WASHINGTON – If anything can turn the global power struggle between China and the United States into a real military conflict, say many experts and administration officials, it is Taiwan’s fate.
Beijing has stepped up its military harassment of what it considers rogue territory, including threatening flights of 15 Chinese fighter jets near its shores in recent days. In response, officials in the Biden administration are attempting to calibrate a policy that protects the democratic and tech-rich island without causing armed conflict that would be disastrous for all.
As part of a long-standing – and notoriously convoluted – policy derived from the American “one China” position that supports Taiwan without recognizing it as independent, the United States provides political and military support to Taiwan, but does not promise. not explicitly to defend it against a Chinese attack.
However, as China’s power and ambition grows and Beijing feels Washington is weakened and distracted, a debate is ongoing as to whether the United States should make a more clear commitment to defending the island, by part to reduce the risk of China’s miscalculation that could lead to an unwanted war.
The debate reflects a major foreign policy challenge gripping the Biden administration as it shapes its expanded strategy for Asia. At the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon, which is re-examining its military posture in Asia, officials are reassessing the fundamentals of US strategy for a new, more dangerous phase of competition with China.
US officials warn China is increasingly capable of invading island democracy of nearly 24 million people, located about 100 miles off the coast of mainland China, whose status has obsessed Beijing since Chinese nationalists withdrew and formed a government there after the country’s communist revolution in 1949.
Last month, the Indo-Pacific military commander, Admiral Philip S. Davidson, described what he sees as a risk that China will attempt to reclaim Taiwan by force over the next six years.
The United States has long avoided saying how it would react to such an attack. While Washington backs Taiwan with diplomatic contacts, arms sales, firm language, and even occasional military maneuvers, there are no guarantees. No security statement, doctrine, or agreement compels the United States to come to Taiwan’s rescue. A 1979 law of Congress only states that “any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means” would be “of grave concern to the United States.”
The result is known as “strategic ambiguity,” a careful balance meant both to avoid provoking Beijing or to embolden Taiwan to an official declaration of independence that could lead to a Chinese invasion.
Officials in the Biden administration, who shape their Chinese policy, are paying close attention to Taiwan and trying to determine whether the strategic ambiguity is enough to protect the increasingly vulnerable island from Beijing’s designs. But they also realize that Americans may look unfavorably on distant new military engagements after two decades of bloody and costly conflict in the Middle East.
This is why Admiral Davidson raised eyebrows last month when he admitted, under questioning, deviating from the standard government message, that the policy “should be reconsidered,” adding: “I would wait. looking forward to the conversation. “
“I think there has been a shift in people’s thinking,” said Richard N. Haass, former director of policy planning at the State Department under President George W. Bush and now chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations. “What you’ve seen over the past year is an acceleration in concerns in the United States about Taiwan.” He described the feeling that “this delicate situation which seemed to have been managed successfully or successfully resolved for decades, suddenly people woke up to the possibility that this era was coming to an end.”
Mr Haass helped spark a conversation on the subject last year after publishing an essay in the September issue of Foreign Affairs magazine that said strategic ambiguity has “had its day.”
“The time has come for the United States to introduce a policy of strategic clarity: a policy that makes it explicit that the United States will react to any Chinese use of force against Taiwan,” Haass wrote with his colleague David Sacks.
Mr Haass and Mr Sacks added that Chinese leader Xi Jinping could question America’s willingness to defend its alliances after four years under President Donald J. Trump, who denounced “endless wars. And openly questioned US relations and security commitments. Although more belligerent, a clearer engagement would be more secure, they argued.
“Such a policy would reduce the likelihood of miscalculation on the part of China, which is the most likely catalyst for the war in the Taiwan Strait,” wrote Mr. Haass and Mr. Sacks.
In recent months, the idea has gained traction, including on Capitol Hill.
Florida Republican Senator Rick Scott introduced a bill that would allow the president to take military action to defend Taiwan against a Chinese attack – making US intentions more ambiguous. When Mr. Haass testified before a House Foreign Relations Committee panel on Asia last month, he was strewn with questions about how to deter the Chinese threat to Taiwan.
In a February address at an event hosted by the Washington Post, Robert M. Gates, a former defense secretary and CIA director who served under the presidents of both parties, including Mr. Bush and Barack Obama, said called Taiwan a facet of US-China relations. that’s what worried him the most.
Mr. Gates said maybe it was “time to abandon our long-standing strategy of strategic ambiguity towards Taiwan.”
The notion gained another unlikely follower when former Rep. Barney Frank, a Democrat from Massachusetts and long immersed in military matters, argued in an opinion piece in The Hill newspaper last month that for reasons rights, the United States must ensure that a thriving Asian democracy is protected from “forced absorption into a shameless brutal regime that exemplifies the denial of basic human rights.”
Mr. Frank cited “China’s impermeability to any consideration” other than force as a reason to “prevent 23 million Taiwanese from losing their basic human rights.”
Although of limited value in territorial terms, Taiwan has also acquired greater strategic importance in recent years as one of the world’s leading producers of semiconductors – the high-tech equivalent of oil in the emerging confrontation. of the supercomputer between the United States and China, which faces shortage of supply of microchips.
These factors combined have led the Biden administration to offer displays of support for Taiwan that some experts describe as surprisingly forceful.
When China sent dozens of fighter jets over the Taiwan Strait days after Mr. Biden’s inauguration in January, the State Department released a statement declaring the pledge “rock solid. From America to the island. Biden raised the subject of Taiwan during his February phone call with Xi, and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan raised concerns about the island. at their meeting last month in Anchorage with two Chinese officials.
“I think people go out of their way to say to China, ‘Don’t miscalculate – we strongly support Taiwan,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Ms Glaser said she was surprised at Team Biden’s early approach to Taiwan, which so far has maintained the Trump administration’s amplified political support for the island, a posture some critics have taken. described as too provocative. She noted that Blinken recently urged the President of Paraguay in a phone call to maintain his country’s formal ties with Taiwan, despite pressure from Beijing, and that the US ambassador to Palau, a state in the he archipelago of the Western Pacific, had recently joined a diplomatic delegation. from that country to Taiwan.
“It’s really outside of normal diplomatic practice,” Ms. Glaser said. “I think it was quite unexpected.”
But Ms. Glaser does not support a more explicit commitment by the United States to the defense of Taiwan. Like many other US analysts and officials, she fears such a policy shift might provoke China.
“Maybe Xi then backed off into a corner. This could really lead China to make the decision to invade, ”she warned.
Others fear that a concrete American security guarantee would encourage Taiwan’s rulers to officially declare independence – an act which, symbolic as it might sound given the island’s 70 years of autonomy, would cross a line. clear red line for Beijing.
“Taiwan’s independence means war,” Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Wu Qian said in January.
Some analysts say the Biden administration may be successful in deterring China without provoking it with stronger warnings that stop before an explicit promise to defend Taiwan. US officials can also send private warnings to Beijing that do not put Xi at risk of publicly losing face.
“We just need China to understand that we will come to the defense of Taiwan,” said Elbridge A. Colby, former deputy defense deputy secretary in charge of strategy and force development under Mr. Trump.
The United States has a long history of providing military equipment to Taiwan, including billions of dollars in arms sales under the Trump administration, which included fighter jets and air-to-surface missiles that allowed Taiwanese planes to strike China. . Such equipment is intended to alleviate Taiwan’s need for American intervention in the event of an attack.
But Mr. Colby and others say the United States needs to develop a more credible military deterrent in the Pacific region to match recent advances in the Chinese military.
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee last month, HR McMaster, Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, said the current ambiguity was sufficient.
“The message to China should be, ‘Hey, you can assume the United States won’t respond” – but that was also the assumption made in June 1950, when North Korea invaded South Korea, “Mr. McMaster told me.