How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
For four decades, successive Republican and Democratic administrations resisted answering the question of whether the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense if China mounted an armed attack. Washington’s deliberate ambiguity on the matter helped dissuade China from attempting to “reunify” Taiwan with the mainland, as it could not be sure that the United States would remain on the sidelines. At the same time, the policy discouraged Taiwan from declaring independence—a step that would have precipitated a cross-strait crisis—because its leaders could not be sure of unequivocal U.S. support.
The policy known as strategic ambiguity has, however, run its course. Ambiguity is unlikely to deter an increasingly assertive China with growing military capabilities. The time has come for the United States to introduce a policy of strategic clarity: one that makes explicit that the United States would respond to any Chinese use of force against Taiwan. Washington can make this change in a manner that is consistent with its one-China policy and that minimizes the risk to U.S.-Chinese relations. Indeed, such a change should strengthen U.S.-Chinese relations in the long term by improving deterrence and reducing the chances of war in the Taiwan Strait, the likeliest site for a clash between the United States and China.
When the United States severed relations with Taiwan (more accurately, the Republic of China) in 1979 and discarded its mutual defense treaty with the island, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which made clear that the United States maintained special commitments to Taiwan. The TRA asserted that the United States would “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.” It also stated that the United States would both maintain the capacity to come to Taiwan’s defense and make available to the island the arms necessary for its security. Importantly, however, the TRA did not declare that the United States would in fact come to Taiwan’s defense.
American ambiguity worked to deter China from attacking Taiwan, as Beijing could never be sure what the U.S. response would be. China wanted above all to maintain a peaceful external environment so that it could focus on its economic development. Moreover, even if the United States chose not to engage directly, it had provided Taiwan’s military with enough sophisticated equipment that China’s military would be ill equipped to defeat it. A miscalculation would have imperiled China’s economic development and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule.
Ambiguity had an equally important but often underappreciated effect on Taiwan, which could not be assured of U.S. assistance if it provoked a Chinese assault by declaring independence. When Taiwan tested the limits of what the United States would accept—as it did in the early 2000s, under the administration of Chen Shui-bian—the United States made clear that Taiwan did not enjoy a blank check and could not act with impunity. Ambiguity kept this powder keg from exploding.
Maintaining this policy of ambiguity, however, will not keep the peace in the Taiwan Strait for the next four decades. Too many of the variables that made it a wise course have fundamentally shifted. China now has the capability to threaten U.S. interests and Taiwan’s future. China’s defense spending is 15 times that of Taiwan’s, and much of it has been devoted to a Taiwan contingency. Chinese planning has focused on impeding the United States from intervening successfully on Taiwan’s behalf.
Gone are the days when Taiwan’s dollars went further than China’s, as China now fields equipment on a par with anything the United States makes available to Taiwan. Whether the United States could prevail in a Taiwan conflict is no longer certain, and the trend lines continue to move in China’s favor. Unless the United States devotes significant resources to preparing for a conflict in the Taiwan Strait, it stands little chance of preventing a fait accompli. Waiting for China to make a move on Taiwan before deciding whether to intervene is a recipe for disaster.
Under President Xi Jinping, China has become ever more assertive in advancing its interests. Xi once pledged to U.S. President Barack Obama that China would not militarize the South China Sea, but in recent years, it has done so. The country has imprisoned at least one million of its Uighur minority. It has openly clashed with India along the two countries’ disputed border. It has ramped up military exercises in the Taiwan Strait and intensified efforts to isolate Taiwan internationally. Equally worrisome for Taiwan, China has over the past year stripped Hong Kong of nearly all its autonomy.
The time has come for the United States to introduce a policy of strategic clarity.
In light of these trends, China’s aim to gain control of Taiwan, through force if necessary, needs to be taken seriously. There is speculation that Xi will marry his ambitions with the new means at his disposal to realize his “China Dream” and force “reunification” with Taiwan, potentially as soon as 2021. No one should dismiss the possibility that Taiwan could be the next Hong Kong.
Furthermore, deterring Taiwan from declaring independence is no longer a primary concern. Taiwan understands that the United States does not support its independence. President Tsai Ing-wen, a member of the “pro-independence” Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), has adopted cautious and prudent policies to manage relations with China (in close consultation with the United States) and has carefully avoided moves that might cross Beijing’s redlines. The Taiwanese are pragmatic and understand that pursuing independence, which would provoke China, is not in the island’s interest. Accordingly, fewer than ten percent support pursuing independence as soon as possible, and a majority prefer to maintain the status quo rather than risk a war.
Finally, while some may have questioned whether the authoritarian Taiwan of 1979, ruled under martial law, was worth defending, the island has since blossomed into a robust democracy with regular, peaceful transfers of power. Taiwan became the first place in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage and has one of the freest presses in the region. It has the highest proportion of female legislators in Asia, nearly double that of the United States. In its world-leading response to COVID-19, Taiwan demonstrated its enormous capacity in global health and its generosity in lending a hand to countries that needed it. Taiwan is a vital partner of the United States on a host of global issues, and it is in the United States’ interests to defend Taiwan’s hard-won gains.
One thing, however, has not changed over these four decades: an imposed Chinese takeover of Taiwan remains antithetical to U.S. interests. If the United States fails to respond to such a Chinese use of force, regional U.S. allies, such as Japan and South Korea, will conclude that the United States cannot be relied upon and that it is pulling back from the region. These Asian allies would then either accommodate China, leading to the dissolution of U.S. alliances and the crumbling of the balance of power, or they would seek nuclear weapons in a bid to become strategically self-reliant. Either scenario would greatly increase the chance of war in a region that is central to the world’s economy and home to most of its people.
Meanwhile, the 24 million people of Taiwan would see their democracy and freedoms crushed. China would subsume the island’s vibrant, high-tech economy. And China’s military would no longer be bottled up within the first island chain: its navy would instead have the ability to project Chinese power throughout the western Pacific.
The fact that the United States, China, and Taiwan have kept the peace in the Taiwan Strait for 40 years by finessing the issue is one of the great postwar foreign policy achievements of the United States. It is a testament to the skillful statecraft of Henry Kissinger and many of his successors, who understood that settling this issue on terms acceptable to all sides was out of reach. But ambiguity is now unlikely to preserve the status quo.
To defend its achievement and continue to deter Chinese adventurism, the United States should adopt a position of strategic clarity, making explicit that it would respond to any Chinese use of force against Taiwan. Such a policy would lower the chances of Chinese miscalculation, which is the likeliest catalyst for war in the Taiwan Strait.
A change in U.S. policy is especially necessary given that President Donald Trump has sown seeds of doubt as to whether the United States would come to the aid of its friends and allies. He has questioned the value of NATO and abandoned the United States’ Kurdish partners. He is reducing the U.S. troop presence in Germany, threatening to do the same in South Korea, and has signed an agreement with the Taliban that is nothing so much as a cover for U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Xi Jinping can easily have concluded that the United States will not come to Taiwan’s defense. As a result, the United States must restore deterrence: announcing a policy of strategic clarity is the best way to do so.
The White House could articulate this new policy through a presidential statement and accompanying executive order that reiterates U.S. support for its one-China policy but also unequivocally states that the United States would respond should Taiwan come under Chinese armed attack. The statement would make clear that the United States does not support Taiwan independence, thus deterring Taiwan from attempting to capitalize on the new U.S. policy. Importantly, the TRA, which is a critical element of the United States’ one-China policy, premises normalization with China on “the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means.” A statement that the United States would not tolerate a Chinese attack against Taiwan is thus consistent with the one-China policy.
Strategic clarity would not entail that the United States recognize Taipei or upgrade its relationship with Taiwan, nor would it involve a mutual defense treaty or any signed document with Taiwan. Such steps would force Xi’s hand. Rather, the statement would be a unilateral U.S. pledge, and it would make clear that the basics of U.S. policy remain unchanged: the United States would continue to avoid taking a position on the final contours of a resolution of cross-strait differences and insist only that any such resolution come about peacefully and consensually. In short, the ends of American policy would stay the same—what would change would be the means.
By itself, a statement is not enough. The United States must pair it with steps that bolster deterrence. It should station additional air and naval forces in the region, redouble efforts to disperse these forces in order to complicate Chinese planning, and make preparing for a Taiwan contingency a top priority for Department of Defense planners. The United States should consult with Japan and South Korea to see what types of assistance these allies would offer during a Taiwan contingency.
The CCP derives much of its legitimacy from its ability to provide sustained economic growth. Therefore, the United States should make clear that using force against Taiwan would put China’s continued growth at risk. Congress should pass a law that would impose severe sanctions on China should it attack Taiwan. The United States should coordinate with its Asian and European allies so they send similar signals.
At the same time, the United States should work with Taiwan to help it maintain the integrity of its democracy in the face of Chinese coercion. It should assist Taiwan with election security and cyberdefense and explore a free trade agreement with the island to help ensure its economic vitality.
Waiting for China to make a move on Taiwan is a recipe for disaster.
Some will no doubt oppose this change, arguing that it would risk a crisis, lead to a rupture in U.S. relations with China, or both. But the United States can reduce the likelihood of a breakdown by maintaining the one-China policy and reiterating that the United States does not take a position on the substance of any arrangement between China and Taiwan so long as it is arrived at peacefully and with the consent of the people. The policy change recommended here would not foreclose any potential resolution of cross-strait differences.
Xi moved swiftly against Hong Kong, but if the United States issues a clear statement that it would respond to an armed attack on Taiwan—and takes steps to make this credible—he will think twice before forcing the Taiwan issue and bringing about a confrontation with the United States. Above all, Xi is motivated by a desire to maintain the CCP’s dominance of China’s political system. A failed bid to “reunify” Taiwan with China would put that dominance in peril, and that is a risk Xi is unlikely to take. Strengthened deterrence will thus help prevent a cross-strait crisis and put Sino-U.S. relations on firmer ground by lowering the chances of war.
Those who argue that this new policy extends an additional U.S. commitment at a time when the country is already overextended should not delude themselves: U.S. allies in Asia already assume that the United States will come to Taiwan’s defense. Deciding not to do so would jeopardize these alliances. The problem is that currently, a chasm separates what is expected of the United States from its declaratory policy and its ability to intervene on Taiwan’s behalf. Strategic clarity aligns U.S. policy with what U.S. allies already expect and sets a course for narrowing the gap between commitments and capabilities.
The current administration has chosen instead to symbolically upgrade the U.S.-Taiwanese relationship and call into question the one-China policy—both stances that court conflict, because China’s greatest concern is that Taiwan will move toward seeking recognition as an independent country. Strategic clarity, by contrast, would eschew such symbolic moves in favor of a policy that focuses narrowly on restoring deterrence. The best way to ensure that the United States does not need to come to Taiwan’s defense is to signal to China that it is prepared to do so. What happens or doesn’t happen in the Taiwan Strait may well decide Asia’s future.