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Strategic clarity on Taiwan will paint the US into a corner

With Lloyd Austin's remarks directed at China this weekend, it's clear the Biden Administration is creeping into that direction.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

When President Biden stated for the third time in the course of his administration that the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense if the island were attacked by China, his staff were forced (again) to walk back the president’s remark and claim that U.S. policy had not changed.

But during the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore over the weekend, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin seemed to reaffirm Biden’s announcement, stating that the United States would not only assist “Taiwan in maintaining a sufficient self-defense capability,” but would also maintain “our own capacity to resist any use of force or other forms of coercion” against Taiwan. Meanwhile, China’s Defense Minister Wei Fenghe responded that China would “fight at all costs” if “anyone dares to secede Taiwan from China.”

With an ironic degree of “ambiguity,” therefore, the Biden administration is nonetheless creeping towards an official policy of “strategic clarity,” with potentially catastrophic consequences.

Advocates for a shift to strategic clarity applauded the president’s off-the-cuff announcement in late May, and lamented the ensuing walk-back. Foremost among the clarity camp are Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass and CFR research fellow David Sacks, who have argued that a shift to strategic clarity would prevent Beijing from a rash miscalculation in attacking Taiwan, provide a stronger deterrent to avoid war in the first place, and reassure U.S. allies in the region, whom Haass and Sacks believe have become skeptical of American commitments in recent years.

But supporters of strategic clarity undermine their own argument, inadvertently demonstrating that strategic clarity will do nothing to deter, while threatening to undermine the very credibility that American policymakers obsessively attempt to cultivate.

Haass, for example, suggests that having made the pledge to defend Taiwan, the United States must now develop the capabilities to do so — capabilities acknowledged to be lacking at present. New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, while approving Biden’s statement, also notes that “Taiwan’s defense budget, in relation both to its robust economy and the military threat it faces, remains scandalously low,” and that “[t]he Biden administration should stress to Taipei that the American public’s appetite to help our allies militarily is directly proportionate to their willingness to help themselves.”

Pledges before the capabilities to back them and convincing Taiwan to help defend itself — isn’t this all a bit backwards?

The fact of the matter is that strategic clarity provides no added deterrent value. Clearly, both Beijing and Taipei already assume that the United States would directly intervene in a Taiwan contingency. China’s military preparations over the past quarter-century have not simply been designed to invade Taiwan, but to defeat an American intervention in the West Pacific. Doubling down on a bluff assumes that the other player cannot see you have a bad hand, and on both sides of the ocean, it is acknowledged that China already holds the cards, benefitting from the advantages of geography and defense.

It has been recognized too late in the Beltway that China can only be deterred by denial, not by punishment; attempting to deter China by offering it a costly victory, but a victory nonetheless, is not going to work on an issue of this significance for Beijing. And what if deterrence fails? What could be more damaging to U.S. credibility than defeat? What could be more costly than the alternative of escalation? The game just isn’t worth the candle.

An announcement of strategic clarity without the requisite capabilities does the opposite of deter; it encourages China to take action before the United States and Taiwan can develop the capabilities to defeat them in the future. By signaling a shift away from strategic ambiguity Biden may only move up Beijing’s timeline. An announcement of strategic clarity signals to China that the costs of invasion will be higher in the future; therefore if the only recourse is war, better sooner than later. In pursuing its vital ends, China may be determined enough to absorb high costs, but its leadership is not foolish enough to deliberately increase them by waiting.

Meanwhile, Taiwan has been unduly relaxed about its own defense, because Taipei is as convinced as Beijing that the United States will rush to its aid if the mainland attacks. It does not occur to Stephens, for example, that Taiwan’s “scandalously low” defense spending may be “directly proportional” to our own insistence to fight on its behalf. Americans have somehow come to believe that we have a greater stake in other states’ security than they do, and as a result, we ask allies to develop more of their own independent capabilities while giving them every incentive not to.

Haass and Sacks actually give the game away by stating that if the United States were not to defend Taiwan, “U.S. allies such as Australia, Japan, and South Korea would likely either accommodate China or seek to become strategically self-reliant [emphasis mine].” This cannot be allowed!

While it is often said that Washington  must commit to Taiwan in order to reassure allies like Japan, this is standard domino theory nonsense. The Japanese know that the U.S. interest in Taiwan is not comparable to its interest in the third largest economy in the world, and that China does not have the same claims or intentions regarding Japan as it does with Taiwan. Japan has been comfortable enough with the U.S. commitment to accept American protection for three-quarters of a century; the United States has no such commitment to Taiwan. The Japanese also know that a war over Taiwan which includes the United States will in all probability quickly include Japan as well (as a recent war game demonstrated), and while Japanese officials have implied that they would rush to Taiwan’s defense, this is bold talk for a country which still spends 1 percent of GDP on defense and is itself a security dependent.

Haass and Sacks insist that strategic clarity is consistent with the “One China” policy, and that if Taiwan were to unilaterally declare independence the United States should not come to its defense. But having argued that the defense of Taiwan is a vital strategic U.S. interest, do the authors really mean anyone to believe  Washington. would then toss those interests aside if Taiwan were to formalize what it already declares to be a fact? Suddenly the integrity of the first island chain, advanced semiconductor manufacturing, and democratic values wouldn’t matter? Are we really going to decide whether or not to start World War III on a legalism?

Under “strategic ambiguity,” the United States maintains the flexibility to intervene or not as it sees fit and to provide Taiwan with arms to defend itself, without risking a broader reputational loss. “Strategic clarity,” on the other hand, throws our options away and forces the United States to choose between a catastrophic war or a decisive blow to its credibility. There is still time to reassert the U.S. long-standing position on Taiwan — or better yet, to begin negotiating a sustainable new deal with China over the future of the region.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III addresses the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, June 11, 2022. (DoD photo by Chad J. McNeeley)
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