U.S. debates changes in Taiwan policy as warships swirl around island

Foreign Affairs

After the Trump administration beefed up U.S.-Taiwan ties, the Biden administration has continued to more actively embrace Taiwan. Some figures in foreign policy are calling for unambiguous support for Taiwan, but others say that a significant change from “strategic ambiguity" could trigger a Chinese invasion.

China's aircraft carrier Liaoning, which sailed near Taiwan this week. Photo from 2017 via REUTERS/Bobby Yip.

For more than four decades, the U.S. has maintained a policy of “strategic ambiguity” toward Taiwan, treating the self-governing nation as an unofficial economic and diplomatic partner, but not establishing official relations nor encouraging the island’s government to formally declare independence. The reason is simple: “Taiwan independence means war,” the Chinese military has warned.

But after a year in which the Trump administration beefed up ties with Taiwan — sending the highest-ranking American official to the island since breaking off diplomatic ties in 1979, signing a flurry of arms deals, and removing all “contact guidelines” between U.S. and Taiwanese officials — that longtime status quo has been put into question.

The Biden administration has continued to take a more active approach to U.S.-Taiwan ties. Under Antony Blinken, the U.S. State Department has reaffirmed the new contact guidelines, sending the U.S. Ambassador to the tiny Pacific island nation of Palau to Taiwan, and even warning Paraguay, one of Taiwan’s 15 remaining formal diplomatic allies, against shifting recognition to Beijing to get COVID-19 vaccine supplies.

China, which has never renounced the use of force to take what it considers an “inalienable part of China’s territory,” has been recently increasing its military presence around the island.

  • “The Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning and its escorts” as well as “at least 10 People’s Liberation Army warplanes,” have operated near Taiwan this week, per CNN. The Chinese navy said that operations like those of the Liaoning and its carrier group “will be conducted on a regular basis in the future.”
  • The U.S. sent a destroyer through the Taiwan Strait on Wednesday, leading to loud protests from Beijing, with a military spokesman accusing the U.S. of “endangering peace and stability” and a foreign ministry spokesperson asking rhetorically (in English, Chinese), “have Chinese warships gone to the Gulf of Mexico to flex muscles?”
  • Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu (吳釗燮 Wú Zhāoxiè) made a statement yesterday noting that “American decisionmakers” had warned him of “the danger of the possibility of China launching an attack against Taiwan.” He added, “We are willing to defend ourselves without any questions…if we need to defend ourselves to the very last day, we will defend ourselves to the very last day.”

The debate in Washington over whether and how to recalibrate Taiwan policy is heating up, according to the New York Times. Specifically, whether it would be helpful to continue the shift to a more unambiguous position of military support for Taiwan, and how much and in what ways to support the people of Taiwan.

  • Those wanting more explicit support for Taiwan from the U.S. government include former State Department official and current president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, former defense secretary Robert Gates, but also the dovish former Democratic congressman Barney Frank.
  • Those arguing for more “strategic ambiguity” include Bonnie Glaser, an expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies — who warned to the NYT that a significant change in U.S. policy “could really cause China to make the decision to invade” — and former national security advisor H.R. McMaster.

Glaser penned an op-ed arguing for a more moderate approach along with Richard Bush, a former longtime fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Ryan Hass, the former National Security Council China Director, today in NPR: Don’t help China by hyping risk of war over Taiwan.

  • Noting the “doomsday predictions” of some U.S. military figures about the supposedly short timeline until China might invade Taiwan, they argue, “China’s top priority now and in the foreseeable future is to deter Taiwan independence rather than compel unification.”
  • Since Beijing’s goal is to “gradually weaken the will of the people of Taiwan to resist integration with the mainland,” hyping the real but distant threat of invasion “does Beijing’s work for it,” they say.
  • “Taiwan’s people need reasons for confidence in their own future, not just reminders of their vulnerabilities,” they write. American policy makers “need to modernize the U.S.-Taiwan economic relationship, help Taiwan diversify its trade ties and provide platforms for Taiwan to earn dignity and respect on the world stage.”

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