parlous shape:

Chang Han-ching, a retired navy captain and a researcher for the Taiwan Center for International Strategic Studies, believes it was the Taiwanese military’s hasty yet critically flawed downsizing that hollowed out its logistics. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, Taiwan committed itself to cutting the force size from half a million strong to fewer than 200,000. Much of the changes were planned by the Office of the General Staff for Operations and Planning of Taiwan’s Defense Ministry, where Chang was a staffer.

“Politicians wanted to shrink the size of the military to shorten and eventually get rid of conscription, the top generals obliged. Given rising threats from China, cutting combat units is out of the question. Guess where they cut instead? Yes, logistics, of all things. As if leaving combat units unsupported will do any good.”

The drastically trimmed down logistics units, which have undergone round after round of cuts, soon became overwhelmed with major repair tasks. Meanwhile, rank-and-file officers and soldiers in the field troops were delegated to undertake complex maintenance tasks and management of repair parts inventory that they had little idea how to do properly. This led to a vicious cycle of more poorly maintained equipment, more failures and breakdowns, more misallocation of repair parts and resources.

A war with China over Taiwan would be very costly and dangerous, and it would likely be the biggest military campaign the U.S. has fought since WWII. It is hard to see what vital interests would be protected by such a war. Their argument on this point boils down to the same old appeal to credibility that we hear again and again:

If the United States fails to respond to such a Chinese use of force, regional U.S. allies, such as Japan and South Korea, will conclude that the United States cannot be relied upon and that it is pulling back from the region.

Japan and South Korea might respond this way if the U.S. had a formal treaty commitment to defend Taiwan, but it doesn’t. The authors themselves rule this out. Why would treaty allies doubt our commitment to them if our government “fails” to defend a country that isn’t a treaty ally? Haass and Sacks admit that a Chinese takeover of Taiwan would be harmful to U.S. interests primarily because of the damage it would do to our other alliances, but it doesn’t follow that those alliances would be damaged at all. They also don’t account for what could happen to U.S. standing if it fought and then lost a war over Taiwan. Like so many hawkish proposals, this one does not consider the costs or the downsides of their preferred course of action.

Their case for what they call “strategic clarity” is surprisingly weak:

Such a policy would lower the chances of Chinese miscalculation, which is the likeliest catalyst for war in the Taiwan Strait.

On the contrary, it could serve as a spur to war by antagonizing a very nationalist government over something that it believes to be a core security interest. Haass and Sacks wrongly think that Chinese miscalculation is the likeliest catalyst for war, which takes no account of nationalist passions and the outrage this move could generate among Chinese leaders. They mistakenly assume that the problem here is the lack of clear resolve on our part, but they would have the U.S. draw a line that China could not allow to go unanswered. They are so preoccupied with making a clear U.S. commitment that they fail to consider how this will likely be perceived as an intolerable threat by China’s government.

In the surest sign of a bad argument, Haass and Sacks say that the U.S. must do this to “restore deterrence” following the Trump years. If deterrence has to be “restored,” it was never really there, and “restoring” deterrence amounts to taking aggressive action while calling it something else.

There is a reasonable case to be made for providing Taiwan with the means to defend itself from an invasion. The goal here would be to make Taiwan so difficult to conquer that it would not be worth attempting. That isn’t going to be done by selling them more jets that will be blown up before they can even take off or by selling them advanced tanks that they cannot maintain. And it isn’t going to be helped by precipitating a crisis with China that will lead to a conflict that the U.S. cannot afford and probably cannot win.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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