Enough with Strategic Ambiguity
Thursday, May 3, 2001
By Syd Goldsmith, a former U.S. diplomat who lives in Taipei.
President George W. Bush uttered a shocking but necessary truth when he told the world that the United States would do "whatever it took" to help Taiwan defend itself against a Chinese attack. So long as Mr. Bush puts genuine credibility where his mouth is, he is making a long-term strategic policy decision that is well worth the short-term but temporary risks of deteriorating relations with China.
However the pundits might interpret the implications of his remarks, there can be no doubt that Mr. Bush has given a resounding slap in the face to the military hawks in Beijing who dream of recovering Taiwan by intimidation, if not outright force. There is also no doubt that he has, at least temporarily, made life more difficult for anyone in China who would advocate better relations with the U.S.
In a sentence, Mr. Bush has overturned the apple cart of nearly 30 years of Kissingerian "strategic ambiguity." Although Washington has consistently maintained that anything other than a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue is a matter of "grave concern" to the U.S., no president has ever spoken so explicitly in public about what the American response to a Chinese attack might be.
Hopefully, he has given a reality check to the legions of policy players and pretenders whose embrace of engagement with Beijing on almost any terms has led U.S. leaders to make commitments no sitting president in the 21st century should wish to keep. One that promises to haunt Washington now and in the future is the 1982 Joint Communique in which the U.S. agreed that arms sales to Taiwan would be reduced gradually leading to "a final resolution." The other was former President Bill Clinton's public endorsement of the so-called "three nos," emphasizing U.S. commitments to oppose not only Taiwan independence but also the island's membership in any international organization requiring statehood.
The 1982 communique was an unnecessary concession that still serves to justify Beijing's protests over any arms package for Taiwan. It is a prime example of ambiguity fueling grievance, which will stoke in Beijing thoughts of revenge and demands for some demeaning diplomatic compensation from the Bush administration for both the arms sale and his audacious presentation of the strategic truth of the U.S. presence in the Pacific. Mr. Clinton's endorsement of the three nos was, similarly, a public concession to mollify Beijing, whose effect makes it more difficult to move the Chinese leadership toward a more realistic Taiwan policy. By contrast, Mr. Bush seems to prefer straight talk, without regret or apology.
Strategic ambiguity served to keep peace across the Taiwan Straits for a very long time. It had the great advantage of giving China the "face" that is so crucial to the relationship. The downside, however, has been a long history of policy reversals and confusing signals from the U.S. These actually increased the risk of confrontation, as was the case when two aircraft carriers were dispatched to waters near the Taiwan Strait during Taiwan's 1996 presidential election. The largest peacetime show of naval force in the Pacific was necessary to make it clear to the Chinese that Washington viewed China's missile firings aimed just off Taiwan's coast as a matter of "grave concern."
The 1996 confrontation could well be viewed by future historians as marking the end of the usefulness of strategic ambiguity. The proximate cause of ambiguity's demise is China's apparent determination to achieve overwhelming military superiority sufficient to destroy Taiwan's infrastructure and defenses, even without an invasion. Before the deployment of missiles, 100 miles of water separating Taiwan from China and Beijing's relatively weak navy and air force produced a military balance that Taiwan could accept. Now China's 300 missiles along its coast add a dangerous new element of palpable threat, emphasized in last year's White Paper declaring the use military force if Taiwan's leaders indefinitely delay negotiations on reunification.
The most likely outcome of continuing strategic ambiguity would be a steadily increasing military imbalance across the Taiwan Strait, with China's missiles and threats of force eventually bringing significant political and economic instability to the island democracy. It is impossible for Taiwan, with less than one fiftieth of the population of the mainland, to match Beijing's military potential even if the most advanced weapons were available to Taiwan, which they are not.
These realities leave the U.S. president with a difficult choice. He could stand by ambiguously while the imbalance across the Strait grows increasingly likely to lead to confrontation or Taiwan's coerced capitulation. Or he can move before it is too late to make it perfectly clear to China that military force in its pursuit of Taiwan is not a viable option. Mr. Bush has chosen the latter in a bid to prevent an outbreak of hostilities in the region.
Mr. Bush's policy is not without risk. China could withhold cooperation in the U.N., sell arms to rogue regimes, stop cooperating with the U.S. on North Korea and other issues where practical interests would otherwise coincide. It could also conduct threatening military exercises, testing American resolve. But all of these contingencies pale in comparison to the long-term consequences of allowing China to proceed on a business-as-usual basis with Taiwan. Even though it may be a gradual process, no American president could allow the world's only Chinese democracy to be forced out of existence, for that would be a fatal blow to U.S. values and the U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific.
Mr. Bush apparently has decided to lay the strategic truth out on the table early. By making it clear that this does not change the "one China" policy, and that Taiwan independence is not U.S. policy, he has made the best of the extraordinary ambiguity in the U.S.-China relationship. Only a crystal clear understanding of the consequences of aggression is likely to impel Beijing to rethink its Taiwan policy.
China should take note that missiles and intimidation don't legitimize its claims and Americans should support Mr. Bush saying so.