What is the US policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’ towards Taiwan?

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President Joe Biden’s declaration that the United States would defend Taiwan if China invaded has renewed talk of whether Washington’s longstanding policy of “strategic ambiguity” on this thorny geopolitical issue is being reassessed.اضافة اعلان

But what is strategic ambiguity and why would a solid commitment to Taiwan’s defense be risky?

Rival Chinas

Taiwan and China split in 1949 when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists fled to the island to set up a separate authoritarian government after losing a civil war on the mainland to Mao Zedong’s communists.

Both sides claimed to represent China and for the first three decades, the conflict remained hot with China regularly shelling Taiwanese islands close to the mainland.

A detente set in, followed by a tacit agreement in 1992 where both sides settled on there being “one China” but agreed to disagree on what that meant. 
Since then, a more distinct Taiwanese identity has emerged that sees the island as a de facto independent state with a separate destiny from the Chinese mainland.

President Tsai Ing-wen from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party is loathed by Beijing because she regards Taiwan as a de facto independent nation, not part of “one China.”

Taiwan’s opposition KMT party now favors closer ties with China and sticks to the “1992 consensus.” 

In the aftermath of China’s civil war most nations — including the United States — recognized Chiang’s Republic of China over Mao’s People’s Republic of China (PRC).

But that began to change in the 1960s and 1970s when it became increasingly clear the nationalists would never return to power on the mainland and relations needed to be forged with communist China.
Countries began switching diplomatic recognition to Beijing, which Washington did in 1979.

But it has maintained a carefully calibrated and deliberately opaque stance towards Taiwan and what should happen to it.
The military element of the US approach is known as “strategic ambiguity.”

How does being ambiguous keep the peace?

In the run-up to the 1979 diplomatic switch, the US did not make Taiwan a treaty ally like Japan and South Korea where US troops would come to the defense in the event of an attack. 

But it did not entirely abandon Taiwan either.
Congress passed an act that mandated the sale of weaponry to Taiwan to adequately defend itself.

The US also never ruled out coming to the aid of Taiwan.
The policy was designed to enforce peace by keeping both sides guessing. 
Beijing could not be sure if an invasion would trigger all-out war with the US. 
And Taiwan would avoid formally declaring independence — a red line for Beijing — because it couldn’t guarantee the US would come to its defense.

The US also maintained a similarly opaque political approach to Taiwan. 
Known as the “One China policy” it recognized the PRC as the sole legitimate government of China. 

But it deliberately took no position on Taiwan beyond saying the island’s future should be decided by Taiwan’s people and that no change to the status quo should be made by force.

That position is distinctly different from Beijing’s “One China principle” which maintains that Taiwan is an inalienable part of the PRC to be one day reunited with the mainland.

Does ambiguity still work?

There are serious discussions among experts as to whether strategic ambiguity has teeth in an era when China is run by its most authoritarian leader in a generation and has modernized its military to a point where it might be able to pull of an invasion of Taiwan.

Under President Xi Jinping, China has become palpably more aggressive to Taipei in recent years, and he has made taking the island a core promise as he seeks to engineer a third term next year.

Xi also faces pressure from hardliners who see Taiwan’s continued independence from the mainland as a slap in the face to the Chinese Communist Party.

Military drills simulating an invasion have been ramped up while Chinese fighter jets and bombers now routinely fly into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone.

For decades, no-one believed China had the military capability for an amphibious invasion of Taiwan. But Taiwanese officials now fear it could soon be feasible.

A growing number of US experts argue Washington should switch to “strategic clarity” — making explicit to Beijing that the US military would respond to an invasion of Taiwan, although Washington would still not take a stance on the island’s status.

Those who advocate a continuation of “strategic ambiguity” argue a cast-iron commitment to come to Taiwan’s defense could be disastrous, because it might just be the excuse Beijing would use to justify an invasion.

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