President Biden’s October remarks about protecting Taiwan have re-ignited debate over American defense planning in the Taiwan Strait. This comes after other lawmakers on Capitol Hill have also recently suggested that the U.S. abandon strategic ambiguity as well. Proponents of this approach contend that the benefits of strategic clarity outweigh its risks and offers America the best opportunity to deter China and reassure Taiwan. Unfortunately, this logic relies on misguided assumptions about current U.S. policy and is aided by outdated arguments intended to support strategic ambiguity. Furthermore, this conversation pays too little attention to Chinese deterrence theory. A more thorough review of the evidence invoked in this debate and Chinese deterrence practice highlights why strategic ambiguity must remain the strategy of choice for U.S. policymakers in the years to come.
Current U.S. defense policy towards Taiwan is governed by the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), which stipulates that America will provide Taiwan with defensive arms and maintain the “capacity to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion” that threatens Taiwan. This opaque commitment has come under increased scrutiny as Beijing ramps up its campaign of coercion against Taiwan. Criticism of TRA’s vague defense promise has coalesced around three broad narratives.
America’s weakened position and influence in the cross-strait balance reflects, in part, its inability to effectively deter Chinese behavior in the grey zone. Clarity would force Washington to answer questions it should avoid right now, such as what it might do for each act of aggression and how it would escalate should Beijing not change its behavior. America cannot afford to lock itself into policy responses it may not wish to pursue. One would be hard pressed to see how a clearer deterrent commitment would lead China to pursue less provocative behavior that many might cite as reason to abandon strategic ambiguity.
Relatedly, the structural critique forces China into an inevitable bellicose future. This has all the qualities of a security dilemma, wherein Beijing’s modernization efforts erode the relative security of America and its partners in the region. In this context, such thinking seemingly oversimplifies the complex interactions among states with significant military capabilities. It also underappreciates how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will not want to risk its legitimacy by entering a military conflict it may not necessarily win. Little unclassified evidence currently exists, which suggests a cross-strait conflict guarantees a victory for the CCP.
The events driven narrative contends that certain developments will drive the CCP to initiate a conflict against Taiwan, so the U.S. must make clear its commitment should such contingencies arise. Some advocates of strategic clarity argue that Taiwan’s position as a thriving democracy and economic ties to the U.S. means it should receive similar treatment as other U.S. security partners. While this school of thought falls short of supporting Taiwan’s full cessation from mainland China, it does seemingly support a state of de facto independence that is anathema to Beijing. This could lead the CCP to initiate a conflict such policy seeks to avoid or endorse a course of action that the U.S. does not want Taiwan to pursue.
China’s deterrent model focuses on dissuading an opponent from taking an unwelcome action and persuading an opponent what ought to be done. In other words, Chinese deterrence also requires the object of its deterrent action to preference Beijing’s political interests at the expense of the target. In contrast, America’s deterrent model focuses on passively influencing other states’ intentions to prevent future challenges to the prevailing status quo. This important difference suggests that clearer deterrent messaging alone will not cause Beijing to change its approach to Taiwan or help the U.S. alter the cross-strait balance.
Prevailing arguments that support strategic ambiguity also deserve reconsideration if one wants to better understand the pitfalls of strategic clarity. Notably, concerns about abrogating the “One China Policy” often receive attention when discussing the issue. While the U.S. should not take any action that changes this policy, polling data in Taiwan suggests that it may someday violate this norm on its own accord. Similarly, proponents of strategic ambiguity often argue that it provides cover for a U.S. military that may prove unable to succeed in a conflict against China’s quantitatively superior forces. Undoubtedly, China’s military modernization efforts pose serious challenges to U.S. and partner militaries, and that America needs to better prioritize defense spending to confront this threat. Yet, a quantitative assessment alone cannot determine the military balance. American platforms are still superior to their Chinese counterparts, and U.S. forces have more experience conducting joint operations. Furthermore, the U.S. has access to a larger collection of allies and partners as well as enjoys more clout in a variety of international organizations that could complicate Beijing’s international freedom of action following any invasion of Taiwan.
These advantages highlight the leading benefit of ambiguity. It’s true that this policy limits China’s ability to assess U.S. intentions, but, more importantly, it preserves America’s freedom of maneuver when engaging with allies and partners about a Taiwan conflict scenario. America’s competitive advantage in any cross-strait contingency will come from how effectively it can build an international coalition that is willing to impose political and economic costs on Beijing that outweigh any gains from a Chinese attack on Taiwan. It is easier for the U.S. to build this consensus now if potential partners do not think they are joining an inevitable march to war.
Adam Taylor is a defense policy staffer for a Member of Congress and previously served as an aviation command and control officer in the Marine Corps for four years. He received his M.A. in international relations from American University’s School of International Service and writes on issues related to future force design, U.S. defense policy in the Asia-Pacific, the defense budget, and American foreign policy. The opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not reflect the opinions of any Member of Congress or the United States Marine Corps.