Reexamining Strategic Ambiguity

A discussion currently underway in American foreign policy circles focuses on how best to define the potential U.S. response to a military attack on Taiwan. Washington’s longstanding approach to the matter has been called “strategic ambiguity” – a vague statement of support for Taiwan in the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) but no explicit commitment to defending the island militarily. For decades, that position has provided the U.S. with a degree of flexibility in its dealings with both Beijing and Taipei.

As China’s relations with both the U.S. and Taiwan continue to deteriorate and its military provocations against Taiwan intensify, however, the days when that arrangement worked in everyone’s favor may be fast coming to an end. China has taken a much more aggressive posture in the Taiwan Strait in recent months, with PLA fighter jets frequently crossing over the arbitrary but until now mostly respected median line. In mid-October, the South China Morning Post reported that China has been upgrading its coastal missile deployment.

The situation has become sufficiently critical that some U.S. government officials, including Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs David R. Stilwell, are proposing a policy change from the traditional ambiguity over the American role in Taiwan’s defense to one of strategic clarity.

In an August 31 speech at the Heritage Foundation, Stilwell noted that such a policy change would place renewed emphasis on the U.S.’ adherence to the Six Assurances made to Taipei by President Ronald Reagan in 1982. Among other things, these assurances affirmed that the U.S. has not set a date for ending sales of defensive arms to Taiwan, and that it would not pressure Taiwan into negotiating with the PRC or play a mediation role between Taipei and Beijing.

While the proposed changes do add some clarity to the U.S. position, Stilwell emphasized that they would remain within the bounds of Washington’s current One-China policy.

Shortly after Stilwell’s speech, the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs published an article by Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haas and research fellow David Sacks. While supporting Stilwell’s position, the authors went further by suggesting that the U.S. provide Taiwan with a clear security guarantee to eliminate the possibility of misinterpretation.

Many defense analysts found their points persuasive. Others worried that the clearer commitment might backfire, provoking China and possibly putting Taiwan at greater risk. Still, it is highly encouraging that both sides of the argument are primarily concerned with determining the most effective means of ensuring Taiwan’s security. The occasional U.S. scholars who a few years ago were casting doubt on the value of the U.S.-Taiwan relationship are now even more rarely heard from.

Also encouraging is that current public opinion in the U.S. appears aligned with the notion of a less ambiguous stance toward helping to defend Taiwan. A recent survey conducted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies found that a majority of respondents supported the idea of the U.S. coming to Taiwan’s defense if attacked.

AmCham Taipei hopes that the U.S. will continue to review and where appropriate update its policies regarding the security of Taiwan. Doing so would not only underscore the seriousness of the American commitment to an important if unofficial ally but would also signal to other Indo-Pacific partners that the U.S. will not stand idly by while friends are being bullied.