The story so far: The President of the United States Joe Biden made a controversial statement on May 23, during a joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida a day before the start of the Quad summit in Japan. He gave an affirmative reply to a question on whether the U.S. will come to the aid of Taiwan militarily in case of an invasion by China. This is the third time that he has made such a statement, raising questions about whether the U.S. is shifting from its long-standing policy of strategic ambiguity over Taiwan to that of strategic clarity.
What is the Taiwan issue?
Taiwan is an island territory located off the coast of mainland China, across the Taiwan Strait. After their defeat to the communist forces in the Chinese civil war (1945-1949), the ruling Kuomintang (Nationalist) government of China fled to Taiwan. They transplanted the Republic of China (ROC) government in Taiwan, while the Communist Party of China (CPC) established the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the mainland. Since then, the PRC considers the island as a renegade province awaiting reunification by peaceful means, if possible. Meanwhile, the ROC retained its membership at the United Nations and its permanent seat at the UN Security Council (UNSC). The cross-strait relations became strained as a result of the Cold War, with the PRC allying itself with the Soviet Union (USSR) and ROC with the U.S. This resulted in the two Taiwan Strait crises of the 1950s.
However, with the shifting geopolitics of the Cold War, the PRC and the U.S. were forced to come together in the 1970s to counter the growing influence of the USSR. This led to the US-China rapprochement demonstrated by the historic visit of then U.S. President Richard Nixon to PRC in 1972. The same year, the PRC displaced ROC as the official representative of the Chinese nation at the UN. Diplomatic relations with the PRC became possible only if countries abided by its “One China Principle” — recognising PRC and not the ROC as China. Taiwan transitioned from a single party state to a multi-party democracy at the same time that China reformed its economic system under Deng Xiaoping, and by the end of the Cold War they became economically entangled; nevertheless, they continue to compete for international recognition and preparing themselves for the worst possible scenario.
How has the U.S’s stance on the Taiwan question evolved vis-à-vis China?
The very foundation of the U.S. rapprochement as well as its recognition of the PRC is a mutual understanding on the Taiwan question. This has been outlined in three documents — the Shanghai Communique (1972), the Normalisation Communique (1979) and the 1982 Communique. According to the 1972 communique, the U.S. agreed to the ‘one China principle’, with an understanding that it “acknowledges” and “does not challenge” that “all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain that there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China.”
The President of the United States Joe Biden on May 23, gave an affirmative reply to a question on whether the U.S. will come to the aid of Taiwan militarily in case of an invasion by China. This has raised questions on whether the U.S. is shifting from its long-standing policy of strategic ambiguity over Taiwan to that of strategic clarity.
The very foundation of the U.S. rapprochement with China is a mutual understanding on the Taiwan question. This has been outlined in three documents — the Shanghai Communique (1972), the Normalisation Communique (1979) and the 1982 Communique. As per the 1979 communique, the U.S. recognised China, but stated that it merely “acknowledges the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China”.
It is possible that the Russo-Ukraine conflict might have created a context where a strong message to the adversary becomes essential, especially considering Beijing’s wearing patience and Taipei’s increasingly pro-independence slant.
As per the 1979 communique, the U.S. recognised PRC, but stated that it merely “acknowledges the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China”. It also established unofficial relations with Taiwan through this communique in the name of the people of both the countries. The 1982 communique assuaged Chinese concerns of the possibility for continued arms supply to Taiwan by the U.S. provisioned in the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979 which enabled it to resume supply of “defensive” arms. With these foundational arrangements, the U.S. developed a way to balance the recognition of PRC with the concerns of Taiwan. This delicate balance, however, has increasingly been tested of late.
Why is the issue significant today?
As Taiwan’s democracy flourished, the popular mood drifted towards a new Taiwanese identity and a pro-independence stance on sovereignty. The past decade has seen considerable souring of ties across the Strait, as the Democratic People’s Party (DPP) became the most powerful political force in Taiwan, sweeping two consecutive elections in the past decade. The DPP government, led by Tsai Ing Wen has been catering to the pro-independence constituency in Taiwan and seeks to diversify economic relations away from China. This has made China wary of Tsai. China has always seen Taiwan as a territory with high geopolitical significance. This is due to its central location in the First Island Chain between Japan and the South China Sea, which is seen as the first benchmark or barrier for China’s power projection. U.S. military outposts are scattered throughout this region, and hence, taking control of Taiwan would mean a significant breakthrough as per China’s geostrategic calculus. Moreover, its reunification will formally bury the remaining ghosts of China’s “century of humiliation”. China under President Xi Jinping seems to have lost its patience and currently sees very slim chances of a peaceful reunification, given the current downturn in cross-Strait relations and the trajectory of the wider geopolitics. This has been demonstrated in the growing frequency of rhetorical spats between Beijing and Taipei, and China’s military drills and patrols across the Strait, as well as the record-breaking aerial transgressions by China of Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ). Also, this build-up of tensions is happening simultaneously and drawing parallels with the Russo-Ukrainian conflict.
Is U.S. strategy towards Taiwan witnessing a major transformation?
The U.S.’s strategy towards Taiwan in light of the unresolved nature of the cross-Strait relations has been marked by what has been called “strategic ambiguity”, which is quite visible in the TRA.
The TRA had come up in the wake of U.S.’s recognition of the PRC, and the resultant termination of the 1954 U.S.-Taiwan mutual defence treaty. As per the TRA, the U.S. has stated clearly that the establishment of bilateral relations with the PRC rests upon “the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means”. It also states that it is the policy of the U.S. “to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardise the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan”. Hence, there is no clear guarantee here that the U.S. will militarily involve in a situation where China attempts to invade Taiwan, short of supplying “defensive weapons”. The U.S. has for long utilised this strategic ambiguity with its own interpretation of the ‘one China principle’ to maintain its strategic interests in the Western Pacific. It is in this context that Mr. Biden’s statements have made controversy. The reason behind why Mr. Biden stated that the U.S. will come to the rescue of Taiwan, as well as the backtracking by the administration later is not clear. It is quite possible that this could have been a “gaffe”, as portrayed by some sections of the media. However, this is the third time that Mr. Biden has put forward such a strong, clear viewpoint to the media — the first was in August and the second in October, 2021. This repeated assertive signalling seems to be therefore more than just accidental. Rather, it is speculated that the need to reassure U.S. allies in the Indo-Pacific in lieu of the Quad summit could have played a part in taking a bolder stance by the Biden administration.
It is also possible that the Russo-Ukraine conflict might have created a context where a strong message to the adversary becomes essential, especially considering Beijing’s wearing patience and Taipei’s increasingly pro-independence slant. It may have reached the point where strategic ambiguity may be losing its relevance to strategic clarity. However, another plausible interpretation can be that this messaging is aimed by the U.S. for eliciting responses and testing the waters to get a feel of China’s game plan for the Indo-Pacific, at a time when a grand distraction is underway at the Eurasian-Atlantic theatre. This may muddle the level of U.S.’s strategic ambiguity further.
Dr. Anand V. teaches at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Karnataka