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An Unsustainable Taiwan Policy: Strategic Ambiguity Stokes Tensions

Biden’s loose lips create confusion – again.

President Joe Biden forgot about the “strategic ambiguity” Taiwan policy – again. In a CBS 60 Minutes interview, the chief executive was asked if US armed forces would defend the independent island against a Chinese invasion. Biden answered that if such an “unprecedented attack” happened, the US military would come to the aid of the Taipei government. Of course, this statement contradicted the One China policy. As was the case back in May, when Biden said essentially the same thing, a White House spokesperson clarified that the US approach to Taiwan had not changed.

But, should there be any doubt, the president explained what he meant to the CBS interviewer. “So unlike Ukraine, to be clear, sir, US forces – US men and women – would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion?” probed Scott Pelley, to be certain of what the president said. “Yes,” the commander-in-chief confirmed.

If Biden’s purpose was to confuse the People’s Republic of China (PRC) regarding the objectives of American foreign policy, chances are good he achieved his goal. “Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning told a regular briefing in Beijing that Biden’s comments sent a ‘seriously wrong signal’ to separatist forces for Taiwan independence,” Reuters reported. Predictably, Biden’s words were strongly criticized and opposed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which has consistently threatened to take Taiwan by force.

Biden Doubles Down on the US Defending Taiwan

GettyImages-1345025131 Joe Biden -- Taiwan

Joe Biden (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Adding to tension in the region, China recently penetrated Taiwan’s airspace with an unmanned aerial vehicle, and Taipei’s military forces fired warning shots at a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) drone. When it persisted in its incursion over an offshore Taiwan island, Lion Islet, four kilometers from mainland China, the Taiwanese defense forces destroyed it. “More important, the Chinese refused to move their drone after the firing of warning shots. In other words, China is trying to provoke a crisis and this crisis could obviously spiral out of control,” Gordon Chang, a senior fellow at the Gatestone Institute and China expert, told Fox News. So, it is a delicate if not unsustainable foreign policy to maintain a One China geopolitical position – taken to mean by the PRC that the United States will acquiesce at some point to Taiwan giving up its sovereignty to fall under the despotic yoke of the CCP. Taipei would be another Hong Kong.

Strategic ambiguity is alive and well. The United States wants to keep China guessing about what it will or won’t do in defense of the island. Nevertheless, with tensions heating up between the White House and the PRC, and the PLA’s war-like operations against Taiwan increasing, strategic ambiguity may have outlived its purpose.

That Was Then, and This Is Now

New Banner Military Affairs“American intervention in the 1995-1996 Third Taiwan Strait Crisis clearly showed Beijing what it could and was willing to do should conflict arise. The preponderance of power and apparent mismatch in capabilities made the implicit US security commitment to Taiwan through strategic ambiguity credible,” Charles K.S. Wu, Yao-Yuan Yeh, Fang-Yu Chen, and Austin Horng-En Wang wrote in a Defense Post article, “Why the US Should Ditch Strategic Ambiguity Toward Taiwan.”

The US Navy capability deployed to the Straits of Taiwan by President Bill Clinton was superior to the PLA Navy then, and Beijing backed down. But that was then, and this is now. In the intervening decades, Beijing has built a formidable military force and may be willing to challenge a US presence in the Indo-Pacific. The persistent bellicose military exercises threatening Taiwan indicate that the PRC is unimpressed by the ambiguous foreign policy. Is it time to return to a more potent “strategic clarity” with China?

The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.

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