The concept of strategic ambiguity has its advantages but also its dangers. This means that an American president may only have a few hours to decide whether to go to war with China or abandon Taiwan. The United States should develop a more calibrated set of options to allow Beijing to better understand the risks of intervention.
EXPERT POINT OF VIEW – President Joe Biden said CBS News that American troops would fight China if Taiwan were invaded. This went further than similar statements in May 2022 and October 2021, and on all three occasions the White House “retracted” the comments and insisted that US policy remained unchanged. However, there is little doubt that the three statements (and the “backlashes”) were choreographed to warn China of the consequences of an invasion of Taiwan without completely abandoning “strategic ambiguity” in favor of ” strategic clarity.
A good example of “strategic clarity” is China’s position on Taiwan. Taiwan will be reunited with China; no ifs, no buts. The only uncertainties concern the timing and the method. 2035 and 2049 have been suggested as possible dates (being the centenaries of the Communist Party of China and the People’s Republic of China) but it could be much earlier.
In contrast, “strategic ambiguity” means that China must keep guessing whether or not the United States would react to an act of aggression against Taiwan. The theory is that ambiguity has a deterrent effect. But does he?
There are four problems with “strategic ambiguity”. The first is that it often masks genuine uncertainty in the country holding the policy (the United States) about whether it will go to the defense of the potential victim and whether that defense will include direct military intervention, the provision of weapons and intelligence or neither.
The second is that its very existence can be an obstacle to real political planning. A new secretary of state would be told “our policy toward Taiwan is a policy of strategic ambiguity” and the briefing then moves on to the next topic. In other words, it looks like a policy but, unless it is backed up by full assessment and planning, it is a void.
The third is that potential aggressors become aware that “strategic ambiguity” often means “the absence of policy.” In such circumstances, the deterrent effect disappears.
And the fourth is that at the moment of truth, the president will have to make a hasty decision that may encompass a host of other factors such as the state of the global economy and his own election prospects.
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There is, of course, a major advantage in “strategic ambiguity”. It does not oblige a country by treaty or guarantee to join a war against its will. Some wished Britain didn’t have to come to the aid of Belgium in 1914 thanks to the distant 1839 Treaty of London; and many others who regretted having gone to the aid of Poland in 1939, in honor of a verbal commitment given by Neville Chamberlain only 6 months earlier.
Those who drafted the 1994 Budapest Memorandum gave Ukraine “assurances” rather than a guarantee when Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons. The assurances carry no legal obligation and proved worthless when Putin invaded Crimea in 2014.
In the case of Taiwan, there is a second advantage to “strategic ambiguity”. It is also used by the United States as leverage against Taiwan to ensure the island does not do anything unduly provocative, such as declaring independence from China. George W. Bush said this very clearly in 2003, when he feared that former Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian was in danger. talk irresponsibly on the subject.
However, “strategic ambiguity” did not work in the case of Ukraine. President Biden undermined this himself when he made it clear that the United States would not intervene militarily if President Putin invaded. But, by then, Putin had concluded, following the August 2021 Afghan debacle, that Biden was unlikely to commit US forces to another war.
Realizing his foreign policy risked another setback in Taiwan, Biden made the first of his three statements that appeared to contradict “strategic ambiguity.” It is telling that such an important policy needed such a rough coating. It demonstrates that a policy which, at first glance, seems measured and proportionate, is in fact very risky. This inevitably leads to hasty decisions with a very binary outcome. At his most visceral level, Biden would have to decide whether or not to give orders to a US submarine in the Taiwan Strait to sink Chinese amphibious landing ships or not. The decision alone could lead to a major war; the other could result in Taiwan’s extinction as a democracy (not to mention the loss to China of the world’s largest producer of advanced microchips).
One approach would be to reinforce “strategic ambiguity” with a clearer statement that the only acceptable way to “unify” Taiwan would be through a free and fair referendum of the Taiwanese people without any outside pressure while outlining the consequences of any coercive action. towards Taiwan. These must go beyond economic sanctions, which Beijing expects (and expects them to diminish over time). After all, China suffered minimal damage from its stifling of the Hong Kong democracy movement despite the obligations implied by the Basic Law of 1997.
One could tell China that any attempt to blockade the island or threaten Taiwan with invasion would cause the United States (and the West) to reconsider the package of measures agreed upon since the 1970s originally intended to divert Beijing from its alliance with the Soviet Union. and later to bring China into the global economy. This would introduce serious “downside risk” into China’s Taiwanese policy. Beijing could expect not just sanctions, but a reassessment of its WTO membership, a reassessment of its claim to sovereignty over Tibet and the Aksai Chin region in the Himalayas, a more thorough review of Xinjiang, greater opposition to its activities in the South China Sea, and ultimately a reassessment of the entire one-China policy.
China is so deeply tied to the global economy (unlike Russia) that the Communist Party and its leadership can ill afford a major crisis with the United States and the West. “Strategic ambiguity” encourages leaders to believe that they could avoid war with the United States by a quick and successful invasion of Taiwan. Biden’s recent statements are intended to dissuade Xi from taking this option, but there is room for further clarity on the consequences.
This article was first published by our friends at RUSI.
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