The third in a three-part series: Taiwan in the Crosshairs examines how the island and its nearly 24 million people are holding up under pressure from Beijing’s stepped-up diplomatic and military intimidation campaign. Read the first two parts here and here.
TAIPEI, Taiwan — China’s threat to absorb Taiwan — through possible military action if necessary — has sent nerves soaring in this city while sparking debate half a world away in Washington about the long-held policy of “strategic ambiguity” of what exactly the U.S. military would do to protect the island democracy from an invasion.
Some argue that the era of strategic ambiguity is over. President Biden has responded to increased Chinese military drills near Taiwan by saying U.S. forces will defend the island in the event of an “unprecedented attack.”
Beijing and Washington have traded charges over which one is trying unilaterally to change the status quo.
Mr. Biden’s aides insist that the U.S. policy of deliberate vagueness has not changed. Others say Mr. Biden has further muddled a policy that deserves clarification in the face of Beijing’s growing threats.
SEE ALSO: Pacific Fleet admiral: No ambiguity in U.S, allies’ ability to defend Taiwan
A parallel debate is playing out in Taiwan’s bustling, modern capital. Officials often acknowledge privately that they wish their government would more aggressively declare independence from China on the world stage but are wary that doing so would provoke Beijing to launch a war to “reclaim” the island under the control of the Communist Party regime on the mainland.
The result leaves the nearly 24 million citizens of Taiwan, which has had a separate government from Beijing since 1949, in a kind of netherworld of the international order.
On one hand, Taiwan effectively operates as an independent country, with a government, regular elections and an economy that ranks among the most advanced and prosperous in the world. On the other, Taipei tolerates a decades-old status quo in which Beijing claims it as a sovereign territory while most of the rest of the world, including the United States, does not technically recognize Taiwanese independence from China.
Making the situation all the more confusing is that Taiwan’s official name is the Republic of China while the government on the mainland calls itself the People’s Republic of China. Most Taiwanese say their No. 1 priority is to avoid a confrontation with Beijing.
“I think it’s like 6% [of Taiwanese] people that would support immediate independence, to change the country’s name to Taiwan [or] to the Republic of Taiwan or something like that,” said Catherine Hsu, a Taiwanese Foreign Ministry spokesperson. “Eighty-five percent of the people would support [keeping the] status quo.
“There is no need for the government and for our people to reclaim independence because we are already an independent country,” Ms. Hsu told a group of international journalists on a recent visit to Taiwan sponsored by the ministry. “We have our own freely elected government.
“It is actually the rest of the world and also the U.N. agencies,” she said. “They need to revisit this issue.”
A growing confrontation
The issue of Taiwan’s status has been vexing for the Biden administration since August when China responded to a visit by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — the highest U.S. official to travel to Taipei in a quarter century — by dramatically expanding the scope of its military drills and missile tests near the island.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said the visit would have “a severe impact on the political foundation of China-U.S. relations” and sent “a seriously wrong signal to the separatist forces for ‘Taiwan independence.’” Chinese President Xi Jinping reportedly appealed directly to Mr. Biden to call off the visit by Mrs. Pelosi and her congressional delegation.
“There is but one China in the world,” the ministry said. “Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory.”
The Biden administration says it is committed to the “One China” policy, under which Washington has long acknowledged Beijing’s position that Taiwan is part of China, even though the U.S. maintains informal diplomatic relations and substantial defense ties with Taipei and does not technically recognize Chinese sovereignty over it.
Taiwan and the U.S. have close economic ties. American companies rely heavily on Taiwan, the world’s leading manufacturer of semiconductor chips, which are vital to the production of smartphones, laptop computers, refrigerators and other everyday goods. The U.S. defense industry also relies on the chips.
A State Department fact sheet circulated in May underscored the importance of Taiwan’s semiconductor industry. Even that fact sheet included the disclaimer that U.S. officials “do not support Taiwan independence” but “expect cross-Strait differences to be resolved by peaceful means.” It said Washington continues to “oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo from either side.”
Such language underpins the wider U.S. policy of “strategic ambiguity,” according to analysts. They say the approach is rooted in a long-held distinction between Washington’s “One China” policy and the Chinese Communist Party’s “One China” principle.
Beijing and Washington haven’t seen eye to eye on the matter since the aftermath of President Nixon’s 1972 visit to China that opened the way for formal U.S.-Chinese diplomatic relations. In sealing the shift of diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, the Carter administration dodged China’s demand that the U.S. recognize Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan.
U.S. officials resisted China’s attempt to change the Chinese text version of the diplomatic formalization documents from the original “acknowledge” to “recognize,” according to a 2017 analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. As deputy secretary of state, Warren Christopher told a Senate hearing that U.S. officials “regard the English text as being the binding text” and “the word ‘acknowledge’ as being the word that is determinative for the U.S.”
That was followed by the 1979 passage of the Taiwan Relations Act, which said Washington “shall provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character and shall maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or social or economic system, of the people of Taiwan.”
However, the ambiguity of U.S. policy remained. The law does not explicitly stipulate that American forces will intervene militarily in the event of an attack on Taiwan.
With increased fears that China is preparing for such an attack, Mr. Biden is under pressure to clarify the policy.
The president told CBS News last month that “there’s one China policy, and Taiwan makes their own judgments about their independence. We are not moving — we’re not encouraging their being independent. … That’s their decision.”
Asked specifically whether U.S. forces would defend the island, Mr. Biden said, “Yes, if in fact there was an unprecedented attack.”
CBS reported that a White House official said after the interview that U.S. policy on Taiwan had not changed.
It wasn’t the first time this year that Mr. Biden called into question his commitment to the idea of keeping the world guessing about U.S. intentions regarding Taiwan. Speaking in Japan in May, during his first tour of Asia as president, Mr. Biden said simply “Yes” when a reporter asked whether the U.S. would defend Taiwan. The reply resulted in another complaint from Beijing and another round of denials by White House aides of a shift in American policy.
The Biden administration’s approach has drawn criticism for leaving allies and adversaries alike uncertain of U.S. policy. Trump administration Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called for official recognition of Taiwan’s independence. During a visit to Taiwan after Mr. Biden’s CBS interview, Mr. Pompeo accused Mr. Biden of making “muddled and confusing statements” about Washington’s policy.
“I’m confused,” said Mr. Pompeo. “Concerning America’s true commitment to Taiwan, the ambiguity that had been American policy has now become even more ambiguous,” he said, according to Taiwan’s official news agency.
Trump administration Defense Secretary Mark Esper went further in July by telling an audience in Taiwan that the U.S. “One China” policy has “outlived its usefulness.”
Not everyone agrees.
Andrew Scobell, a distinguished fellow with the China program at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said it has long been strategically beneficial for Washington to remain ambiguous on the Taiwan issue.
While it may be “in our DNA in the U.S. to want to be clear and blunt,” said Mr. Scobell, “keeping China guessing leaves them unsure what the U.S. is going to do in any situation.”
“It’s been a deliberately ambiguous policy because Taiwan was the critical issue to be managed in rapprochement and normalization between the U.S. and China,” Mr. Scobell said. “Nixon and Henry Kissinger sort of tiptoed around this and kept it ambiguous by saying, ‘We acknowledge that China has their view that there’s one China,’ but we never said we the U.S. agrees.
“China’s argument is that the U.S. has been duplicitous the whole time by pretending to agree with Beijing’s position,” he said. “But I think the U.S. perspective was that we acknowledged their position and that was contingent on China having a non-hostile policy toward Taiwan.”
Although “what China has been doing in recent months and years has been anything but peaceful,” Mr. Scobell said, Washington should be cautious about removing strategic ambiguity.
“Is it time to clarify the policy? My view is no, because clarity gets you into potentially hot water,” he said. “More clarity in the strategy leads us closer to a military confrontation.”
The government of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen is closely watching the U.S. debate. Ms. Tsai has called on democratic nations around the world to support Taiwan. She routinely refers to Taiwan as an “independent country,” although she has avoided pushing for a formal declaration of independence.
Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said recently that “there’s a lot of debate in Washington, D.C., about strategic clarity or strategic ambiguity.” He said “the two sides of these debates are coming out of the perspective of providing support to Taiwan, and both are highly appreciated.”
“And for former Secretary of State [Mike Pompeo], who’s been talking about recognizing Taiwan or to be clear [on the] ‘One China’ policy … it is all appreciated,” Mr. Wu said.
Others suggest that Beijing has coerced so many nations to support the “One China” principle that it has hobbled Taiwan’s ability to represent itself in vital international institutions, most notably the United Nations.
“China has long pressured the United Nations … to totally block Taiwan’s participation,” said Taiwanese Foreign Affairs Secretary-General Lily Hsu. “Taiwanese passport holders are not allowed to set foot on the U.N. premises simply because of their nationality.”
The Chinese Communist Party is on a “holy mission” to absorb Taiwan, said Charles Lee, director of the Taiwan United Nations Alliance, a nongovernmental organization in Taipei.
“The best and most peaceful strategy to deal with these two issues is to recognize Taiwan as an official country and help Taiwan to enter the United Nations,” Mr. Lee said. “If there are 10, 20, 50, even 100 countries [that] recognize Taiwan as an official country and establish diplomatic [relations] with Taiwan … Xi’s regime will definitely be gone. Hopefully, China will turn into a democratic country.”
Hear Guy Taylor on the rising tensions between China, Taiwan and the U.S. on this episode of History As It Happens with Martin Di Caro.
Long a source of contention between China and the U.S., the vibrant island democracy of Taiwan finds itself once more in the geopolitical crosshairs as Beijing has stepped up its diplomatic and military intimidation campaign in recent months. In a three-part series, Washington Times National Security Team Leader Guy Taylor traveled to Taiwan to examine how the island and its nearly 24 million people are holding up under the pressure. The series of exclusive articles looks at how the Taiwanese, especially the young, are reacting to China’s intimidation campaign, how Taiwan’s world-class semiconductor chip industry plays into the crisis and how the diplomatic understandings of the “One China” policy are facing unprecedented strains on both sides of the Pacific. Read the full series HERE.