The Strategic Triangle: US-China-Taiwan Relations

When it comes to the US-China-Taiwan relations, the initial assertion tells us that without US backing, declaration of de jure independence is simply not a feasible option for Taiwan. But the complicating factor is that Washington not only has an interest in the security of Taiwan but also in stable relations with China, particularly after growing bilateral ties. Thus, the maintenance of the status quo turns out to be US policy, too. To achieve such a goal, the US has adopted strategic ambiguity as the cornerstone of its policy toward the cross-Strait relations for the past few decades.

The United States adopts the one-China policy to soothe Beijing’s worry that Taiwan may formally secede from China, but at the same time warns China that military action against Taiwan cannot be tolerated. Consequently, Washington tries to persuade Taiwan not to provoke China, but also promises to provide some kind of security guarantee to defend it against a possible Chinese attack. Nevertheless, the US leaves open what kind of option it will take in case of an emergency between the two sides across the Taiwan Strait. This is the essence of the policy of strategic ambiguity.

The most obvious effect of strategic ambiguity is its impact on the intentions of China and Taiwan. On the one hand, China is deterred from launching an unprovoked attack on Taiwan due to the huge costs involved in a potential big war against the United States. Taiwan, on the other hand, is constrained from taking any drastic step that will provoke China and thus get the US trapped in a crisis. Strategic ambiguity offers a policy tool to prevent China and Taiwan from getting into militarized conflicts.

The concept of strategic ambiguity has been evolving over time. Several policy approaches have been designed by Washington, one of which is dual deterrence. According to Richard Bush, Washington delivers “both warning and reassurances toward both Beijing and Taipei.” One example was the 1995-96 missile crisis. During the crisis, the Clinton administration sought to restrain both sides from taking confrontational postures toward each other. When China fired missiles near the island, Washington immediately dispatched two aircraft carriers to demonstrate its determination to maintain stability.

The Bush administration has been more pro-Taiwan. Aaron Friedberg, a national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney, proclaimed that Washington would not accept an outcome imposed by force “under any circumstances.” This seems to give a green light to Taiwan independence. However, it raises the question whether the United States will take the high risk of waging war on a nuclear power. Such a posture would obviously invite doubt in the policy circles in Washington with regard to national security interests to help fight for a non-American territory, especially when the costs are extremely high. In a nutshell, there have always been some doubts about whether the US would really honor its commitment to Taiwan.

Therefore, three questions are related to the credibility of US security commitments. First, does Taiwan’s move toward de jure independence serve American interests? To many policy-makers in Washington, the answer is probably not as shown by the successive US administrations’ actions. Washington views any deviation from the status quo highly risky.

Secondly, does Taiwan deserve long-term American security commitments? One the one hand, Taiwan does possess something valuable to the US such as democratic, strategic, and economic values. But on the other hand, as the US switches its global policies to the war on terror and world economy, and needs China’s support in these areas, Taiwan’s importance to the US diminishes. This is the reason why some scholars like Boston College Professor Robert Ross argue that “Taiwan is a vital interest of the PRC but ‘does not entail a vital interest of the United States.’”

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Will the US abandon Taiwan?

Will the United States abandon Taiwan? Actually, this is not a new discussion among scholars and policy-makers. Friedberg’s controversial essay in Commentary, “Will We Abandon Taiwan?” has created much debate. As a strategic point of view, the stronger the defensive commitments provided by the defender, the higher the possibility that the weak challenger may attempt to challenge the status quo.

In other words, the strong defensive commitment provided by the United States may encourage Taiwan to take a more confrontational stance vis-à-vis China, which will clearly increase the risks for the US. Consequently, Washington may shift to a new strategy by offering only weak or vague commitment to Taiwan in militarized disputes with China. This will restrain Taiwan from taking provocative stance and thus reduce Washington’s risk of entrapment. However, the side effect of such a policy is to diminish the credibility of the security commitment to Taiwan.

In my opinion, the US should strengthen its relations with Taiwan because lax US-Taiwan relations will lead Taiwan to lean further toward China, endangering the informal security alliance between both nations. After all, Taiwan does possess something valuable, including a viable democratic system, a vibrant economy, and high quality of human and technology resources. It is not only a critical defense chain for the United States, but also a very important Asian partner.

Since 1979, Washington has continued to sell arms to Taiwan. However, there is a clear distinction between arms sale and security guarantee. Arms sale will strengthen Taiwan’s national defense capability, and discourage China from using coercive methods for unification. By saving huge costs for sending troops to defend the island, the US can still contain China’s expansion and maintain regional stability with arms sales. Some scholars actually support more arms sales to Taiwan while decreasing US defense commitment gradually. Scholars propose that Washington should switch from the traditional alliance arrangement to a policy of arms sales because it is an approach that would respect Taiwan’s dignity as a democratic society while limiting America’s risk exposure.

This kind of controversial suggestion does reflect some concerns in the US, but several questions remain unanswered. First, the cross-Strait relations have been and will continue to be asymmetric. The power gap between China and Taiwan is enormous, and stability can hardly be maintained with arms sales alone. Second, there are various types of arms sales, including the sale of defensive or offensive weapons. Often, it is difficult for Taiwan to obtain what it wants. There remains a serious gap between arms sales and actual security help.

Generally, it is inconceivable that the United States will abandon Taiwan, but given the rise of China and its increasingly important role in international affairs, some adjustments of US policy toward the cross-Strait relations cannot be ruled out.

Charles Chong-han Wu is a doctoral candidate of Political Science, specializing in International Relations, International Conflict, and Research Methodology. He is also a senior research associate for The Walker Institute of International and Area Studies. Before attending the University of South Carolina, Chong-han held an internship for the Republic of Marshall Islands Permanent Mission to the United Nations in 2006, and earned his MA in Politics from New York University in 2007. Chong-han was born and raised in Taipei, Taiwan, where he has a strong political and academic connection.