The end of strategic ambiguity
Washington, April 27th, 2001
Throughout the presidential campaign, George W. Bush repeatedly assailed the "strategic partnership" the Clinton administration had forged with China. Acknowledging the reality of an increasingly belligerent China both at home and abroad, Mr. Bush promised to re-orient the Sino-American relationship to that of "strategic competitors."
Mr. Bush further questioned the wisdom of maintaining a policy of so-called "strategic ambiguity," which required the United States to remain unclear about how it would respond to a Chinese military attack on the island of Taiwan. Unlike the Clinton administration, Mr. Bush repeatedly said, his administration would be "clear on Taiwan." Indeed, in a presidential debate in March 2000, Mr. Bush argued, "If China decides to use force, the United States must help Taiwan defend itself."
This week, Mr. Bush took steps to implement those promises. In response to the massive military build-up on the Chinese mainland directed at Taiwan, the president approved the sale of a sizable defensive-arms package to Taiwan. Those arms included four Kidd-class destroyers, eight diesel submarines and a dozen anti-submarine planes. While Mr. Bush regrettably withheld the more advanced Aegis battle-management system, China nonetheless reacted with a warning of "devastating damage" to the relationship if the arm sales were consummated.
On Wednesday, Mr. Bush ended the policy of "strategic ambiguity." Asked in an interview if he felt the United States, in the event of a Chinese attack on Taiwan, had "an obligation to defend the Taiwanese," Mr. Bush replied, "Yes, we do, and the Chinese must understand that." Asked if that meant using "the full force of the American military," the president said, "Whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself."
In striking down the concept of "strategic ambiguity," Mr. Bush also made it quite clear that there had been no change in America´s longstanding "One China" policy, which recognizes a single China, envisions an eventual peaceful reconciliation between China and Taiwan and opposes any declaration of independence by Taiwan.
On this subject, in a subsequent interview, Mr. Bush was equally emphatic. "I certainly hope Taiwan adheres to a One China policy. A declaration of independence is not a One China policy," he asserted. "We will work with Taiwan to make sure that that doesn´t happen," he said. Then, Mr. Bush repeated what has always been U.S. policy: "We need a peaceful resolution of this issue."
Unfortunately, China has always refused to renounce the possibility that it would one day use force to reunite itself with what it calls its "renegade province." In fact, in recent years China has essentially remilitarized the issue. From Russia it has been buying advanced SU-30 fighter aircraft, Sovremenny-class guided-missile destroyers, which are armed with the sea-skimming Sunburn anti-ship missile, and Kilo-class submarines, which are anti-ship and anti-sub vessels.
China has also deployed 300 ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan, and the mainland is increasing that force by 50 missiles per year. In 1996, in the midst of Taiwan´s presidential election, China lobbed missiles near Taiwan´s coastline, offering stunning evidence of the rapidly growing gap between the mainland´s increasingly authoritative and militaristic political dictatorship and Taiwan´s thriving democracy.
For all of the supposed benefits of "strategic ambiguity," which was intended to deter a military attack by China and a declaration of independence by Taiwan, it´s worth recalling that comparable policies involving North Korea in 1950 and Iraq in 1991 failed to deter military attacks that eventually required the United States to go to war. In this vein, during a 1995 meeting in Beijing a Chinese official pointedly asked then-Assistant Secretary of Defense Joseph Nye what the U.S. response would be to a use of force by China against Taiwan. Under the guidelines of the "strategic ambiguity" that dictated policy at the time, Mr. Nye replied, "We don´t know and you don´t know." Unfortunately, that policy failed in the intervening years to prevent China from massively expanding both its military potential against Taiwan and its increasingly belligerent rhetoric.
This week, belatedly but directly, China got the answer to the question it asked in 1995. Or, as Mr. Bush observed in yet another recent interview, "I think that the Chinese are beginning to learn what my administration meant when I said the campaign trail that we´d be strategic competitors."