by Lyle Goldstein
Tuesday, 24
May 2022
Analysis
07:00

Joe Biden’s Taiwan declaration is a mistake

Strategic ambiguity was a better position for America
by Lyle Goldstein
Credit: Getty

During his first trip to Asia, President Biden made a statement in response to a reporter’s question in Tokyo that has made headlines around the world. The answer was an unequivocal “yes,” as to whether the U.S. would become involved militarily if China attacked Taiwan. Though the President’s team has since tried to walk this back, Joe Biden has a certain history with verbal gaffes and has misstated U.S. policy regarding Taiwan before. Nonetheless, this answer deserves to be taken with the utmost seriousness.

If intentional, Biden’s statement represents a reckless and unwarranted departure from the long-time policy of “strategic ambiguity,” which in tandem with the One China policy, has helped to maintain peace in the Taiwan Strait for many decades. Given China’s growing military power, its proximity to Taiwan, and Beijing’s unequivocal statement that the Taiwan issue forms a red line or “core interest,” for China, the move away from strategic ambiguity toward “strategic clarity” — as some within the Beltway have been advocating — would be exceedingly dangerous.

For the U.S., there are simply no national interests in Taiwan that could possibly justify a U.S.-China war. The island is not in any way critical to the defence of the United States, nor of its treaty allies. Indeed, Taiwan does not have a defence treaty with the United States, and this is by design. A half century ago, Nixon and Kissinger understood very clearly that accepting a “One China” policy was the price Washington had to pay to have a normal working relationship with Beijing, and this approach has served U.S. interests well. While Taiwan’s political autonomy may be welcome, defence of democracy would not justify the immense military risks required to defend Taiwan. Indeed, if the U.S. wants to defend human rights in the Asia-Pacific, the Philippines or Vietnam might be the countries to prioritise in this respect.

What are the military risks? A series of war games has demonstrated that the U.S. would likely lose a conflict with China over Taiwan. This is not a mystery, but a pure function of geography, wherein Beijing can amass significantly more firepower immediately off its coast than could the U.S. and its allies. To boot, Beijing would be prepared to accept major losses in such a campaign, but the same could not be said for Washington given that Taiwan is not a vital interest. Indeed, the vast majority of Americans could not find Taiwan on a map.

It seems, unfortunately, that too many American strategists appear to be taking the wrong lessons from the present war between Russia and Ukraine. There are many reasons to think Beijing would be much more successful than Moscow, due to China’s ambitious and well-funded military modernisation. Also, Taiwan is about 15 times smaller than Ukraine, allowing for a much greater concentration of firepower. The island could be quite easily isolated, and there are no guarantees that a U.S.-China war would not escalate, including to the nuclear level.

True, U.S. weapons transfers could be helpful on the margins, but are unlikely to prove decisive. America’s best approach will be stick with its ambiguous approach, and to make much greater efforts to give substantive support to a genuine One China policy. It could do so by helping Beijing and Taipei to find a creative diplomatic compromise that prevents the nightmare of Cross-Strait conflict from coming true. Suggesting that America would offer military support to Taiwan, however, will only threaten to poison US-China relations.

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John Riordan
John Riordan
2 months ago

I’m reminded of Machiavelli’s aphorism: “war is not to be avoided, only deferred at one’s own expense.”

The main point of this article is of course correct: if the US dispenses with strategic ambiguity in favour of strategic clarity in the form of an open commitment to defend Taiwan, that will crystallise hostility with China and almost certainly result in war.

The alternative to this however, is not the happy continuation of the status quo. China will not endure Taiwan’s independence indefinitely, and this has to be settled either by permitting China to take Taiwan, or by fighting a war to try to prevent this happening. Strategic ambiguity suits China just as much as it suits the USA, but it’s lifespan is limited to the time that China becomes strong enough to decide that it is no longer suitable.

There is, of course, the prospect of an Asian counterbalance to China’s power. One small good thing to come from China’s expansionist totalitarianism is that every other nation in the far east is scared of China and doesn’t want to end up under China’s power. They’ve seen what happened in Tibet and Hong Kong, they have witnessed the plight of the Uighur Muslims etc, and they don’t want the same themselves. A coalition between the US, Japan, Indonesia and the rest of the smaller pacific rim nations would, with the eventual inclusion of India, be capable of making the CCP think twice before getting more aggressive. Whether this comes in time to save Taiwan is another question, but I think it’s a better bet than hoping that Beijing-Taipei accords can be strung out forever.

Last edited 2 months ago by John Riordan
polidori redux
polidori redux
2 months ago

“A half century ago, Nixon and Kissinger understood very clearly that accepting a “One China” policy was the price Washington had to pay to have a normal working relationship with Beijing, and this approach has served U.S. interests well.”
Served the US well? Really?
That aside, I am a great believer in ambiguity. Ambiguity enables you to make up your mind when it suits you, rather than when it suits your opponent.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
2 months ago

“A series of war games has demonstrated that the U.S. would likely lose a conflict with China over Taiwan.”This is akin to saying Japan was bound to win the second world war against the US because it was capable of quickly occupying Guam. Any war with China occasioned by an invasion of Taiwan would not end there, because it would be a graphic illustration of China’s agressive intent against the West. This could only be addressed by war immediately, rather than waiting for China to get even stronger.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

Do you think the US, NATO etc have an appetite for a nuclear world war?

Mike Doyle
Mike Doyle
2 months ago

In contrast, say, to nuclear blackmail, whether implicit or explicit?

John Riordan
John Riordan
2 months ago

You could have asked exactly the same question in the decades prior to 1990, and got probably the same answer. It’s irrelevant.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 months ago

Why not? History tells us it is inevitable, so better now than later surely?

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

The CCP has no answer to the 14/18 Ohio class submarines of the USN.With a launch capacity of about 324 nuclear weapons against perhaps 104 Chinese ‘target’ cities with a population of one million or more, it should be over fairly quickly. All it need is the ‘will’.
As General Jack D Ripper of S.A.C.* once said “War is too important to be left to Politicians, they have neither the time, nor the training nor the inclination for strategic thought”.

(*Strategic Air Command.)

Last edited 2 months ago by ARNAUD ALMARIC
R Wright
R Wright
2 months ago

Biden shouldn’t be taken to be a bellweather of U.S foreign policy. He can barely remember where he is half the time.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
2 months ago
Reply to  R Wright

And the Chinese aren’t so foolish (as Putin was/is) to see Biden as having the final say in US strategic thinking. Indeed, thinking is clearly something that’s only happening behind the scenes (in the Pentagon?). It’s almost irrelevant what Biden says, and China knows this. It gives them an excuse for mockery – and they’re perfectly entitled to engage in that – but they know that any calculated gamble on taking Taiwan into the fold will be made by what’s happening in the backchannels, and not just visible in the Taiwan Straight.

David Bell
David Bell
2 months ago

Biden’s just adding to the ambiguity. Keeping Beijing guessing is no bad thing.

Garrett R
Garrett R
2 months ago

I think a better question to ask is how much runway did strategic ambiguity really have. Biden gave this take in Japan. It is hard to believe his Japanese counterparts were taken by surprise with this.

China has made no effort to conceal its long term strategic goal to reincorporate Taiwan within its territory, whether by force or subterfuge. For China the only strategic ambiguity has been its time table, which feels very near. One theory I have is that the West played it too safe with Ukraine and an invasion occurred anyways. The west made no changes after 2014 and repeated its ambiguity up until the eve of the invasion. Did strategic ambiguity really serve western interests in that case?

You can say the west betrayed its intent countless times, especially under Bush in 2008, but after the 2014 Crimea annexation and the “red line” in Syria in 2015, a realist approach did not give the west any different result. We still had an invasion.

China will attempt to take Taiwan. The US signal perhaps convinces regional alliances that the US is committed to eastern Asian security. They may be more willing to side the Americans in that case.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 months ago

No national interests? according to Reuters – “Taiwan now accounts for 92% of the world’s most advanced semiconductor manufacturing capacity“. So China could presumably shut that off immediately with devastating effect.
‘Indeed, the vast majority of Americans could not find Taiwan on a map’ – probably true but utterly irrelevant – a straw man argument.
‘A half century ago, Nixon and Kissinger understood very clearly that accepting a “One China” policy was the price Washington had to pay to have a normal working relationship with Beijing, and this approach has served U.S. interests well’
The author surely in the light of recent events must be having a laugh with that comment! For many US corporations, this may well be the case, but for the strength and standing of the United States and the free world (which does mean something – UnHerd doesn’t exist in China!) – the positive ‘engagement policy with China has proved a self-inflicted disaster.

Last edited 2 months ago by Andrew Fisher
M. M.
M. M.
2 months ago

The overwhelming majority of Chinese on Taiwan favor immediate or eventual unification.

The Chinese (on Taiwan) who oppose immediate unification view being ruled by Beijing as a mere inconvenience. They want to avoid it but are willing to tolerate it. These Chinese (on Taiwan) demand that the Americans sacrifice their relations with Beijing in order to help them to avoid the inconvenience of immediate unification.

Further, in 1989, after the incident at Tiananmen Square, Western governments enacted economic sanctions against Beijing. The Chinese (on Taiwan) used this opportunity to pour money and technology into China. The Chinese (on Taiwan) gave the mainland Chinese the investment funds and the technologies that the West refused to provide. The Chinese from Taiwan particularly enjoy the preferential treatment that Beijing gives Taiwanese companies but that Beijing denies to American companies.

By 2000, the majority of spies who worked in the USA on behalf of Beijing came from Taiwan. The situation was so severe that President Bill Clinton put Taiwan on the FBI list of hostile intelligence threats.

To this day, the Taiwanese government in its constitution continues to insist that Tibet is part of China.

Washington should respond by terminating the Taiwan Relations Act. Tokyo should respond by agreeing to trade Taiwan (to Beijing) for the Senkaku Islands.

Get more info about this issue.

Karel Novak
Karel Novak
2 months ago

Some people, Peter Vincent Pry for example, say that it is possible Russia intentionally appeared weaker to lure NATO into a conflict it can’t win. Using kind of Sun Tzu deception.