US, China on Collision Course Over Taiwan
Chinese officials have made it clear that their “One China” policy regarding Taiwan is founded on a constitutionally mandated principle of so-called “peaceful reunification.” War, Chinese officials say, is a measure of last resort, only to be employed to prevent the fact of Taiwan’s secession from China, or when possibilities for peaceful reunification have been completely exhausted. But current US policies on Taiwan appear designed to push China to the brink, raising the prospect of armed conflict.
In 2005, China adopted legislation known as the “Anti-Secession Law,” which stated firmly that Taiwan “is part of China.” The Chinese state “shall never allow the ‘Taiwan independence’ secessionist forces to make Taiwan secede from China under any name or by any means,” the law said. Stating that reunification through “peaceful means” best serves the fundamental interests of China, the law said China would not stand idle in the face of any effort by “Taiwan independence” secessionist forces to “cause the fact of Taiwan’s secession from China.” In this event, China would use “non-peaceful means and other necessary measures” to protect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
The law was written at a time when successive US presidential administrations were implementing their policy of “strategic ambiguity.” This allowed the US to provide military sales to Taiwan to ensure its ability to defend itself from an attack or invasion, while remaining ambiguous about any US responsibility to physically come to Taiwan’s assistance.
Shift in Washington
In March 2021, the Joe Biden administration published its “interim National Security Strategy Guidance,” in which Washington established the notion of a “strategic competition” with China. The goal of this was to ensure “that America, not China, sets the international agenda, working alongside others to shape new global norms and agreements that advance our interests and reflect our values.”
This document sought to deter Chinese aggression and counter threats to the “collective security, prosperity and democratic way of life” of the US and its allies. But Washington included caveats in its Taiwan policies, noting that US support would be “in line with long-standing American commitments,” including the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which limited US military support for Taiwan to weapons of a defensive character. In short, the Biden administration fully intended to continue to adhere to the existing policy of “strategic ambiguity.”
It soon became clear, however, that the administration had a different notion of what “strategic ambiguity” meant. Nicholas Burns, the current US ambassador to China, indicated in his confirmation hearings before the US Senate in October 2021 that the policy of “strategic ambiguity” provides the US with “enormous latitude” under the Taiwan Relations Act to deepen US security assistance to Taiwan. “Our responsibility,” Burns said, “is to make Taiwan a tough nut to crack.” This was a departure from past practice, which was to de-emphasize the military aspects of the Taiwan Relations Act.
The difference in approach came to the fore on two occasions in 2021 — in August and October — when Biden appeared to assert that the US would in fact come to Taiwan’s defense if it were attacked by China. In August, Biden appeared to equate US policy toward Taiwan with the rock-solid commitments the US maintained with South Korea and Japan regarding their security. Then in October, Biden answered a town hall question on whether the US would come to Taiwan’s defense in the event of a Chinese attack by declaring, “Yes, we have a commitment to do that.”
While the White House, on both occasions, immediately walked back Biden’s statements, the Chinese were sufficiently alarmed following the October incident to issue an official statement, urging the US to “be prudent with its words and actions on the Taiwan question, and avoid sending wrong signals to the ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces, lest it should seriously damage China-US relations.” Beijing added that, “No one should underestimate the resolve, the will and the ability of the Chinese people to defend their national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Under normal circumstances, US and Chinese diplomats should have been able to create the opportunity to resolidify strategic ambiguity as the unquestioned policy of the US. However, US concerns over Russia’s aggressive posturing toward Ukraine in late 2021 and early 2022 prompted policymakers to express concern that, if Russia were to get away with invading Ukraine free of consequence, then China might be emboldened to follow suit on Taiwan. In this context, the last thing the US wanted when signaling its concern over Taiwan to China was “ambiguity.”
For every action, however, there is a reaction. China’s concern at this toughening of the US posture was made clear when, on Jan. 28, 2022, its newly appointed ambassador to the US, Qin Gang, criticized Taiwan over “walking down the road toward independence,” adding that “if the Taiwanese authorities, emboldened by the United States, keep going down the road for independence, it most likely will involve China and the United States, the two big countries, in a military conflict.”
US-Chinese tensions over Taiwan only heightened after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24. Moscow’s so-called “special military operation” significantly increased concern among US policymakers that Washington needed to construct a proactive defense strategy, including specific military plans, before any onset of hostilities between Taiwan and China. The new US posture focused on reinforcing Taiwan’s defenses to improve their inherent deterrent value, as well as preparing US and Taiwanese military capacity to resist any potential invasion from mainland China.
In response to increasingly aggressive statements coming from the US government regarding Taiwan, China’s senior diplomat, Yang Jiechi, on May 18 contacted Biden’s National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan to issue a direct warning. “The US,” Yang said, “has been adopting wrongful narratives and actions that interfere with China’s domestic politics and are harmful to China’s interests.” Yang further noted that, “The recent actions taken by the US on Taiwan-related matters have been a huge contrast from their pronouncements. If the US continues to play the Taiwan card and head further on the wrong path, this will certainly lead to dangerous situations.”
Leaving no doubt, Yang added: “China will be steadfast to take actions that defend its sovereignty and security interests. We will do as we said.”
Yang’s intervention was unprecedented in recent US-Chinese relations. And yet, less than a week later, Biden, in Japan for a state visit, again turned the policy of strategic ambiguity on its head. Asked by a reporter if the US was willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack, Biden answered “Yes,” adding “That’s the commitment we made.”
The White House was compelled, yet again, to walk back an alleged presidential misstatement, this time with a formal briefing by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in which he stated that, while the US was concerned about China’s coercive policies that seek to isolate and militarily threaten Taiwan, it was not pushing for Taiwanese independence. “We enjoy a strong unofficial relationship with Taiwan,” Blinken said, emphasizing the US commitment to the policy of “strategic ambiguity.”
Blinken’s words, however, rang hollow when US Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an influential member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, arrived in Taiwan a few days later at the head of a congressional delegation for meetings with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen about Duckworth’s bipartisan legislation, known as the “Strengthen Taiwan’s Security Act.” This legislation seeks to provide lethal military assistance to Taiwan, enhance intelligence sharing and increase critical prepositioned stocks of military equipment in the region that would be needed if US troops were deployed to Taiwan to help repel a Chinese attack. A critical part of the Duckworth-authored legislation is the advancement of a formal relationship between the US National Guard and the Taiwanese military, similar to a relationship with the Ukrainian military.
The string of policy misstatements by Biden, when combined with the aggressive legislation being pursued in the halls of the Senate by Duckworth, threatens to accomplish exactly what China has, through its 2005 law, said it will never tolerate — the emboldening of what Beijing views as a “Taiwan Independence” movement in Taiwan and abroad. The Biden administration appears to be laying the groundwork for a conflict that China claims it doesn’t want, but which the US — by accident or design — seems set to provoke.