By Brian C Chao*
China has become increasingly strident towards Taiwan over the past few years, raising again the issue of what role the United States should play in preventing conflict in and across the Taiwan Strait.
In September, Richard Haass and David Sacks argued for a change in US policy from strategic ambiguity to clarity: a clear US commitment to defend Taiwan to prevent China from miscalculating US resolve and inadvertently raising the risk of a great-power war. Others maintain that ambiguity works and gives the US maximum flexibility. This ambiguity–clarity debate misses a fundamental point: any successful US policy depends on the practical capability to credibly enforce it.
For US deterrence to be credible, Washington must continue to maintain superiority in capabilities over China. It is unclear whether this is possible. Strategic ambiguity is already ending, and it is China that is ending it by narrowing the capability gap in alarming ways. US strategic clarity would risk becoming a bluff, less effective and more dangerous than the strategic ambiguity it would replace. It will be more and more difficult for the United States to overcome sustained Chinese military modernisation efforts to defend Taiwan, particularly as the United States stretches itself thin across global military commitments.
This issue is all the more important because the United States may need to maintain itself as a deterrent for some time to come. Taiwan is a core interest of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which has linked it to its mainland political legitimacy. China has been willing to pay a remarkably high price to pursue such interest areas, as demonstrated in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Tibet, the East and South China Seas and elsewhere. In all cases, no amount of international pressure convinced the CCP to substantively change its behaviour.
Taiwan is no different, and it is highly unlikely that US conventional deterrence — especially maintained in the face of a shifting military balance — will change Beijing’s ambitions. China will continue modernising and building up its military until it feels confident it can achieve military and political success against Taiwan. US deterrence efforts will have to keep pace.
For the United States to do so credibly requires a substantial, long-term rebalance of military forces to the Asia Pacific, with all the diplomatic, logistical and operational shifts and risks that entails. There are some signs the United States is willing to take on these responsibilities. The Department of State recently announced the lifting of self-imposed restrictions on US–Taiwan official contacts, and there are proponents of military relations with greater diplomatic support for Taiwan.
But such moves do not approach the robust efforts that would be required to maintain capabilities strong enough to deter a modernising China. Moreover, such policy adjustments — however justified — will further provoke China and escalate the potential for retaliatory measures. This further highlights the importance of maintaining Washington’s ability to withstand and counter foreseeable Chinese actions. If the United States does not do so, it will be caught unprepared in the Taiwan Strait.
China has always had the motivation to pursue its policy objectives; it is now adding the muscle to do so. The United States has successfully deterred China in times of both strategic clarity (before 1979) and strategic ambiguity (since 1979). If and when the Biden administration and Congress revisit US deterrence policy on Taiwan, they should focus on the underlying capabilities that would make deterrence credible in the first place.
Whether the United States should maintain ambiguity or embrace clarity is an important and related — but distinct — question. But neither policy stands a chance of long-term success without sustained US capabilities in the Asia Pacific. Only with adequate capabilities in place will deterrence against China — however ambiguous — continue to be successful.
*About the author: Brian C Chao is a visiting scholar in the Center for the Study of Contemporary China at the University of Pennsylvania.
Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum