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Strategic Ambiguity Works

A move toward clarity on Taiwan would be needlessly adversarial and wildly dangerous.

(Jo Best/Shutterstock)

Will deterrence work with China and Taiwan, where it failed with Russia and the Ukraine? Should the U.S. use its military power more aggressively to deter China from invading Taiwan, abandoning the long-standing policy of strategic ambiguity for one of strategic clarity?

One uncomfortable lesson from the Ukraine war is how deterrence failed. The U.S. deterrent, up to and including nuclear weapons, failed to stop the Russians. They calculated, correctly, that they could invade Ukraine at little cost, at least in apocalyptic terms. Will China make the same calculation and invade Taiwan at some point in the future, figuring that if deterrence worked at all in the Ukraine it worked to prevent the United States from kinetically intervening even on a small scale?


On the surface, the dynamics appear very similar: a big country looking to settle an old score with a small country, tidy up its borders, and resolve longstanding strategic, social, cultural, and historical leftovers from the Cold War. But the two situations could not be more different. Let’s take a deep dive into the waters of the Taiwan Strait and see where we surface.

The question is, going forward, should our model in Taiwan be the strategic clarity of NATO’s Article 5 or the strategic ambiguity of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act?

The principle of collective defense is at the very heart of NATO. Its history is embedded in World War II, when the Nazis gained a massive advantage in the earliest days of the war by playing the various European nations against each other, picking off territory while London and Paris bickered over what to do.

NATO was to be the solution. Article 5 of the NATO treaty says: “An armed attack against one or more of the [signers] shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them... will assist the Party or Parties so attacked.” The critical points are that the treaty is inclusionary and exclusionary: it applies to all NATO members, large or small, but only to members. An attack on Poland triggers Article 5. An attack on Ukraine or Taiwan does not.

Article 5’s cousin here is the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), which grew out of Mao’s threat to “liberate” Taiwan and Chiang Kai-shek’s demand for U.S. support to reclaim the Mainland by force. With the Korean War sopping up American blood, Washington had no desire to join what would have been a land war to rival World War II, but U.S. Cold War policy was to assure Taipei’s survival.


The United States established diplomatic relations with Taiwan and signed a mutual defense treaty in 1954. That lasted until 1979, when the U.S. switched its diplomatic recognition from the people of Taiwan to the people of the Mainland (China, but note the diplomatic wording) and Congress enacted the Taiwan Relations Act. The TRA listed two obligations to Taiwan: to sell it arms and to maintain America’s capacity “to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion” against Taiwan.

The actual wording in the TRA is instructive: “Peace and stability in the area are matters of international concern… Any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, is considered a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.”

This represents diplomatic brilliance and came to be known colloquially as “strategic ambiguity,” a policy understood by all parties to mean the U.S. doesn’t have to defend Taiwan, but it can, and probably will. The circumstances and means of defense are left unspoken. China matched this with a policy of “strategic patience”: China will not wait forever, but China also understands the time between now and forever is long.

The most important thing about the TRA is that it works. The Mainland has not invaded Taiwan. Despite changes in leadership from Mao to Deng to Xi, the Mainland has not invaded. Taiwan changed from a military dictatorship to a democracy, and the Mainland has not invaded.

Despite the fall of the Soviet Union and the Korean and Vietnam wars, where China and the U.S. fought each other directly, the Mainland has not invaded. The Chinese military has gone from peasants with rifles to a force with nuclear weapons and a blue water navy, and the Mainland has not invaded. China has gone from agrarian isolation to an essential part of the industrialized global economy, and the Mainland has not invaded. Ukraine happened, and the Mainland has not invaded.

It is also important that U.S. policy prevented Taiwan from invading China. The idea seems silly in 2022, but that was indeed Chiang’s plan, with U.S. help, of course. Though we don’t think of it much, the current policy of strategic ambiguity keeps modern Taiwan in line as well. Nobody expects the ambiguity to stretch as far as Taiwan launching military force or proclaiming independence. There is a danger that strategic clarity would embolden “trouble makers” on the island. Wouldn’t a guarantee to go to war for Taiwan make those provocateurs on Taiwan who want to declare independence, perhaps framed around the next Olympics, that much more reckless?

The irony is deterrence worked in Ukraine, at least from Putin’s point of view. It prevented the U.S. from getting involved in the shooting war. As Putin readied to invade Ukraine, Biden threw away any trace elements of strategic ambiguity by declaring early and often that NATO would not intervene and the U.S. would not unilaterally enter the fighting. It was as green a light as could be for Putin. On the other side of the world, Sino-Asia sleeps at peace knowing everything is on the table should the Mainland invade but nothing is at risk should it not—another example of deterrence working.

Post-Ukraine, some hawks want clarity and are pushing for a formal, Article 5-like declaration for Asia that would include not only Taiwan and the U.S. but also Japan, Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and maybe others. The U.S. has various types of self-defense treaties already with Asian nations. One candidate for the framework to build an Asian Article 5 around is the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD), colloquially the Quad, a semi-informal strategic security dialogue between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. Recent American submarine sales to Australia confirm the new four-way relationship.

But the justifications for such a move do not make sense given the current strategy’s multi-decade success. Defense pundits say that because Beijing ramped up its rhetoric and shipbuilding, the West must do something to match. There are those in Congress who want a more formal agreement (Taiwan, like Israel, has a powerful lobby that punches above its weight in Washington). The Council on Foreign Relations wants strategic unambiguity with a show of force, Eagle vs. Dragon.

The risk is that we will talk ourselves into a crisis. The blathering about inevitability goes on, mutual demonization increases, and the policy response moves from war prevention to war preparation. 

Joe Biden will come under pressure to “do something”—the scariest words in Washington—following Ukraine. It may be a lone voice or two that whispers to Biden that strategic ambiguity is enough. Article 5 deliberately ties its signatories’ hands. The Taiwan Relations Act leaves all options open to deal with the complex realities of the Sino-Pacific. History shows which one works and which one does not. A more aggressive posture does not resolve the root issues across the Taiwan Strait; it only risks exacerbating them.

Strategic ambiguity and a useful stasis serve two important American goals: it keeps the peace and allows for a productive quadrilateral economic relationship among China, Taiwan, the U.S., and the rest of Southeast Asia. Those two goals work in lockstep, not in conflict. Peace serves all masters here.

But the real value of strategic ambiguity is made clear when you look at how dangerous more concrete forms of deterrence under consideration for Asia are.

What looks like deterrence from one side—forward deploying an aircraft carrier on our part, overflights near Taiwan on China’s part—might look like provocation from the other. Military deterrence over Taiwan holds the risk of accidents and misinterpretations.

More importantly, there is little need for military deterrence, many claim. The Chinese on both sides of the strait understand well there is much to be gained from economic ties amid political ambiguity and much greater risk in anything like an invasion that would accomplish little besides tidying up the leftover business from the creation of the PRC in 1949.

China has four overseas military bases, a small logistics operation in Djibouti, a listening post on Great Coco Island (near Myanmar), a navy outpost in Gwadar (in Pakistan), and a military post in Gorno-Badakhshan, Tajikistan. 

In contrast, the U.S. maintains 750 bases across the globe, or a few less now that the Afghan adventure is over. That includes formal facilities in eight Asian nations, with some 53,000 troops in Japan and 24,000 in South Korea. The U.S. maintained troops in Taiwan until 1979 and recently began sending Special Forces there again on training missions. That many of those American bases predate the founding of the People’s Republic, and all have survived the fall of the Soviet adversary they were built to originally deter, tells the real story.

Look at the Chinese “incursions” into Taiwan’s air space. Chinese aircraft are not overflying Taiwan. They are flying within Taiwan’s self-declared Air Defense Identification Zone. A map of that zone shows it to be large enough to cover thousands of miles of the Chinese mainland itself; PLA planes are in violation when sitting on their own runways.

Taiwan’s zone overlaps Beijing’s Air Defense Zone, which overlaps Japan’s and Korea’s. Criss-crossing everyone’s zones are American aircraft conducting “freedom of navigation” exercises—known in Beijing as “incursions.” 

At various points in history, some American bases stored nuclear weapons, and may do so today. Forward-deployed U.S. warships are believed to also contain nuclear weapons; the Ohio and soon Virginia-class submarines off China’s coasts, each with 20 Trident ballistic missiles, almost certainly do. Pretend you’re from Mars and say who seems to be provoking and who seems to be deterring. 

When I was a diplomat, we were taught trust was always a nice thing, but better was to understand the other side’s goals and intentions. If you knew those, or could make a decent guess, you could predict their actions and probe effectively at their asks a lot better than hoping they would just do what they promised and leave you to verify.

So what do China and Taiwan want? There may be someone electronically listening into bedrooms, boardrooms, and tea shops and hearing the answer from the principal players, but absent that, looking at the last 70 some years of history is pretty helpful.

China and Taiwan (and the U.S.) do not want war. Absent some scrapes back in the 1950s, nobody has invaded or attacked anyone across the Strait. The U.S. and China only shot at each other when the U.S. approached China’s border through its ally North Korea in that war, and on a lesser scale later when U.S. troops neared China’s border via North Vietnam. Both of these events are celebrated in the People’s Army Museum in Beijing as examples of defending the homeland’s borders. The museum also features an American U-2 spy plane shot down over southern China and exhibits showing the U.S. bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, killing three and destroying the diplomatic sanctuary. A lot has been forgiven over the years to avoid war.

It is the same track record for Macau and Hong Kong, where China did not invade or attack over some 200 years of colonial rule even after they had the military means to make it a cakewalk. Scientists call that a steady state. Does anyone believe some rogue statement in the Taiwan legislature, or some five-way disputed rock outcropping in the South China Sea, would change it? If not then, why now?

My own first brush with a “why now” event was in the 1980s, when I went to Taiwan as an American diplomat. Taiwan was crawling out from under four decades of authoritarian rule and taking its first difficult democratic steps. After decades of speech suppression, a lot of people were testing their legs, saying all sorts of crazy stuff about independence. Among ourselves we called it “the D-word,” Duli in Mandarin. One emerging political party was even called the Taiwan Independence Party, and it was likely to grab a few seats in the legislature. The U.S. mission was fearful this could serve as a trigger to Beijing. “Big China” had made clear that a declaration of independence was a red line.

Beijing’s reaction was soon apparent: Taiwan’s stores started to feature mainland goods. The end of the hated dictatorship opened up a new market. Even before this thaw, you could sort of fly from Taipei to China, something that many people on both sides of the strait were desperate to do to visit relatives. The catch was the flight had to touch down in then-British Hong Kong. In 2008, these flights were made direct, with no need for the Hong Kong stopover. Today six China-based airlines and five from Taiwan operate direct flights. The line of progress has been in one direction, far at odds with war.

Following the money—and there is a lot of it to follow among Taiwan, China, and the U.S.—demonstrates clearly that sanctions threaten China in a way they don't threaten Russia. One of the problems with the sanctions President Joe Biden is using to punish Russia is how unintegrated Russia is into the world economy after so many years of other sanctions.

On the other hand, between 1991 and 2020, Taiwan’s investment in China totaled $188.5 billion. In 2019, the value of cross-strait trade was $149.2 billion. Total Chinese investment in the U.S. economy is over $145 billion. U.S. investment in China passed $1 trillion. When Covid shut down world logistics, everyone learned the American economy is voluntarily dependent on Chinese manufacturing and vice versa. China is the second-largest foreign holder of U.S. government debt. The Chinese are literally betting the house on America’s continued economic engagement.

Unlike Russia, China would be deeply vulnerable to sanctions and disruptions of commerce following an attack on Taiwan. The risk in calculable dollars is beyond any gain owning Taiwan would bring; imagine the impact of closing U.S. ports to Chinese cargo vessels. China would have to find a way to use unfinished iPhones as food.

President Xi’s rhetoric about reunification is essentially the same as Mao’s. But when citing Chinese propaganda as evidence, it is best to pay attention to the details.

Xi regularly reiterates reunification as a goal, but always stresses the process is historical (as in, it is inevitable but evolutionary) and peaceful. Most of these reunification proclamations occur around important political holidays unfamiliar in the West. One of Xi’s powerful invocations was in a speech marking the 110th anniversary of the Xinhai 1911 Revolution, aimed at the foreign Manchu dynasty. The chosen occasion is important, because Xinhai, ideologically midwifed by Dr. Sun Yat Sen, is acknowledged as the common origin point for modern China. This is drilled into every schoolkid on both sides of the Strait and forms a common vocabulary among their diplomats.

In Sun’s spirit, Xi reiterated a vow to peaceful reunification with Taiwan. He urged the Chinese people to “stand on the right side of history and join hands to achieve China’s complete reunification,” invoking the way the people who would form the Communist and Nationalist parties worked together against common enemies. Xi, talking to his own people and those in Taiwan, sketched a shared vision a long way from the PLA amphibious assault the West fears.

Taiwan is a “wanderer” that will eventually come home and not a chess piece to be played with, the Chinese government’s top diplomat said recently. Philosophically, Chinese leaders have for thousands of years believed in historical cycles. They waited close to 300 years to crush the Qing dynasty. They waited out Britain for hundreds of years for the peaceful return of Hong Kong. Such things come up in conversation with Chinese diplomats as casually as talk about the weather. Chinese diplomacy is patient, not short-term optimistic or spasmodically reactive. There is no fierce urgency to reunification. Sun Tzu: One waits to win.

An invasion of Taiwan would leave China politically isolated, economically damaged, and reputationally crippled. A failed attack could lead to a Taiwanese declaration of independence that China would be incapable of stopping.

There is no rational reason for hostilities and thus no need for more active military deterrence. The real fear is that neocon-like elements in the United States have already decided a bench-clearing superpower showdown is needed for control of the Pacific—or at least a new and profitable arms race.

Unlike Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, a Chinese invasion of Taiwan cannot be lied into existence as a pretext for war. Instead, the war party in the United States is more likely to use the cloak of deterrence to prepare for war. For that reason, America’s current China policy is unnecessarily adversarial, impractical, and dangerous.


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