American and Taiwanese flags fly together. Photo: Central News Agency, Taiwan

As America’s Indo-Pacific strategy evolves, the notion of “strategic ambiguity,” which has guided the US-Taiwan relationship since the mid-1950s, is withering. After the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1954-55, the US brought into force the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with Taiwan. The treaty was never intended to be a war-fighting pact, but was designed to boost Taiwan’s morale and to tie the hands of Chiang Kai-shek, who was always scheming to involve the US in his attempts to return to China.

US president Dwight Eisenhower and secretary of state John Foster Dulles trusted neither Chiang nor Beijing. Thus they built strategic ambiguity into the treaty to keep Taipei and Beijing both guessing about the circumstances under which the US might intercede in a military conflict in the Taiwan Strait. Ever since then, each successive US administration has adopted a version of strategic ambiguity.

Although the MDT was abrogated in 1980, the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA, effective 1979) carries much of the same language. For example, in Section 3a, the TRA commits the US to selling defensive weapons to Taiwan. Section 3c further stipulates that “the President and Congress shall determine in accordance with the constitutional processes appropriate action by the US in response to any threat to the security or the social or economic system of Taiwan and danger to the interests of the US.”

Just as the US understood that Chiang wanted American support for his return to China, another aspect emerged when the US was concerned that Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian (in office from 2000 to 2008) sought to involve the US military to gain Taiwan independence. Never being sure of the US response, strategic ambiguity helped prevent Chiang’s and Chen’s adventurism. It also signaled to Beijing that the US would not support either pursuit while at the same time keeping Beijing guessing just what assistance the US might offer to Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attempt to take the island.

The positive effects of strategic ambiguity aside, the policy also hatched Taiwanese distrust about the degree to which the US would stand by its MDT and TRA commitments. Certain language found in key documents influencing the US-Taiwan diplomatic and defense relationship have created uncertainty in Taipei about US commitment. Most of that uncertainty deals with arms sales – specifically, the duration of US arms sales to Taiwan, differing perceptions over the definitions of defensive vs offensive weapons, the frequency of arms sales, and the one-sided US role in determining which weapons it will sell to Taiwan.

Things have been changing lately. US geo-strategic interests and recent US legislation show shrinking concern for strategic ambiguity and more clear support for Taiwan.

As China seeks to expand its influence in the Indo-Pacific region at American expense, the US seeks to solidify its position by ramping up its strategy for the region. As such, Taiwan’s geo-strategic position takes on new importance. Control of Taiwan by the People’s Liberation Army Navy would offer China enhanced influence in the first island chain, a seaway to the second island chain, and ultimately a gateway to the Western Pacific. Taiwan now sees an opportunity to play a significant role in US defense strategy instead of being left out of key US policies for the region .

To stem the growth of Chinese influence, the current US administration produced the National Security Strategy of 2017 pointing out the importance of Taiwan to the United States. Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed the Taiwan Travel Act, which allows higher-level officials and military officers from both the US and Taiwan to travel to each country to interact, and the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA), which promotes US diplomatic, security, and economic interests in the Indo-Pacific region.

The US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations is considering the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Act of 2018 (TAIPEI Act of 2018), which would authorize punitive measures against countries that break diplomatic relations with Taiwan. The act will need to be reintroduced in the current Congress, since it was not passed before the end of the 115th Congress. In addition, the Taiwan Assurance Act of 2019 passed in the House of Representatives and was sent to the Senate and referred to the Committee on Foreign Relations. It states that Taiwan is an important part of US strategy in the Indo-Pacific region, directs the US to transfer more defense articles to Taiwan to help build its self-defense, and requires the Department of State to review guidance governing US-Taiwan relations, as well as to supervise corrective action.

The National Defense Authorization Acts of 2019 (Section 1258) and 2020 (Section 1248) support strengthening US and defense cooperation with Taiwan by noting that “the Taiwan Relations Act and the ‘Six Assurances’ are both cornerstones of United States relations with Taiwan.”

Taiwan wishes to play a greater strategic regional role through having closer relations with the US, which the island state sees as greater insurance against a Chinese invasion and more assurance that the US will act in accordance with the Taiwan Relations Act.

The decline in emphasis of strategic ambiguity and greater US policy clarity toward Taiwan will certainly influence defense and diplomacy in East Asia. Most important, it will alter calculations on both sides of the Taiwan Strait regarding the efficacy of military assault on Taiwan.

If elected in January 2020, pro-China Kuomintang (KMT) presidential nominee Han Kuo-yu would likely serve China’s cross-strait interests. Unlike Democratic Progressive Party nominee Tsai Ing-wen, the incumbent president, Han advocates the 1992 Consensus, a possible Taiwan-China peace treaty, and deepening of economic relations between Taiwan and China. It is doubtful he would support a closer strategic US-Taiwan relationship similar to Tsai.

As China becomes more powerful and the US focuses more on the Indo-Pacific region, strategic ambiguity is on the wane. This shift in US strategy has significance for all countries in the region. Some seeking a closer strategic relationship with the US will support it, while others will be concerned about becoming embroiled in regional conflict.

Bill Sharp

Bill Sharp taught East Asian politics for more than 23 years at Chaminade University of Honolulu, Hawaii Pacific University, and the University of Hawaii, Manoa. He was awarded the Taiwan Fellowship in 2016 and 2020 to do research in Taiwan. In late 2017 and early 2018, he was a Fudan Fellow at Fudan University, Shanghai.

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