Is America’s ‘Strategic Ambiguity’ over Taiwan a thing of the past?

Jun 13, 2022
Grunge flags (cracked concrete background) | USA, China and Taiwan
Biden also reaffirmed the US adherence to the 'One China Policy'. Image: iStock

During President Biden’s recent visit to Tokyo for the Quad meeting, he said the US would intervene militarily in defence of Taiwan, if China were to attack it.

Commentary from various analysts in a variety of media immediately following Biden’s remarks, concluded that the long-standing US policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’ regarding Taiwan had been jettisoned. This, however, appears to be by no means certain.

Whilst issuing the threat to China of US protection for Taiwan, Biden also reaffirmed the US adherence to the ‘One China Policy’. The Administration also moved very quickly to clarify that US policy had not changed. Defence Secretary Austin insisted that the President had reiterated “our One China policy and our commitment to peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. He also highlighted our commitment under the Taiwan Relations Act to help provide Taiwan the means to defend itself.”

It seems there may be some difference of view between Biden and his strategic advisers in Washington, who still seem to be working towards provoking a move by China against Taiwan, so that Taiwan can become a US proxy in a protracted war. This is reflected in Austin’s remark that the US is arming Taiwan so that it can “defend itself”. The implication seems to be that if military conflict between China and Taiwan were to break out, the US would claim to be fulfilling Biden’s commitment by stepping up the supply of a full panoply of defence capability to Taiwan.

Biden’s statement may have been intended to deter China from military action. If so, it would be somewhat at odds with the ‘Strategy of Denial’, which is to try to instigate a conflict. On the other hand, it could well be in line with the objective of the hawks in Washington, if it encourages Taiwan to try to establish de jure independence from China and provokes China to use force to prevent it.

Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was quick express “sincere welcome and gratitude to President Biden of the United States for reiterating its rock solid commitment to Taiwan.” China was equally quick to express its anger at the Biden administration’s failure “to live up to its past commitments, especially on Taiwan”.

A recent analysis by Tan Keewee, a strategic analyst in Singapore, cogently argued that China’s growth in military/naval/air capability will reach the point, by 2030 at the latest, where it would be able to break beyond the first island chain and into the Western Pacific. Such a strategic trajectory is reflected in China’s current flurry of diplomatic activity to win over South Pacific Island countries by offering economic/infrastructure development. Tan argues that, therefore, if the US is to embroil China in a debilitating war, it will have to be before 2030.

Whether Australia is at war against China before 2030 will depend much more on America than it will on Albanese. Although the election of the Labor Government raised hopes of a ‘re-set’ in Australia’s relations with China, the auguries so far are not favourable.

On his way to Tokyo, Albanese telephoned British PM Johnson to convince him of Australia’s commitment to AUKUS. In talks with Biden in Tokyo, he doubled down on the centrality of the ANZUS alliance, which he would “make even stronger”.

Australia is thus committed to acting at America’s behest in pursuit of its geo-political objectives in the Indo-Pacific, which continue to move towards war in the region.

Given that current US strategy is to instigate such a war through a proxy (or proxies), Australia can expect to be caught up in any military conflict. Taiwan has for some time been the proxy of preference for the US. The US may however, be coming to sense that despite China’s and Taiwan’s reactions to Biden’s statement, China and Taiwan appear somewhat circumspect about taking the US bait.

China’s ire did not contain language reflecting China’s right to use force to retain the province within its sovereign territory. Taiwan’s delight contained no language reflective of its right to ‘democratic’ or ‘independent’ status. Moreover, the US may also be starting to realise that it cannot afford the inevitable destruction of Taiwan’s microchip semi-conductor manufacturing capacity. (90% of world microchip production is in Taiwan).

The Cross Straits Economic Framework Agreement signed by Taiwan and China in 2010 has institutionalised trade and economic relations between them. Taiwan’s investment in China is now more than US$194 billion. Given that they both have more to lose than to gain from military conflict, it might be time for them to enter into serious negotiation in line with the US claim that it favours a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan problem.

If China gives highest priority to preventing the emergence of a heavily armed US ally within striking distance, it might be prepared to forego its historical claim (however painful that would be). It could allow Taiwan independence in return for a binding Joint Defence Pact, under which each would guarantee the defence of the other and they would jointly guarantee freedom of navigation in the South and East China Seas. Despite its assurances to the contrary, a peaceful settlement acceptable to both China and Taiwan would not be welcomed by the US. Continuation of the status quo would be preferable.

Either way, to “bog China down” in a long drawn out war, the US would have to find another proxy. There is no apparent reason why it would not be willing to sacrifice Australia to that role, since it is not dependent on Australia economically. That is why Elbridge Colby, the author of ‘The Strategy of Denial’ (amongst other hawks in Washington) has been so lavish in praise of Australia being in the forefront of the projection of American power in the Indo-Pacific. It is also why Peter Jennings, the outgoing head of America’s principal agency of political influence in Australia, ASPI, said that Australia must learn from Ukraine how a smaller nation can “successfully resist a much bigger bully”.

The US would not engage in direct military conflict with China, but would do as it is doing in Ukraine – constantly resupply Australia’s “capacity to defend itself” in a war with China. This would mean that China would not target American bases in Australia, but would use its missile capability to take out any Australian land-based assets from which Australia forces could operate. The former Morrison government’s allocation of $100’s of millions to develop a submarine base in the heart of Sydney Harbour is tantamount to painting a target on the Opera House!

Given the present and probably permanent imbalance in respective military capability, in a war Australia would fare far worse than China. In the immediate and near future, Australia’s best defence is diplomatic, not military.

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