Endangering ‘strategic ambiguity’?

Hussein Haridy
Friday 29 Oct 2021

After US President Joe Biden’s remarks on the US commitment to Taiwan earlier this month, the administration’s reassurances to China have been very welcome

In a CNN town hall meeting on 21 October hosted by the US network’s correspondent Anderson Cooper, US President Joe Biden said that the US has “a commitment to do that” in answer to a question on whether Washington would come to the defence of Taiwan if China attacked it.

“China, Russia, and the rest of the world know that we have the most powerful military of the world…What you have to worry about is whether or not they are going to engage in activities that will put them in a position where they make a serious mistake,” Biden said.

The following day, on 22 October, Spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry Wang Wenbin invited the US to be “cautious with words and actions” on the question of Taiwan.

“When it comes to issues related to China’s sovereignty and other core interests, there is no room for China to compromise or make concessions, and no one should underestimate the strong determination, firm will, and strong ability of the Chinese people to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” he said.

He reaffirmed the Chinese position that Taiwan is “an inalienable part of China’s territory” and described the issue of Taiwan as a purely domestic Chinese affair “that allows no foreign intervention”.

In an exercise of damage control White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on 22 October that there had been no “shift” in the official US position regarding Taiwan and that the US president in his answer to Cooper’s question the previous day “was not announcing any change in [US] policy”. She added that “nor has he made a decision to change our policy.”

On the same day, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin attending a NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels told reporters that nobody “wants to see cross-strait issues come to blows, certainly not President Biden, and there is no reason that it should.” He also signaled US solidarity with Taiwan by affirming that the US would “continue to help Taiwan with the sorts of capabilities that it needs to defend itself, and so will stay focused on those things.”

The most reassuring US statement intended to calm Chinese concerns came from State Department Spokesperson Ned Price in his press briefing on 22 October, when he said that “the president was not announcing any change in our policy, and there is no change in our policy. The United States defence relationship with Taiwan is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act. We will uphold our commitment under the Act, we will continue to support Taiwan self-defence, and we will continue to oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo.”

He reiterated the official US position in the context of its four-decade-old “One-China Policy,” namely that the US would consider “any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means as a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific and of grave concern to the United States.”

The Taiwan Relations Act was passed by the 96th Congress in March 1979 and enacted as Law 96-8 by former president Jimmy Carter on 10 April 1979. It declares that the policy of the US is to preserve and promote extensive, close, and friendly commercial, cultural, and other relations between the people of the US and the people of Taiwan, as well as the people of the China mainland and all other peoples of the Western Pacific region.

It further states that the decision to establish diplomatic relations between the US and China rests “upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means and that any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including boycott or embargoes, is considered a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States”.

It stipulates that the US “shall provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive nature and shall maintain the capacity of the US to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardise the security or social or economic system of the people of Taiwan”.

Since the law was enacted in 1979, successive US administrations have adhered to what has come to be known among strategists and military planners as a policy of “strategic ambiguity”. But the answer given by Biden at last Thursday’s town hall meeting concerning the US reaction were China to attack Taiwan has raised doubts about the continuing validity of the Taiwan Relations Act to the changing strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific region in general and in the context of the increasingly adversarial relationship between the US and China.

The damage control that the Biden administration quickly initiated was meant to reassure the Chinese.

Such reassurance came at the right time. On 12 October, the Chinese military warned of its determination to “crush” any attempt to separate Taiwan from mainland China after it carried out beach landings and assault drills in China’s Fujian Province, which is directly across the Taiwan Strait from Taiwan. 

Military analysts believe that recent flyovers by the Chinese Air Force indicate that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could easily send warplanes to the southern and eastern parts of Taiwan. It is interesting to note in this context that the Chinese Air Force has flown nearly 150 warplanes into Taiwan’s air identification zone this month.

The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month that the Pentagon has sent two dozen personnel from special operations forces to Taiwan to conduct secret training operations. According to the US newspaper, these forces have been on the island for at least a year. Taiwanese Defence Minister Chin Kuocheng told his nation’s parliament this month that China could be ready for a full-scale invasion of Taiwan by 2025.

Such sabre-rattling from all parties does not serve peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region. The keys to maintaining security in this region are that no unilateral actions should be taken to reunify Taiwan with the mainland and there should be no use of force to bring about such reunification. It was reassuring to hear Chinese President Xi Jinping expressing his wish for the peaceful reunification of mainland China and Taiwan on 11 October during the commemoration of the 110th anniversary of the fall of the last dynasty to rule China.

The re-affirmation by senior US officials of the US commitment to the Taiwan Relations Act is more than welcome. A strategic miscalculation in the Strait of Taiwan would not serve the national interests of the powers vying for influence in the Indo-Pacific region.

* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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