China is becoming “more repressive at home and more aggressive abroad”, according to the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken. Blinken made a major statement on US foreign policy on May 26 at George Washington University. It received a great deal of attention, internationally – not least because reporters and foreign policy analysts wanted to know whether Blinken would clarify remarks made earlier in the week by the president, Joe Biden, to the effect that the US would take military action to defend Taiwan if China launched an invasion.
This appeared to be a shift away from the US policy of “strategic ambiguity”, by which the US is committed to supplying Taipei with weapons systems and training to defend itself, but leaves open whether it would intervene militarily.
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Biden’s remarks suggested a substantial change of emphasis and drew a sharp response from Beijing which said the US was “using the ‘Taiwan card’ to contain China, and will itself get burned”. His statements prompted some commentators to describe US policy has having moved from strategic ambiguity to strategic incoherence.
Blinken appeared to row back slightly on Biden’s position. He acknowledged that Washington had a limited ability to counter China directly, but said: “We will shape the strategic environment around Beijing to advance our vision for an open and inclusive international system”.
It is important to consider Biden’s remarks in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Until recently, the main areas of competition between the US, China and Russia had been perceived to be political and economic. The concept of a large-scale war of aggression involving a nuclear power against a weaker neighbour had been considered unlikely. But Ukraine has raised disturbing parallels with security risks in east Asia.
Just as the Russian government views Ukraine as part of its own territory without a right to independence, China sees Taiwan as part of its territory. Russia’s actions in Europe raised fears that the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, might seriously consider a similar invasion of Taiwan. In this context, the Biden administration might decide it is necessary to deter Beijing by stating more clearly that the US would use its military to defend Taiwan in response.
Military analysts are divided on what lessons China might draw from Russia’s attempt to invade Ukraine. Russian military setbacks might remind China how problematic and costly such an attempt to invade of Taiwan would be. But China may also be carefully analysing Russian military operations in order to absorb the lessons of what problems to avoid.
After the US established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China in January 1979, the US Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), passed the same year, defined relations between the US government and “the people of Taiwan”. Washington subsequently drew up a list of “Six Assurances” in 1982, by which the US pledged not to recognise Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan and stated its intention to continue to supply Taiwan with arms without reference to China. But the foundation of US policy has been the “one China” policy, reaffirmed by the Trump administration in 2017 and again by Biden in February 2021. Under the one China policy, the US recognises the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal government of China. but only acknowledges the Chinese position that Taiwan is part of China.
The Taiwan Travel Act of 2018 elevated US-Taiwan relations to a more formal basis and the following year a consular agreement was concluded. On January 2021, all restrictions on governmental relations with Taiwan were removed, meaning that US cabinet officers could directly engage with their counterparts.
But defence relations continued to be based on the provision of advanced military equipment and the principle of strategic ambiguity.
In recent years, China has sharpened its rhetoric and military pressure on Taiwan, insisting that “the party has chosen to make reunification with Taiwan a symbol of the strength and legitimacy of CPP rule”. But that does not mean that an attack on Taiwan is planned in the foreseeable future.
Washington now faces a serious dilemma. It is concerned that strategic ambiguity may no longer be sufficient to deter China from invading Taiwan, particularly in the face of China’s increasingly assertive talk of “resolving” the Taiwan issue through reunification. This could imply that the US needs to clarify and strengthen its security commitments.
But this would require more concrete steps to demonstrate it could effectively defend Taiwan – and China’s military buildup has made this much more problematic than it was 30 years ago. There are only two US bases within a 500-mile radius of Taiwan that would allow fighter aircraft to operate without refuelling. Both are vulnerable to China’s increasingly sophisticated arsenal of land-based conventional ballistic missiles. The US might have to operate from its aircraft carriers, which are also becoming increasingly vulnerable to attacks from the Chinese mainland.
Taiwan has a highly advanced military configured to resist a Chinese attack, and China would face serious logistical challenges. But its total military resources completely outmatch Taipei’s. China also has a nuclear arsenal that can strike the continental US, although its strategic forces – while being expanded – are quite small compared to those of the US.
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In a large-scale Chinese attack on Taiwan, the US would face considerable challenges to live up to any defence commitment. In principle, he US could forward deploy military resources on a larger scale, perhaps even on the territory of Taiwan itself.
But deploying to Taiwan would itself escalate tensions with China to an unprecedented degree. It would also further complicate US-China strategy which is also dealing with major international issues which require a measure of cooperation, including on trade, climate change, managing North Korea, and political crises in other regions. Therefore it is likely that strategic ambiguity will remain US policy on the security of Taiwan for the foreseeable future, even if the US feels it necessary to highlight its option of coming to Taiwan’s defence.
The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.