For almost 70 years, the United States has never explicitly committed itself to the defense of Taiwan against Chinese invasion. Now, with U.S.-China relations at a historic low, worries over a Chinese assault on Taiwan are growing, and the fundamental U.S. policy may be changing.
An increasing number of military analysts and members of Congress now argue that it is time for the United States to revisit its policy of “strategic ambiguity” for Taiwan’s defense, which for decades has supported billions of dollars in arms sales despite no formal diplomatic relations.
Critics of the policy point out that as the region’s military balance moves in China's favor, strategic ambiguity is increasingly unsustainable.
"It might actually make war even more likely, emboldening Xi Jinping and the CCP to undertake military action against the island by deluding themselves into thinking the U.S. might remain on the sidelines," Michael Hunzeke, a professor at George Mason University's Schar School of Policy and Government, told VOA in an email.
"We need to change things on Taiwan to improve the deterrent and make clearer where we stand, especially by ending any remaining ambiguity about how we’d react to the use of force and altering our military force structure and posture,” Elbridge Colby, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense, wrote in The New York Times early this week. Colby was an author of the Trump administration national defense strategy, which emphasizes competition with China and Russia.
Few scenarios worry American strategists like a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Two former high-ranking U.S. officials argue it could happen as early as next year. In an article published this month by the U.S. Naval Institute (USNI), former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell and retired U.S. Admiral James Winnefeld described a nightmare scenario for the U.S. military where strategic ambiguity fails to halt a Chinese invasion.
Congress leading the call
Taiwan supporters in Congress have largely embraced the Trump administration’s approach to the island, including the recent historic visit by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and new sales of F-16 jets last week. But some legislators believe the president should do more to have a clear and firm commitment to defend Taiwan.
Last month, Florida Representative Ted Yoho said he would introduce a Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act, which would authorize military force if China were to invade Taiwan. “The U.S. policy of strategic ambiguity towards Taiwan, initially implemented to avoid provoking Beijing to attack Taiwan and encourage peaceful relations, has clearly failed,” said Yoho, who is ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee's Asia subcommittee.
Prior to Yoho's announcement, Senator Josh Hawley introduced the Taiwan Defense Act on June 11, with Representative Mike Gallagher introducing a similar bill in the House on July 1. While the bills do not directly address the question of strategic ambiguity, they do require the Department of Defense to maintain the ability to defeat a Chinese invasion.
"It's long past time to end strategic ambiguity and draw a clear red line through the Taiwan Strait," Gallagher said in a July 1 press release. "Taiwan's liberty is a vital national security interest of the United States, and the Taiwan Defense Act helps ensure our military has the capabilities it needs to block CCP aggression."
A core element in U.S.-China relations is the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979. While it obligates Washington to provide weapons of a “defensive character” to Taiwan, it intentionally set forth a vague commitment about Washington's obligation to help Taiwan defend itself.
Clarity or ambiguity?
A war between the U.S. and China over Taiwan undoubtedly would be a global disaster. War games modeled by U.S. military planners do not always result in American victories against Chinese forces in the region.
If passed, the proposed laws could impose serious legal obligations that would demand U.S. action in the case of a Chinese invasion. Some analysts wonder if the U.S. has the resources to meet the obligations.
Daniel L. Davis, a foreign policy fellow at Defense Priorities, argued that the U.S. perhaps could eventually repel China’s assault on Taiwan. But in addition to the cost to America in lives lost, the U.S. would then have to build a huge military presence on Taiwan to prevent the next Chinese attempt to retake it, Davis, a former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, wrote in The National Interest this month.
"As much as the U.S. values and commends freedom for people everywhere, involving ourselves in a war between Taiwan and China could cause catastrophic harm to our country – and might not even ensure Taiwan wins," Davis wrote VOA in an email.
Analysts say Americans might fairly ask why Washington should defend an island thousands of miles away with seemingly high human and economic costs. So far, opinion polls indicate that the American public remains tepid on this key element in the U.S.-Taiwan relationship.
The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent and nonpartisan organization that provides insight on critical global issues, has been asking citizens since 1982 about whether they favor the use of U.S. troops to defend Taiwan. A poll taken last October by the organization revealed only 35% of Americans would support U.S. military action if the island was attacked.
Although the Trump administration has been taking a very strong stand on China in recent months, there have been no moves from the administration to suggest it is preparing to do away with strategic ambiguity.
In April 2001, former President George W. Bush said that the United States would do “whatever it takes” to defend Taiwan. Given the sensitivity of the issue, Bush quickly walked back this statement hours later.
Then-Senator Joseph Biden, now the Democratic presidential nominee, criticized Bush weeks later by saying the U.S. has not been obligated to defend Taiwan since Washington abrogated the 1954 Mutual Defense Treaty signed by President Dwight Eisenhower and ratified by the Senate. "There is a huge difference between reserving the right to use force and obligating ourselves, a priori, to come to the defense of Taiwan," wrote Biden in a Washington Post opinion piece titled "Not So Deft On Taiwan."
Over the years, China had an opportunity to put the question of whether the American soldiers would fight for Taiwan directly to the U.S. In 1995, right before China fired ballistic missiles near Taiwan's coast, a Chinese military officer raised the question with Joseph Nye, then assistant secretary of defense.
“We don’t know and you don’t know; it would depend on the circumstances,” Nye said.