Protecting the Taiwan Strait in the 21st Century

Protecting the Taiwan Strait in the 21st Century
Photo Credit: ROCN@Wiki Public Domain

What you need to know

Whether the U.S. should maintain strategic ambiguity or embrace strategic clarity on Taiwan is an important but distinct question. Neither policy stands a chance of long-term success without sustained U.S. military capabilities in the Asia Pacific.

By Brian C. Chao

China has become increasingly strident towards Taiwan over the past few years, raising again the issue of what role the United States should play in preventing conflict in and across the Taiwan Strait.

In September, Richard Haass and David Sacks argued for a change in U.S. policy from strategic ambiguity to clarity: a clear U.S. commitment to defend Taiwan to prevent China from miscalculating U.S. resolve and inadvertently raising the risk of a great-power war. Others maintain that ambiguity works and gives the U.S. maximum flexibility. This ambiguity-clarity debate misses a fundamental point: any successful U.S. policy depends on the practical capability to credibly enforce it.

For U.S. deterrence to be credible, Washington must continue to maintain superiority in capabilities over China. It is unclear whether this is possible. Strategic ambiguity is already ending, and it is China that is ending it by narrowing the capability gap in alarming ways. U.S. strategic clarity would risk becoming a bluff, less effective and more dangerous than the strategic ambiguity it would replace. It will be more and more difficult for the U.S. to overcome sustained Chinese military modernization efforts to defend Taiwan, particularly as the U.S. stretches itself thin across global military commitments.

This issue is all the more important because the U.S. may need to maintain itself as a deterrent for some time to come. Taiwan is a core interest of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which has linked it to its mainland political legitimacy. China has been willing to pay a remarkably high price to pursue such interest areas, as demonstrated in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Tibet, the East and South China Seas, and elsewhere. In all cases, no amount of international pressure convinced the CCP to substantively change its behavior.

Taiwan is no different, and it is highly unlikely that U.S. conventional deterrence — especially maintained in the face of a shifting military balance — will change Beijing’s ambitions. China will continue modernizing and building up its military until it feels confident it can achieve military and political success against Taiwan. U.S. deterrence efforts will have to keep pace.

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Photo Credit:AP / TPG Images
In this photo provided by the U.S. Navy, the guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain conducts routine underway operations in support of stability and security for a free and open Indo-Pacific, at the Taiwan Strait, Dec. 30, 2020.

For the U.S. to do so credibly requires a substantial, long-term rebalance of military forces to the Asia Pacific, with all the diplomatic, logistical, and operational shifts and risks that entail. There are some signs the U.S. is willing to take on these responsibilities. The Department of State recently announced the lifting of self-imposed restrictions on U.S.-Taiwan official contacts, and there are proponents of military relations with greater diplomatic support for Taiwan.

But such moves do not approach the robust efforts that would be required to maintain capabilities strong enough to deter a modernizing China. Moreover, such policy adjustments — however justified — will further provoke China and escalate the potential for retaliatory measures. This further highlights the importance of maintaining Washington’s ability to withstand and counter foreseeable Chinese actions. If the U.S. does not do so, it will be caught unprepared in the Taiwan Strait.

China has always had the motivation to pursue its policy objectives; it is now adding the muscle to do so. The U.S. has successfully deterred China in times of both strategic clarity (before 1979) and strategic ambiguity (since 1979). If and when the Biden administration and Congress revisit U.S. deterrence policy on Taiwan, they should focus on the underlying capabilities that would make deterrence credible in the first place.

Whether the U.S. should maintain ambiguity or embrace clarity is an important and related — but distinct — question. But neither policy stands a chance of long-term success without sustained U.S. capabilities in the Asia Pacific. Only with adequate capabilities in place will deterrence against China — however ambiguous — continue to be successful.

Brian C Chao is a visiting scholar in the Center for the Study of Contemporary China at the University of Pennsylvania.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from East Asia Forum. East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centered on the Asia Pacific region.

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