US -Taiwan: Time for Clarity
May 28, 2022 | Expert Insights
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks virtually with Chinese leader Xi Jinping from the White House, November 2021
"That is the commitment we made", said President Joe Biden when asked if the United States would respond militarily if China invaded Taiwan. For a third time in less than a year, Biden seems to have stirred controversy with his comments about the island. The latest was during his visit to Japan for the Quad Summit.
The Quad group, composed of Japan, India, Australia, and the U.S., met this week to focus on a mutual point of the convergence-the Chinese threat. China has become increasingly assertive in the region, and the recent footage of its military drills by the People's Liberation Army Navy is only increasing speculations of President Xi Jinping's desire to annex Taiwan. Thus, it is of no surprise that Biden's polemic against China comes amid soaring tensions. What is uncertain is that after decades of "strategic ambiguity", whether it is possible for the U.S. to finally take a clearer stance. For Biden, like his predecessors, there is a weighty history that is holding him back from shifting towards a more aggressive policy.
In 1972, President Richard Nixon and Chairman Mao Tsetung issued a Joint Communique, pledging to improve relations with one another. The Chinese side claimed Taiwan as a province of China, and its liberation is China's internal affairs. The Chinese government opposed any activities which aimed at the creation of “one China, one Taiwan.”
On its part, the U.S. did not challenge that position. It affirmed the withdrawal of U.S. forces and military installations from Taiwan. However, a few years later, provoked by President Jimmy Carter's recognition of the People's Republic of China, Congress signed the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) into law in 1979.
The TRA is unique in purpose and form. It is the only law to govern every aspect of U.S. relations with another country in the absence of diplomatic relations. While there is no mutual defence treaty, the TRA is an indispensable part of American policy toward safeguarding security and commercial interests in Taiwan. Along these lines, Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said Biden’s comment “highlighted our commitment under the Taiwan Relations Act to help provide Taiwan the means to defend itself.” But whether the U.S. would actually intervene in case of an annexation continues to remain ambiguous. Tactically this stance works in favour of the U.S. since it has prevented China from making any provocative moves so far.
It is no secret that President Xi Jinping is determined to fulfil the reunification of Taiwan. Speaking at an event marking the 110th anniversary of the revolution that overthrew China's last imperial dynasty in 1911, Xi said unification in a “peaceful manner” was “most in line with the overall interest of the Chinese nation, including Taiwan compatriots.” However, he added, “No one should underestimate the Chinese people's staunch determination, firm will, and strong ability to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity.” He aspires to see the unification occur under a “one country, two systems” principle, similar to that in Hong Kong, which is part of China but enjoys a certain degree of autonomy. Voicing a similar pugnacious narrative in March was Yang Jiechi, a Chinese diplomat.
Jiechi met with U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan to underscore the importance of maintaining open lines of communication between the United States and China. While the American side made no mention of Taiwan, the official Chinese readout devoted a significant portion to chastising the U.S. for its approach to Taiwan. Jiechi was critical of Washington's inconsistent approach to the stated commitment to the one-China policy. They expressed serious concern over America's actions and warned that the U.S. “should not go further down this extremely dangerous path.”
The inconsistent approach China refers to is Biden's previous comments about protecting Taiwan. Last August, he compared U.S. relations with Taiwan to America's Article 5 commitment to NATO, which obligates allies to defend any member that is attacked. Similarly, in October, Biden said "we have a commitment" to defend Taiwan. Now, his most recent comment in Japan could easily provoke China into invading. The question then becomes, in case of an escalation, is Taiwan capable enough to defend itself?
China spends more than any country except for the U.S. on defence. Xi has ordered China's armed forces to modernize by 2035. They should become a "world-class military power, capable of "fighting and winning wars" by 2049," he said. While a massively ambitious undertaking, China is on target. China has also overtaken the U.S. to become the largest navy in the world wherein between 2020 and 2040, it is predicted the total number of Chinese navy ships will increase by 40 per cent. Beijing's warfare strategy, labelled as “anti-access/ area denial,” rests on the projection of its conventional military power several thousand miles away in order to prevent the American military from counterattacking. Thus, in case of a military confrontation, China's armed forces would easily dwarf that of Taiwan. Taipei's best response would be a slow attack with tactical weapons of the type that Ukraine used against Russia. Their security is best served by trying to prevent a shore landing and mount guerrilla strikes till they get outside help. This means the U.S. will have to soon take a stance.
Whether China is moving away from non-confrontation towards a more threatening stance seems to be a strong possibility just based on its military expansion. While China has not fought a war since 1979 against Vietnam, American strategic ambiguity may not hold off Chinese escalation for long.
- China spends more than any country except for the U.S. on defence and is rapidly acquiring the capacity to militarily annex Taiwan. This may account for the shift in its military stance from non-confrontation to a more threatening one. However, is it prepared to face the consequences (military and economic) of an actual all-out amphibian assault on a heavily defended island? Perhaps, Mr Biden's statement is to discourage any such thoughts from taking root in the minds of the hierarchy in Beijing.
- The U.S. and NATO have come under severe criticism for ‘abandoning Ukraine to the Russians. The emphasis on a U.S. commitment to Taiwan's independence can be seen as a fallout of the Ukraine war. It has created compelling circumstances for the U.S. to no longer take shelter under its earlier 'strategic ambiguity.'