U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to Taiwan was conducted against the wishes of the U.S. government and in disregard of threats from the People’s Republic of China.
After Pelosi’s visit, China held its largest-ever military exercise near the island of Taiwan, which, according to the People’s Liberation Army, simulated an “island attack operation” in actual airspace and sea.
The drills reportedly continued, despite insisting they would end on August 7. The flurry of Chinese propaganda is aimed at undermining Taiwan’s morale and increasing pressure on Washington over China’s sovereignty over the island, which Beijing has claimed since the Communist takeover of the island in 1949.
The U.S. government has maintained core elements of its Taiwan policy, including “strategic ambiguity.” This is a doctrine that insists the United States will help Taiwan build military capabilities, but does not guarantee direct military support in response to a Chinese military attack.
But over the past decade, Washington has stepped up its support for Taiwan in response to what it sees as China’s increasingly assertive actions.
The United States has taken a series of steps to deepen unofficial ties between Washington and Taipei. These include the Taiwan Travel Act (2018), which allows informal exchanges between U.S. and Taiwanese officials, and the 2019 Taiwan Assurance Act, which allows for multiple arms sales packages.
The Biden administration continued to support Taiwan in a high-profile manner, continued arms sales and training, strengthened official exchanges, and sought to include Taiwan in the Japan-US “Two + Two” security agreement.
In May 2022, U.S. President Joe Biden said the United States would defend Taiwan if it was attacked, a statement that appeared to violate “strategic ambiguity.” The administration quickly retracted Biden’s statement and reiterated that U.S. policy on Taiwan security had not changed.
Despite its policies to strengthen U.S.-Taiwan relations, the Biden administration does not support Pelosi’s trip to Taipei because it could lead to an escalation of tensions with Beijing. Pelosi’s trip drew mixed reactions in the US media.
Some prominent commentators dismissed the visit as unwise because it unnecessarily heightened tensions in a complex strategic relationship at a time when the United States had to deal with the crisis of Ukraine’s invasion.
But it seems wrong to worry that China’s military exercises could lead to a military confrontation between China and the United States. There is a strong interest on both sides to avoid this outcome.
Instead, China’s actions appear to be aimed at sending a powerful signal to the U.S. government to reverse what they see as Washington’s “hollowing out” of agreed-upon Taiwan policy.
At the same time, this display of the Chinese military may also be an attempt to demonstrate the strength of Xi Jinping to domestic audiences as he strives to be named third president at the party’s 20th National Congress later this year.
While the Biden administration has rebuked China for its disproportionate actions, China has further expanded its military exercises as a “warning to the United States.” It also suspended cooperation with the United States on a range of issues, including climate change, making it clear that it was sending a signal not primarily against Taipei but Washington.
In the long run, a Biden administration is unlikely to deviate from the “one China” policy. But the concept of “strategic ambiguity” is under pressure as the United States is increasingly concerned about preventing China from trying to unify Taiwan by force.
The Taiwanese public and political parties seem content to maintain the status quo. But by contrast, China’s increasingly assertive policy toward Taiwan, and broader policies in the region, means a future crisis in the Taiwan Strait is possible.
Future crises could escalate into attempted invasions of Taiwan if Chinese leaders believe that direct U.S. military involvement is unlikely. This could lead to a wider war involving China, the United States and other countries – a dire outcome for all parties.
One way to achieve greater deterrence is for the United States and its allies to make clearer commitments—and realistic military readiness—to defend Taiwan against a Chinese military attack. That could reduce the risk that China feels it can escalate and de-escalate the crisis at will, allowing it to be more cautious in making threats to its neighbors.
Some analysts, drawing lessons from the Cold War experience, argue that the early crises in Berlin, South Korea and Cuba eventually led to relatively stable security arrangements between the three countries. [US and the Soviet Union]. Tensions in Taiwan and the South China Sea may accelerate the formation of multilateral arrangements to contain China.
For example, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) between Australia, India, Japan and the US could be transformed into an alliance with tangible military capabilities.
But this approach also carries significant risks. A Cold War confrontation between the U.S. and China could have disastrous effects on other U.S. foreign policy priorities. This is further complicated by the fact that Washington needs to deal with Russian aggression in Europe while also addressing global issues such as climate change.
Furthermore, despite disputes with China, almost all of China’s neighbors want to avoid this outcome and are unlikely to participate.
Instead, we can expect continued US strategic ambiguity and closer informal relations with Taiwan. The top priority for the United States, China, and other concerned countries must be to develop a stronger framework for conflict prevention and crisis management. And find ways to lower the temperature, making unofficial U.S. visits to Taiwan more acceptable to China.
Owen Greene is Professor of International Security and Development at the University of Bradford and Christoph Bluth is Professor of International Relations and Security at the University of Bradford
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