Once again, Taiwan/China-watchers across both sides of the political spectrum jumped at President Joe Biden’s response to a reporter’s question on Taiwan during his Asia trip last month. When the reporter asked: “Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?” Biden’s answer was simple: “yes.”
Nonetheless, there was a sense of déjà vu when back in Washington, the White House and the State Department quickly clarified that US policy toward Taiwan has not changed and that the United States is committed to the one-China policy and peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. Only a day later, when Biden was explicitly asked after a Quad Summit in Tokyo whether strategic ambiguity toward Taiwan was dead, Biden answered “no,” without further clarification — straight out of the strategic ambiguity handbook.
So while strategic ambiguity is very much in the still lexicon of official US government policy toward the democratic island nation of 23.5 million, Biden’s repeated statements that the United States would come to Taiwan’s aid in the event of an invasion sows doubt about whether the policy is realistically still in effect.
WHAT IS “STRATEGIC AMBIGUITY”?
Since the 1970s, the US policy aimed at not providing assurances to either Beijing or Taipei about a US response to the potential conflict between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait has spanned US administrations.
Recently, at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia’s premier defense conference, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin comprehensively laid out what has been repeated by US officials for months that the Biden administration remains committed to the “longstanding one-China policy” that is dictated by the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), the Three Joint Communiques, and the Six Assurances. Austin also stated that the administration opposes any unilateral changes to the status quo from either side, promotes resolution of all cross-strait disputes through peaceful means, and does not support Taiwan’s independence. Beijing, however, is unconvinced of the Biden administration’s policy toward Taiwan. The Deputy Chief of the Joint Staff Department of China’s Central Military Commission, Lt. Gen. Zhang Zhenzhong, stated that the United States is “obviously inconsistent in its words and deeds” regarding the issue of Taiwan.
For both major political parties in Taiwan, US shifts on “strategic ambiguity” plays into a different understanding of how it would translate on the ground in Taiwan’s local politics and policymaking decisions.
What lies at the crux of the concept behind the US’ official policy, laid out in three documents: Taiwan Relations Act, the Six Assurances, and the Three Joint Communiqués? First, the United States acknowledged the so-called “one-China policy” through the ingenuity of its jurisprudence while never actually recognizing Beijing’s claims over Taiwan. Second, despite not having recognized “Taiwan” as a sovereign country, the United States continues to provide Taiwan with sufficient self-defense capabilities to deter aggression from Beijing.
“Strategic ambiguity,” beyond the legal jargon and political terminology, implies that the United States is keen to see the status quo preserved even when tensions arise. By intentionally keeping its promise to unconditionally defend Taiwan vague, Washington is able to hop-scotch and maneuver diplomatically however it deems fit. Furthermore, in finessing the US–Taiwan–China triangle, Washington can simultaneously acknowledge Beijing’s insistence on one-China and support (and maintain) Taiwan’s defense capabilities.
For the Taiwanese, any indication that the United States would potentially come to Taipei’s aid if Beijing were to seek invasion as their means of reunification, naturally, would be appreciated. However, every time Washington “walks back” on more hardline or strategic clarity-esque statements — despite the essence of the message itself — both Taiwanese officials and the public voice concerns about Taiwan becoming a chess piece or bargaining chip anytime the United States negotiates with China.
Despite what many would like to believe as a long-awaited shift in US policy toward our longtime allies in Taipei, Biden’s comments are not new for US executive officeholders. For Biden, this marks the third time since his presidency began that he has stated in no clear terms that the United States would come to the defense of Taiwan. But in 2001, Biden was critical of then-president George W. Bush when he vowed to “do whatever it takes” to defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack. Biden wrote: “As a matter of diplomacy, there is a huge difference between reserving the right to use force and obligating ourselves, a priori, to come to the defense of Taiwan.” Now as president, the concern is whether or not Biden is shifting on Taiwan. The White House and the State Department, however, are quick to reassure all stakeholders that there is no official shift and that “strategic ambiguity” is alive and well.
NOT SO AMBIGUOUS AFTER ALL
From the streets of Taipei to the ports of Kaohsiung, the majority of the local population live their everyday lives without obsessing about China. As such, local politicians and defense experts mainly focus not on what the US government is putting out but rather on the best method of deterring Beijing. However, with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) sending historic numbers of fighter jets into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone — with a sortie of 30 warplanes just a few weeks ago — the population on the democratic self-ruled island is inevitably drifting further away from the reunification promise of that being propagated from the mainland.
Some Taiwanese policymakers, as we see from President Tsai Ing-Wen’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party, lean in on its anti-Beijing rhetoric and attempt to revamp Taiwan’s military according to the Overall Defense Concept (which emphasizes asymmetric defense concepts in countering Chinese growing gray-zone tactics). For the Democratic Progressive Party, US strategic ambiguity plays a more significant role in the party’s calculus of its cross-strait policies. On the other hand, for the main opposition party, the Kuomintang, strategic ambiguity plays into its main strategy and political agenda of maintaining peace and stability in the region through “principled engagement with Beijing while strengthening defense and deterrence.” Recently, the Kuomintang has warmed up to some aspects of the Overall Defense Concept, particularly in asymmetric defense. As such, for both major political parties in Taiwan, US policy shifts play into a different understanding of how it would translate on the ground in Taiwan’s local politics and policymaking decisions.
What is undeniable is Beijing’s view that the US policy of strategic ambiguity has been a constant thorn in its flank. But to all parties involved, the policy has withstood the test of time across administrations since President Richard Nixon recognized the People’s Republic of China — and will be continued to be utilized as an integral strategy in the US foreign policy toolkit. On the other hand, Taiwan is still struggling with galvanizing and mobilizing the local population to a whole-of-country approach to managing China’s increasing aggression.
Strategic ambiguity, therefore, is here to stay, but its meaning lies with the beholder.
Richard Wei-Yi Chen is the membership coordinator at the Truman National Security Project and formerly the research coordinator at the Taiwan Center for Security Studies. A KU Leuven and Georgetown University graduate, his research focuses on US–Taiwan relations, Chinese foreign policy, Indo-Pacific geopolitics, and grand strategy.