Taiwan needs strategic clarity
In order to have a deterrence effect, the US must put consequences on the table
This post is written by Guest Author David Stinson, Taiwan’s Number 2 Neolib. More of his work can be found on the Taipei Neoliberal Substack.
Is strategic ambiguity dead? For the third time, US President Biden used the word “commitment” with regards to the defense of Taiwan. One or two incidents could be dismissed as gaffes, but a third clear statement in so short of a time by the same president cannot be ignored. And yet in terms of concrete commitments, as opposed to stated intentions, nothing has changed. There has been no push to codify this commitment into law, nor any accompanying action to significantly enhance US capabilities to defend Taiwan. Biden’s words are left dangling.
This is all fine as far as it goes, but the question is what comes next. After all, if this is all just Biden’s professional opinion, the next president could very well have a different one, and this “commitment” may as well have never existed. Put another way, he could well have said that on the campaign trail rather than as sitting president. Should new laws or formal policies follow?
China already assumes the US would defend Taiwan. Its understanding of US domestic politics is not especially sophisticated – it was blindsided by Trump – but one thing it does know is that since the trade war, no politician has paid a price for bashing China. Would the America of their imagination, committed to stopping ‘China’s rise,’ stand by idly as it ascends to the pinnacle of its power?
China’s perception is not entirely wrong, but the real question for all parties involved is how vigorous the US would be in defending Taiwan. Possible reactions range from half-hearted face-saving measures to attempts to retake the island after it falls. These considerations cannot be resolved in advance by legislation. One major question to answer, out of many, would be whether the US security umbrella extends to the outlying islands of Jinmen and Matsu. At the same time, China has dissected the concept of “sovereignty” down to the atomic level, seeing it in every senator’s visit and other normal business of the state. Some potentially offending actions are necessary for Taiwan’s continued economic development.
It would be impossible for Taiwan to make it through the next several decades without some kind of ongoing process of discovering and setting limits over these issues, as well as perhaps others that we can’t yet imagine. All wars arise from mismatched expectations: defense by one party is misperceived by the other as offense, and visa-versa. (It is galling to call a potential declaration of independence by Taiwan an “offensive” move against the PRC, but disregarding the semantic issues, the security dilemma is a useful reference point).
If the US does decide to specify red lines, there will be no room for error. “A definitive defense commitment to Taiwan ‘means not only what one is prepared to take a risk for’ – such as repelling a conventional invasion of Taiwan – but would also provide a clear signal as to ‘what one would ignore’, further opening the potential for Beijing to pursue ‘grey zone’ strategies against Taiwan,” explained two scholars in an editorial for the RUSI think tank, referencing a tactic of pushing to boundaries to figure out what one might get away with.
In fact, the “grey zone” in is mainly a category that the US creates for itself through excessive clarity, which it might later have to walk back. At best, reversing its previous tripwires might pit various parts of the US government against each other, but at worst, doing so could undermine China’s confidence in the status quo. As a reference point, the term itself is widely associated with Russia’s 2014 “little green men” invasion of Ukraine. Although only a regional incursion, this half-measure exposed a schism within the Western alliance over whether Ukraine as a whole would be covered by a security guarantee, and the rest is history. It is essential for deterrence that everyone responsible for a security guarantee be on the same page regarding all aspects of a situation.
Resolve, not inflexibility
There are nevertheless situations where a country might seek to tie its own hands behind its back, whether through legislation or simply executive doctrines, guaranteeing a future response. A classic case is mutually assured nuclear destruction, an example of the game of chicken, where only by credibly appearing insane enough to seek revenge can you deter war. A nuclear attack is a discrete, highly consequential decision, followed up by a discrete countermeasure. This is why nuclear doctrines feature game theory, a model featuring only a few moves with a few options.
The MAD policies of the Cold War are still in effect in general, but the worry now is about countries the use of nuclear weapons as a shield for conventional operations to obtain territory. This is clearly an offensive use of nuclear weapons, but since the aggressor doesn’t actually plan a nuclear attack, it is not deterred by MAD. Some other form of deterrence is needed, particularly now that the US reluctance to engage in direct combat in Ukraine has undermined deterrence on Taiwan.
Japan’s ex-President Abe recently suggested that the US could host nuclear weapons on Japanese territory. This is proposal is useful as a threat. The Chinese public fears Japanese militarism, in a way that would not make much sense for most people not in China (or perhaps Korea). That is not an artificial propaganda point. The government could do more to educate people that countries change over time, but the history is real. The foundation of US foreign policy in Asia is in fact to protect China from Japanese aggression, which is why Japan’s military is called the Self-defense Forces – so this option has been in the allies’ pocket all along. An invasion of Taiwan, if accompanied by a nuclear threat, would be enough to break 70 years of historical continuity.
A useful point of comparison might be NATO expansion in the wake of Putin’s war. We now know, too late, that the addition of Finland and Sweden is a viable trade in exchange for the Ukraine, including the nuclear threats. Imagine also that Putin’s fantasies about Nazis focused on NATO. Since NATO includes nuclear weapons, this analogy approximates the potential role of Japan in turning Chinese revanchism against itself. The plan simply needs to be coordinated ahead of time to have a deterrent effect.
Strategic clarity is good, but it must be done carefully, not necessarily in the way that might impress domestic constituencies the most. All parties involved seem to equate the question of strategic ambiguity or clarity with Taiwan’s political status, which may be due to the potential involvement of legislative processes. As we have seen, though, the reasons why a country might seek to publicly communicate its military plans are relatively specific and involve a mess of second-order effects. The first-order effect, the reality of US military intervention, will depend on actual preparations rather than any verbal or written guarantees. Communications should be reserved for granular facts that China doesn’t already know.
Some China scholars have argued that a public security guarantee for Taiwan could make war more likely, perhaps by rubbing the Taiwan issue into their face. It is difficult to know exactly how seriously to take this fear, but due to the gravity of the situation, it cannot be discounted completely. This risk may be alleviated in part by not talking directly about Taiwan, but instead about the means China would need to take it – which conforms to the more indirect communication style typically used in China. Given the recent context of the Ukraine War, any announcement regarding “nuclear blackmail” by China would not even need to specifically mention Taiwan.
Someone within the vast US national security infrastructure has probably thought through these nuclear contingencies, and maybe even communicated these points to China. A public announcement however has some benefits over private communication. In fact, the real audience for all of Biden’s statements about commitments is the American public. It is far from clear that most Americans have any idea of the magnitude of the task at hand, even discounting the nuclear question: it would be the most intense battle since the Vietnam, and maybe even the Korean wars. Statements about nuclear commitments, even quiet ones, would get the same point across in a more matter-of-fact way, while remaining robust to unforeseen economic, political, and military changes.
I agree with the main thrust of this piece although I might argue with many of the specifics. If I might summarise as succinctly as possible: "strategic ambiguity is dead, long live strategic ambiguity". The ambiguity now is around the trigger for intervention, degree of intervention, and reactions of potential allies.
I think the effect of the invasion of Ukraine on how other potential conflicts are perceived is only just beginning to be felt and will have a greater impact than commonly thought. Undoubtedly the total effect has been a deterrent to outright invasion. Russian difficulties alone would demand a reassessment of PRC's capabilities, as well as the Taiwanese appetite and ability to defend. International isolation of Russia has been greater than was generally assumed before the war. Direct intervention of US forces (or NATO) was clearly not promised nor anticipated by either side therefore probably has little impact on expectations for conflict in Taiwan. What has changed are expectations around many country's willingness to give a laconic "fight in the shade" response when faced with nuclear threats. This is apparent both in Ukraine itself and in Europe more generally where Russian threats have been ignored by countries providing support and also those joining NATO.
I would doubt that the US would ever make explicit nuclear commitments to Taiwan, not least because they would not be credible. Fortunately, Ukraine shows that nuclear commitments are not the be all and end all. Any would be ally of Taiwan in a future conflict should simply be prepared to withstand nuclear threats, and those with their own nuclear deterrent are well placed to do.