Why Washington Must Abandon Strategic Ambiguity

With the rise of an authoritarian and aggressive People’s Republic of China (PRC), the security of the United States – and that of the liberal international order – is increasingly under threat. The greatest potential flash point in this new rivalry is the island-nation of Taiwan, formally the Republic of China. How the United States manages China’s aggression towards Taiwan is crucial, as it will not only have a major impact on the future of the U.S.-China relationship but may well decide the fate of the world order. Scholars and commentators have arrived at disparate answers, ranging from a hard commitment to Taiwan’s security, to increased support for Taiwan absent a commitment, to the abandonment of the island. Considering the changing security environment and importance of Taiwan to American credibility and national security, adopting strategic clarity, meaning a clear American commitment to defend Taiwan, is the best path forward for the United States.

The cornerstone of U.S.-Taiwan policy is the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 (TRA), which went into effect the same date Washington and Beijing normalized relations. The TRA has several key features. First, it states that any non-peaceful attempt to “determine the future of Taiwan” would be considered “a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.” [1] Second, the law requires the United States to provide Taiwan with defense material “in such quantity as may be necessary [as determined by the president and Congress] to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.” [2] And third, the president must inform Congress “of any threat to the security or the social or economic system of…Taiwan,” after which the president and congress are obligated to decide the “appropriate action by the United States in response.” [3]

Taiwan is essential to American security, regionally and globally. The island is at the center of the First Island Chain: a range of islands arcing from Japan to the Philippines and Malaysia. Without control of the First Island Chain, the Chinese navy cannot operate unfettered in the Pacific. China does not have any deep-water ports in the East China Sea (while Taiwan does), which forces submarines to travel unsubmerged until reaching the Ryukyu Islands. [4] This is a major advantage for the United States, which can track and target Chinese submarines on the surface. In the event of a conflict between the United States and China, Taiwan would also pose a stumbling block for People’s Liberation Army Navy’s surface ships. Ships entering the Pacific from the East China Sea would be forced to pass within range of the island’s defenses or those of another U.S. ally. Further, Taiwan straddles major trade routes that pass through the South China Sea, giving the island influence over a vital commercial artery that handles trillions of dollars in annual trade. [5] Taiwan’s strategic assets make it of great interest to the United States. Its occupation by China would fundamentally alter the region’s balance of power in China’s favor. 

As an East Asian liberal democracy with a free enterprise economy, Taiwan is a natural friend of the United States and is a strong rebuttal to the Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarianism. The world is locked in struggle between two opposing ideologies: a free market, liberal democratic system opposed to China’s model of economic statism and political authoritarianism. Maintaining Taiwan as a flourishing, independent democracy will be an important success in the eyes of the Free World. [6] The island’s high-tech economy has made it a leading producer of semiconductors. [7] [8] This is an asset for the United States, particularly with China competing to become the world’s preeminent technological power. Cooperation with the Taiwanese can help the American technology sector, most notably in the areas of artificial intelligence and advanced computing technology. [9] The United States will need every advantage to maintain its position as the global leader in technological innovation.

Currently, the United States maintains a policy of strategic ambiguity towards Taiwan, whereby the United States neither commits publicly to defend the island nor declares that it will not do so. This serves two purposes: the first to deter a Chinese attack on Taiwan; the second to prevent Taiwan from provoking the Chinese by declaring independence. China, not knowing if the United States will enter a conflict, will choose to avoid invasion for fear of intervention. Meanwhile, Taiwan, also unsure of whether the United States will come to its aid, will not declare independence (which would risk war). That, at least, was the TRA’s initial policy impact.

Strategic ambiguity is by nature unclear about whether the United States will intervene in a crisis over Taiwan. Ambiguity though, is only effective if China is deterred by the U.S. military and if Taiwan feels that it would lose a war with China without American support. Today, however, with China as a near-peer adversary to the United States, strategic ambiguity is worthless. China believes that it can dissuade the United States from intervening through massive military preparations: the more powerful the Chinese military, the less willing the United States will be to come to Taiwan’s defense. [10] This is evident in China’s military modernization campaign and ballooning defense expenditures; estimated to have grown from about $129 billion in 2010 to $245 billion in 2020 – a nearly 90 percent increase. [11] Ambiguity only signals to the Chinese that they can influence Washington’s strategic calculus. This will embolden them to take risks from which they would otherwise avoid. Indeed, China launched the largest number of incursions into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone in October and November 2021 (196 and 159 incursions, respectively). [12] In comparison, October and November 2020 saw a combined 68 incursions. [13] Ambiguity also increases the risk of miscalculation: if China thinks that it could prevent the United States from entering a cross-Strait conflict by defeating Taiwan swiftly, it will be far more likely to make rash decisions about attacking the island. [14] 

Washington’s current policy of ambiguity notwithstanding, if the United States fails to come to Taiwan’s defense, its international credibility will suffer. Allies in the region expect the United States to defend the island. If the United States refuses to, it would raise serious doubts about Washington’s reliability. [15] This could spell disaster for both the system of alliances and the liberal world order that the United States has painstakingly built since World War Two. If countries lose faith in the United States, they may opt to work with and appease China. [16] [17]

Strategic clarity offers a better approach. To implement it, Congress would codify the United States’s commitment to the defense of Taiwan into law. Some have argued that a presidential declaration or executive order would be sufficient. [18] Yet to have the president issue an executive order declaring a commitment to the defense of Taiwan is a “dangerous half-measure” that, in terms of policy, does little to bolster the practical commitment to Taiwan. [19] American honor might be at stake, but that is not enough. Such a policy could fluctuate depending on the occupant of the Oval Office, hardly offering strategic clarity. America’s commitment to Taiwan must have the force of law behind it. Only then would the country’s support for Taiwan be unambiguous.

There are significant risks in taking this step. Any policy of strategic clarity must be preceded by an adequate buildup of American forces in the Indo-Pacific so as to make the deterrent credible, and to discourage the Chinese from invading before American forces are positioned. [20] Recent war games indicate the potential of American defeat in conflict with China over Taiwan, primarily due to the U.S.’s current military position. [21] [22] [23] [24] Remedying this position does not mean the deployment of tens of thousands of troops — it need only be enough to impose unbearable costs on a Chinese invasion force. Long-range cruise, anti-ship, and anti-aircraft missiles, a constant rotation of submarines, and a strong fighter and bomber presence for targeted strikes would confront an invasion fleet with daunting odds. It would also minimize American forces’ contact with People’s Liberation Army’s anti-air and anti-ship defenses. Some American allies may be wary about a potential American defense commitment to Taiwan, but if the United States maintains a credible force in the region, that concern should be offset by reassurance.

Indeed, it is likely that Washington’s main allies in the region would support an end to strategic ambiguity. Japan, maintaining one of the most powerful regional militaries after China, has grown closer to Taiwan. [25] Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has endorsed a U.S. policy shift to strategic clarity. [26] Further, then-Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso indicated in July 2021 that Japan could consider a Chinese invasion of Taiwan to be a “threat to Japan’s survival,” possibly triggering Japanese intervention in a potential conflict. [27] Likewise, Australia’s poor relationship with China and its deepening coordination with the United States through the Quad and other partnerships indicates that Canberra would back the United States if it pursued strategic clarity. [28] [29] Another important regional partner for the United States, India, has been more reticent about explicitly supporting Taiwan, but its deteriorating relationship with China makes it unlikely that the country will have any serious disagreements with a policy of strategic clarity. [30] [31] India might not openly support such a policy, but it is unlikely to be hostile. South Korea may also offer a more guarded response to strategic clarity, as it is concerned with how such a change would impact stability on the Korean Peninsula. [32] However, it is doubtful that South Korea would be harshly critical of strategic clarity, as it relies on the United States for its own security. In the long-term, it may even see a move towards clarity as a positive development, reinforcing the American commitment to the region. Thus, it is likely that, at worst, the most important actors in the Indo-Pacific will be reticent about, or offer minor criticism of, a policy of strategic clarity. As these nations look more to the United States for security against a rising China, however, that reticence will decrease. 

There is concern in some foreign policy quarters about a defense commitment enabling – or encouraging – Taiwan to pursue independence. [33] This would only be true if the United States made no efforts to address the concern. There are numerous avenues that the United States could take to exert pressure on the Taiwanese, both economic and diplomatic, that would deter them from declaring sovereignty. The simplest policy option, however, is for the United States to make the commitment to defend Taiwan contingent upon the island not declaring independence.

Considering China’s unrelenting military buildup, the United States must combine a policy of strategic clarity with other means of support for the Taiwanese. It should continue selling arms to the island, especially those that will inexpensively exploit Chinese weaknesses. Providing Taiwan with anti-ship, anti-aircraft, and anti-tank missiles would give the country a cost-effective way to inflict heavy losses on the Chinese and to hold out until American relief arrives. [34] Increased advocacy for Taiwan in the international community would also be welcome – like the invitation extended by U.S. President Joseph Biden to attend the Summit for Democracy. The United States should also take steps to preserve Taiwan’s existing interstate ties and encourage its recognition more widely. This would ensure that Taiwan is never isolated on the world stage. The United States can craft tighter economic ties with Taiwan to lessen its dependence on China. With China receiving upwards of 40 percent of  Taiwan’s annual exports, Beijing enjoys strong economic leverage on the island. [35] Taiwan’s trade with the United States, by contrast, is a mere 14 percent of all Taiwanese exports. [36] No amount of American security guarantees can save the island from Chinese economic interference.

China will view strategic clarity as a provocation, and respond accordingly. Of greatest concern is that the PRC will invade before the United States is adequately prepared to defend Taiwan. This threat can be countered, however, by a buildup of regional military capability before strategic clarity is adopted. More likely, Beijing will increase its harassment and gray-zone activity, possibly by cracking down on U.S. companies operating in China, and potentially increasing malicious cyber activity and intellectual property theft. Finally, the Chinese can pursue measures that will make it difficult for the United States to live up to its commitment to defend Taiwan. China might, for example, seize a few small, relatively insignificant, Taiwanese islands. [37] This would force the United States to consider sending soldiers to die for a few specks of land – a sure defeat in the court of public opinion. However, if the United States properly prepares before its policy change, augmenting its regional forces and crafting a tiered response to Chinese provocation – such as increasingly severe financial sanctions – then violent Chinese retaliation is manageable. As for a Chinese policy of economic punishment, that is a risk that the United States will have to take — a risk well worth taking to preserve a thriving democracy in the Indo-Pacific.

An independent, liberal-democratic Taiwan has scant chance of survival absent the support of the United States. The island’s conquest would deliver a potentially lethal blow to American ideals and interests abroad. The nation must both pledge to defend Taiwan and place its economic and diplomatic might behind the endangered island democracy. These moves will disrupt U.S.-China relations, but if they come as part of a larger rethinking of America’s relationship with China, that disruption may simply be the price to pay for the preservation of the free and peaceful world order.

John Pietro ’22 is the Vice President of the AHS chapter at Holy Cross, where he is majoring in History and Political Science and minoring in Catholic Studies. 


[1] Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, 22 U.S.C. § 3301 (1979).

[2] Taiwan Relations Act of 1979.

[3] Taiwan Relations Act of 1979.

[4] Joseph A. Bosco, “Taiwan and Strategic Security,” The Diplomat, 15 May 2015, https://thediplomat.com/2015/05/taiwan-and-strategic-security/.

[5] China Power Team, “How Much Trade Transits the South China Sea?,” China Power Project, 2 August 2017, https://chinapower.csis.org/much-trade-transits-south-china-sea/.[6] Bonnie S. Glaser et al., “Toward a Stronger U.S.-Taiwan Relationship,” (Washington, DC: CSIS, October 2020), 4,  https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/201021_Glaser_TaskForce_Toward_A_Stronger_USTaiwan_Relationship_0.pdf.

[7] Eric Lee, “How Taiwan Underwrites the US Defense Industrial Complex,” The Diplomat, 9 November 2021, https://thediplomat.com/2021/11/how-taiwan-underwrites-the-us-defense-industrial-complex/.

[8] David Sauer, “America must prepare for war with China over Taiwan,” The Hill, 24 November 2021, https://thehill.com/opinion/national-security/582767-america-must-prepare-for-war-with-china-over-taiwan. 

[9] Glaser et al., “Toward a Stronger U.S.-Taiwan Relationship,” 5.

[10] Bosco.

[11] Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, “Military expenditure by country, in constant (2019) US$ m., 1988-2020,” (Solna, Sweden: SIPRI, 2020), https://sipri.org/sites/default/files/Data%20for%20all%20countries%20from%201988–2020%20in%20constant%20%282019%29%20USD%20%28pdf%29.pdf. 

[12] AFP, “China’s Taiwan jet incursions at second-highest level in November,” France 24, 1 December 2021, https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20211201-china-s-taiwan-jet-incursions-at-second-highest-level-in-november.

[13] AFP.

[14] Eric Chan, “The End of Strategic Ambiguity in Taiwan,” The Diplomat, 13 September 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/09/the-end-of-strategic-ambiguity-in-the-taiwan-strait/.

[15] Richard Haass and David Sacks, “American Support for Taiwan Must Be Unambiguous,” Foreign Affairs, 2 September 2020, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/american-support-taiwan-must-be-unambiguous.

[16] Hearing on Deterring the People’s Republic of China Aggression Towards Taiwan, Before the United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 117th Cong. 168-170. (2021) (testimony of Bonny Lin, Political Scientist at RAND Corporation).

[17] Haass and Sacks.

[18] Haass and Sacks.

[19] Walter Lohman and Frank Jannuzi, “Preserve America’s Strategic Autonomy in the Taiwan Strait,” War on the Rocks, 29 October 2020, https://warontherocks.com/2020/10/preserve-americas-strategic-autonomy-in-the-taiwan-strait/.

[20] Gary J. Schmitt and Michael Mazza, “The end of ‘strategic ambiguity’ regarding Taiwan,” 17 September 2020, https://www.aei.org/op-eds/the-end-of-strategic-ambiguity-regarding-taiwan/. 

[21] Ryan Pickrell, “The US military is changing the way it fights after it ‘failed miserably’ in a war game against an aggressive adversary who knew its playbook,” Business Insider, 27 July 2021, https://www.businessinsider.com/us-military-failed-miserably-in-war-game-changing-warfighting-strategy-2021-7. 

[22] Dan Lamothe, “In Taiwan war game, few good options for U.S. to deter China,” 26 October 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/2021/10/26/us-taiwan-china/. 

[23] Raymond Kuo, “The Counter-Intuitive Sensibility of Taiwan’s New Defense Strategy,” 6 December 2021, https://warontherocks.com/2021/12/the-counter-intuitive-sensibility-of-taiwans-new-defense-strategy/.

[24] Schmitt and Mazza.

[25] Adam P. Liff and Ryan Hass, “Japan-Taiwan relations: A look back on 2021 and a look ahead to 2022,” Brookings, 20 January 2022, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2022/01/20/japan-taiwan-relations-a-look-back-on-2021-and-look-ahead-to-2022/.

[26] Ken Moriyasu, “U.S. should abandon ambiguity on Taiwan defense: Japan’s Abe,” Nikkei Asia, 27 February 2022, https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/U.S.-should-abandon-ambiguity-on-Taiwan-defense-Japan-s-Abe.

[27] Kaoru Osawa, “Japan’s No. 2 raises possibility of joining US in defending Taiwan,” Nikkei Asia, 6 July 2021, https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/International-relations/Indo-Pacific/Japan-s-No.-2-raises-possibility-of-joining-US-in-defending-Taiwan.

[28] Jeffrey Wilson, “Australia Shows the World What Decoupling From China Looks Like,” Foreign Policy, 9 November 2021, https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/11/09/australia-china-decoupling-trade-sanctions-coronavirus-geopolitics/.

[29] Mike Cherney, “Australian Leader Casts Himself as China Hawk in Re-Election Bid,” Wall Street Journal, 26 February 2022, https://www.wsj.com/articles/australian-leader-casts-himself-as-china-hawk-in-re-election-bid-11645880400.

[30] Sana Hashimi, “A Missing Link in the Quad: India’s Support for Taiwan,” The Diplomat, 16 July 2021, https://thediplomat.com/2021/07/a-missing-link-in-the-quad-indias-support-for-taiwan/.

[31] Vikram Mittal, “The Lesser-Known Border Dispute: China And India,” Forbes, 21 February 2022, https://www.forbes.com/sites/vikrammittal/2022/02/21/the–lesser-known-border-disputechina-and-india/?sh=1e4a3068192d.

[32] Sungmin Cho, “South Korea’s Taiwan Conundrum,” War on the Rocks, 31 December 2021, https://warontherocks.com/2021/12/south-koreas-taiwan-conundrum/. 

[33] Bonnie S. Glaser et al., “Dire Straits,” Foreign Affairs, 24 September 2020, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-09-24/dire-straits.

[34] Bradley Bowman and Rear Admiral (Ret.) Mark Montgomery, “Standing with the Free People of Taiwan,” in Defending Forward: Securing America by Projecting Military Power Abroad, edited by Bradley Bowman (FDD Press, 2020), 71-72, https://www.fdd.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/fdd-monograph-defending-forward.pdf.

[35] Hilton Yip, “Taiwan Shows How to Carefully Snip Chinese Economic Ties,” Foreign Policy, 24 July 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/07/24/taiwan-china-economic-ties-decoupling/. 

[36] Yip. 

[37] Cho. 

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