On the cover of its May 1, 2021 issue, The Economist magazine showed Taiwan at the center of a radar screen, with Chinese and US flags flanking it on opposite sides. The headline ran: “The Most Dangerous Place on Earth.”
Things have not gotten any better since then. If anything, cross-Strait relations have become even tenser, ever since the election of Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) as president of Taiwan in 2016. On the mainland, the People’s Republic of China views the self-governing island as a renegade province, which it has sought to bring back under its control, peacefully where possible, with force if necessary.
In recent years, it appears that the latter scenario has become increasingly more likely—if not already inevitable. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has caused many people to fear for Taiwan’s security. Military conflicts are a real possibility and have serious implications for China, Taiwan and the United States, and for the region’s peace and stability.
Since 1979, when the United States established formal diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, Washington has articulated a “One China” policy, which has been anchored in three Sino-US Joint Communiqués, the Taiwan Relations Act, and Six Assurances‚ which have allowed the United States to maintain unofficial ties with Taiwan over the past four decades. But in recent years, important changes have taken place that affect the interpretation and implementation of the One China policy.
First and foremost, these changes include the rise of China and the changing military balance across the Strait, and growing Chinese military, diplomatic and economic pressure on Taiwan—at the same time that there has been a political transformation of Taiwan and an emerging national identity.
But just as important, there have been many major shifts in the US’ Taiwan policy—including more open political support of Taiwan as a democracy, passage of pro-Taiwan legislation, frequent visits to the island by US legislators and high-ranking officials from the executive branch, more interactions between US and Taiwanese officials, and arms sales at greater frequency, in bigger volumes and higher values. These arms sales involve a growing variety of systems, some of which were not permitted in the past.
Given the rapidly changing and highly volatile security environment affect America’s calculation regarding Taiwan, how should the United States respond to what it regards as China’s growing threats to Taiwan? To what extent do recent changes necessitate “clarifying” the existing US policy toward Taiwan in place of what is known as “strategic ambiguity”? Are adjustments in US policy—both rhetorically and in concrete terms—meant to signal to Beijing the efforts of Washington to strengthen Taiwan’s security and deterrence against China? And finally, are these changes underlining the Taiwan Relations Act and the Six Assurances—or are the calls for strategic clarity (as well as growing US assistance to Taiwan) a departure from the core tenets that for decades have given the United States the flexibility and ambiguity needed for maintaining the status quo and hence peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait?
The changing military balance in the Taiwan Strait
Chinese military modernization of the past two decades is steadily changing the military balance across the Taiwan Strait in Beijing’s favor and posing a serious challenge to US interests in the Indo-Pacific (US Department of Defense 2022; Heginbotham et al. 2015). Since the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait crisis, China has focused on developments in anti-access and area-denial, naval surface and submarine forces, fourth- and fifth- generation stealth fighters, space and anti-space systems, and ballistic and cruise missiles—in particular anti-ship missiles. The 2015-16 military reforms have re-organized the command and control structure of mainland China’s People’s Liberation Army, established theatre commands and placed greater emphasis on jointness in military doctrine, training, and combat operations (Saunders et al. 2019; Nouwens 2022). Taiwan has not only failed to keep up defense spending at an adequate level, it has also lost the aerial superiority it previously held and is falling further behind. China spends nearly 13 times on defense than Taiwan, has an armed force of over two-million against Taiwan’s 169,000, and its nearly 3,000 combat aircraft dwarfs Taiwan’s 474 planes (Jackett 2022; De Guzman 2023).
Analysts remain divided as to whether and to what extent China’s growing military capabilities would embolden and enable Beijing to launch an invasion of Taiwan, or to impose maritime blockade. How these scenarios play out will depend on many factors. China clearly has the capabilities and resolve to apply coercive measures to force Taiwan into reunification on the terms of mainland China, and to launch an amphibious invasion should China’s leaders feel that the failure to use force would carry significant political costs at home. Outcomes will be predicated on whether, how, and to what extent the United States and its allies would intervene, Taiwan’s own resilience in defense, and the ability of China’s military to carry out complex and daunting military operations (Cancian, Cancian and Heginbotham 2023; Pettyjohn, Wasser and Dougherty 2022; O’Hanlon 2022; O’Hanlon 2000).
In recent years, China has clearly elevated its pressure tactics against Taiwan, from intensified military threats to international isolation of the island, with some analysts suggesting that Beijing may be tempted to resort to using force to reunify Taiwan (Mastro 2021). Military exercises by the People’s Liberation Army near or around Taiwan have become more frequent, as have the number of fighter aircraft sorties close to and across the median line, often hundreds of sorties in a month. Top US military leaders have estimated that China could launch an invasion of Taiwan by 2027. A four-star general even warns war with China as early as 2025 (Reuters 2023.) There are serious concerns that if allowed to continue, these provocative acts may become a new normal and the line between exercises designed only to intimidate and premeditated military invasion could become blurred—making a response more difficult and shortening the time available to both Taiwan and the US (Lin and Wuthnow 2022).
Whether and to what extent the military equation will influence Beijing’s Taiwan policy, including possible use of force, depends on its calculation of costs and benefits in a cross-Strait military conflict, taking into consideration likely US intervention (Morris 2022). This is also related to the larger issue of Chinese strategic culture, which in turn offers useful inferences based on historical cases. Chinese strategy over the past decades, especially during the Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao leadership (1989-2012), was primarily to deter Taiwan from declaring independence, and to create conducive conditions for resuscitating cross-Strait dialogue but retaining the option to use its military power to force Taipei to accept reunification on Chinese terms, and prevent or at least raise costs for, US intervention. Under Xi Jinping, the reunification of Taiwan is presented as the realization of the ultimate goal for the China Dream. While peaceful means remain the preferred pathway to reunification, there are growing signs that Beijing is prepared to use force (Zhao 2022; USCC 2022; Zhang 2022).
US Responses to future conflicts in the Taiwan Strait
For over four decades, the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979 (P.L. 96-8), the Six Assurances, and the three Joint Communiqués that the United States has signed with China, have served as a framework for Washington to formulate policies and develop mechanisms for managing US cross-Strait relations. The TRA in particular has been the key instrument for Washington to maintain non-official economic and security contacts with Taiwan; the Act specifies that it is the policy of the US to “provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character” and to “make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.” Washington’s policy has always been that it leaves to the people on both sides of the Strait to determine the final resolution of the issue—but Washington insists that this resolution be achieved through peaceful means. Washington has reiterated its One China policy but at the same time sought to maintain cross-Strait stability via arms sales to Taiwan to maintain military parity, as stipulated by the provisions of the TRA.
While the original intent behind the Act was to seek a balance between diplomatic recognition of the People’s Republic of China and continued US non-diplomatic ties with a former ally, the political, economic, and military developments over the past four decades have imposed difficult policy choices for Washington in a geographical area of increasing strategic importance to the United States and to regional peace and stability (Goldstein and Schriver 2001). On the one hand, since 1979, US-Taiwan relations have continued to grow—especially in trade and investment—and at the same time, US policy has been to respond to and support, rather than actively lead efforts at democratization in Taiwan (Rigger 1999). US decisions on arms sales to Taiwan—which re-assure Taipei of Washington’s commitments but at the same time rile Beijing—reflect broader US geo-strategic calculations in the Indo-Pacific and a growing strategic rivalry with China, as well as domestic US political dynamics over who controls foreign policy making and implementation, defense-industrial interests, as well as lobbying efforts by interested parties (Kan 2014).
The United States has been the principal (and increasingly the sole) supplier of defense articles and services to Taiwan since the signing of the TRA, with accumulated total sales of over $20 billion—which represents about three-quarters of all of Taiwan’s arms acquisitions ($27 billion) during the 1979-2009 period.
During the Obama administration (2009-2017), more than $14 billion in arms sales to Taiwan were approved. The Trump administration approved 11 arms sales to Taiwan, including 66 F-16V fighter aircraft, drones, and missiles, to enhance the island’s defense capabilities, totalling $15 billion, the largest in any single US administration since 1979. The Biden administration in its first two years in office has approved nearly $2.5 billion in arms sale to Taiwan (Lin 2021; Hansler 2021; AP 2022; Lee 2022; Brunnstrom and Zengerle 2015). It has reaffirmed its interest in maintaining peace and stability and its commitment to support Taiwan’s self-defense under the TRA (The White House 2022, 24). Altogether, the United States has notified Congress of more than $32 billion in arms sales to Taiwan since 2009 (Kritenbrink 2021). However, Washington is increasingly less willing to provide defense assistance and arms sales that do not contribute to enhancing Taiwan’s self-defense through the development of asymmetrical capabilities, increases in defense spending, extension of military services, and instead of purchases of big-ticket weapons systems, focus on procurement of systems that would strengthen its deterrence against Chinese invasion (Thompson 2018; Wong and Schmitt 2022).
US-Taiwan defense ties are not confined to arms sales only. Over the years, the United States and Taiwan have developed close defense ties. These include regular defense consultation, such as the so-called “Monterey Talks” first held in Monterey, California in 1997; the training of Taiwanese military officers in US military institutions; participation by US military personnel in Taiwanese military exercises such as the Hankuang; and training related to the transfer of procured defense equipment. In addition, more frequent interactions between Taiwan and the United States have enabled Washington to better understand Taipei’s defense planning and procurement processes, so that effective coordination during crises could be facilitated (Yeager and Gerichten 2022).
America’s responses to Chinese threats to Taiwan must be understood in the broader context of intensifying Sino-US strategic rivalry, where the Biden administration has determined that China “is the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to advance that objective” (The White House 2022, 8). This assessment is also informed by and elevates the importance of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy that reflects Washington’s efforts in aligning regional resources against an increasingly assertive China in the Indo-Pacific region.
The conceptual underpinning of this strategy was developed toward the latter part of the Obama administration, when there was growing recognition of the Chinese challenges to US interests in the region. The Trump administration only amplified and made more explicit this policy toward Beijing, ranging from the trade war and imposition of restrictions on Chinese technology companies, to strengthening regional security arrangements such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Campbell and Sullivan 2019). The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic further worsened Sino-US bilateral relations and the Biden administration has by and large inherited its predecessor’s hard-line approach to China. Kurt Campbell, President Biden’s tsar for the Indo-Pacific, claimed that the policy of engaging with China—which Washington had held for the past four decades—is coming to an end (Zheng 2021).
Taiwan’s geostrategic importance for US national security interests in the Indo-Pacific has increasingly been recognized by Washington: Taiwan occupies a key geographic location in the first island chain and along critical sea lanes of communication, is a leader in the advanced semiconductor sector, and is a vibrant democracy (Barranco 2022).
Noting Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific, the Pentagon views Chinese coercive activities surrounding the Taiwan Strait as provocative and “risk miscalculation, and threaten the peace and stability” and, consequently, make Taiwan a top priority for the US military (US Department of Defense 2022, 4; Ratner 2021).
Congress in particular has been active in introducing and passing legislation to demonstrate US commitments to support Taiwan. Numerous bills have been passed into law, including the Taiwan Travel Act (2018) that encourages high-level visits between US and Taiwanese officials; the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (2018) that supports overall US-Taiwan ties; and the Taiwan Enhanced Resilience Act (TERA, formerly called the Taiwan Policy Act) as part of the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (Kastner 2022; Bush 2021). The Taiwan Enhanced Resilience Act alone authorizes $10 billion of security assistance to Taiwan for five years. Finally, the United States has in recent years more openly supported Taiwan’s efforts in expanding its international space and encouraged the island democracy’s growing non-official contacts with the like-minded countries in the region (Reuters 2021).
While these are welcome developments, analysts have pointed out that beneath the fanfare of an ever-closer relationship, there is still a lack of specificity in bilateral cooperation, from security to the negotiation of a free trade agreement, even as Taiwan has clearly become an important part of US Indo-Pacific policy (Mazza 2019; Paal 2020). Bilateral trade in 2022 was $124 billion, making Taiwan among the top ten trading partners for the United States (US Census n.d.)
Washington not only has enacted more Taiwan-focused legislation; in recent years, high-level interactions between the US and Taiwan have become more frequent. These include visits to Taiwan by US cabinet-level officials and multiple congressional delegations, with the controversial visit by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in August the most senior US official to visit Taiwan. The mainland responded by staging the largest military exercises in the Taiwan Strait, posing serious threats to the island (Sevastopulo 2022). The new Republican House Speaker, Californian congressman Kevin McCarthy has also planned to visit Taiwan. This could touch off another crisis (Robertson 2023).
Connecting the dots: strategic over reactive policies
While the US policy mix worked relatively well when the US still maintained overwhelming military power, this has become increasingly challenging given China’s rapid economic growth and significant military modernization progress. This also has been the period where political developments in Taiwan and a growing Taiwan identity make any prospect of reunification remote if not altogether impossible. An increasingly powerful China under the leadership of Xi Jinping is becoming more fixated on its reunification agenda.
This poses a serious challenge for the United States. What should be the US response to a more confident and assertive China determined to achieve its goal of reunification with Taiwan, including the use of force? One of the debates on US policy toward Taiwan is whether the posture of “strategic ambiguity” which has guided successive administrations over the past four decades should be maintained given the drastically changing geostrategic environment—especially the growing Chinese aggression against Taiwan and the changing military balance (Kuo 2023; Willasey-Wilsey 2022; Haass and Sacks 2021). President Biden has on various occasions suggested that the United States will come to Taiwan’s defense should the mainland attack the island democracy, only to have his statements be walked back by a White House staff that says that there is no change to the existing policy in this regard. Indeed, as Ely Ratner, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs, indicated, “a change in US declaratory policy would not meaningfully strengthen deterrence” (Ratner 2021, 12-13).
While a change of policy toward “strategic clarity” has its benefits and could enhance deterrence by punishment—especially if combined with concrete actions and unequivocal commitments to Taiwan’s security in response to any attempt by China to impose a naval blockade of the island or an unprovoked military attack—it also carries risks and takes away flexibility in interpreting and implementing policy (Chen and Baldock 2022). One such risk involves the so-called “red line” that could be challenged. Failure to enact on publicly announced commitments could in fact undermine the credibility of US commitments, as the case of the use of Syrian chemical weapons during the Obama administration demonstrates.
At the same time, one could argue that all commitments are provisional, even in an alliance arrangement (Snyder 1984). As a result, one could argue that with the TRA and the Six Assurances, a level of clarity regarding US commitments already exists—and that ambiguity allows Washington to determine the most appropriate actions to be taken as circumstances warrant (Lee 2022).
But the larger question for the United States is how it can and should develop and implement policies that help strengthen the determination and the capability of Taiwan to resist, raise the cost, and deny the objectives of any coercive actions by China. While deterrence by denial, either by asymmetrical tactics or through combined efforts by the US and its allies, remains important as it raises uncertainty as well as the cost of China’s use of force, it is important for Washington to reaffirm its commitment to the cross-Strait status quo, which also includes a clear position that the US, bound by its One China policy, will not support Taiwan independence.
The policies and activities that are primarily aimed at domestic US consumption for rhetorical or symbolic purposes risk being misinterpreted in Beijing as indicating that the United State is actively encouraging or even supporting independence tendencies on the part of Taiwan, which official US policy is clearly not doing (Glaser 2022). They therefore could foment strong reactions from Beijing, and could in fact raise the costs for Taiwan’s security. On the other hand, failure to come to Taiwan’s defense should China launch an unprovoked attack could seriously undermine the credibility of US security commitments in the region and beyond.
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Keywords: China, One-China policy, People’s Republic of China, Taiwan, Taiwan Strait, United States
Topics: Special Topics