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Clarifying Strategic Ambiguity
How Pelosi dents US' least bad tactic on Taiwan issue
In 1950, one year after the People’s Republic of China was born, then the US Secretary of State Dean Acheson for the first time outlined America’s “defensive perimeter” in the post-WWII Asia. It was a line running through the Aleutians, Japan, the Ryukyus, and the Philippines. Taiwan was not part of it.
Contrary to the crusading mission of defending a “democratic partner” preached in Nancy Pelosi’s recent self-complacent monologue, the US’ later decision to put the island under its military projection sphere was to hedge against what it deemed as a rising threat from the communist revolutions sweeping Asia. To the rescue of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s authoritarian and corrupted rule in Taiwan, a US navy fleet intervened in Beijing’s plan to bring the island to its fold immediately after the outbreak of the Korean War later in 1950. And it was what Taiwan has always been for the US, a disposable geopolitical pawn.
A pawn is designed to realize its strategic value without adding to its player’s liability. That was why the US unofficially adopted a tactic called “strategic ambiguity.” As the US severed all formal ties with Taiwan authorities and established diplomatic relations with Beijing in 1979, the Taiwan Relations Act went into effect simultaneously to keep loopholes for future US manoeuvres. The document asserted “that any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means would constitute a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and be of grave concern to the US.” This law-binding statement was vague about the US’ responsibility in the event of Beijing’s military unification move, and it was intended that way.
A long line of the US leaders since Jimmy Carter formulated their Taiwan policies based on this tenet of premeditated equivocality. It was meant as a dual deterrence: keeping at bay Beijing’s ambition to liberate Taiwan with the possibility of the US involvement, and discouraging Taiwan’s provocative “independence drive” in order not to drag Washington into a direct military confrontation with China. This sneakily effective tactic has served to maintain a status quo in favor of America, which aims to keep Taiwan as a breakaway province and stay at peace with Beijing at the same time.
Enters Nancy Pelosi.
The incumbent US House Speaker embarked on a grandstanding visit to Taiwan, making herself the highest-ranking US official to land on the island in 25 years. And unlike her defiant predecessor Newt Gingrich, who initiated a similar stunt in 1997, Pelosi was a Democrat cohort to the sitting president. It had been predicted that her Taiwan trip would be considered by Beijing as a gravest breach of the US promise not to make official connections with Taipei. Is it as bad as recognizing Tsai Ing-wen’s regime as an independent Taiwan government? No. But taking into account other unprecedented incidents in the past few years like Trump’s ill-conceived phone call with Tsai and Biden’s fluttered claim to militarily defend Taiwan, Pelosi’s rogue visit was a culmination of the US openly drifting away from its longstanding “strategic ambiguity.” And compared to Trump’s and Biden’s transgressions, Pelosi’s “moment of clarity” has inflicted much more damage on the Taiwan Strait status quo and immensely squeezed future US policy-making manoeuvrability.
First, Pelosi’s unsolicited showdown demonstrated US inability to rally its allies in the event of military intervention in Taiwan. As soon as Pelosi’s plane landed in Taipei, Chinese aircraft and warships started making inroads into Taiwan’s self-claimed air defense identification zone and sea waters for live-fire drills. Countries around the world suddenly find themselves in a position to take sides on this matter. Up to now, over 170 UN members reaffirmed their commitment to the One-China principle. Singaporean Prime Minister lectured Pelosi about maintaining stability of China-US relations. President of South Korea shunned the face-to-face meeting with Pelosi under the frivolous pretext of taking holidays. Most of the European countries, other than the agitating Lithuania, refrained from supporting Pelosi’s visit or pledging to defend Taiwan with the US. A former French ambassador to the US bluntly stated, “the enduring U.S. support to Taiwan has nothing to do with democracy and everything with geopolitics and credibility.” Even the G7 foreign ministers’ joint statement didn’t endorse Pelosi’s visit and only protested China’s military drills in a mundane fashion. The failure of US allies to close ranks on the Taiwan issue is something the US ambivalence to resort to force had been shrouding for decades, but it is now an open secret.
Second, Pelosi’s Taiwan trip justified Beijing’s moves to shift the Taiwan Strait military balance further to its favor. Compared to the last crisis in 1996, PLA exponentially expanded the maritime areas and air space for the joint military exercise and extended the live-fire drills to Taiwan’s self-claimed “territorial waters,” resulting in a practical blockade. The ballistic missiles even flew over Taiwan’s Patriot sites for the first time. The military response from the US this time, however, turned out much weaker. One aircraft carrier battle group has been sent to the region only to escort Pelosi, in stark contrast to the two such groups deployed to confront PLA in 1996. Blinken made it clear that “US is not going to engage in any provocative actions of our own,” acquiescing to Beijing’s current military advance. After the scheduled 5-day PLA’s largest ever military drill around Taiwan since August 3, Beijing immediately announced a new round of drills near the island, prompting many to believe that the high-intensity military pressure from Chinese mainland might be a new normal. The one key factor for the US to keep “strategic ambiguity” is to sustain an overwhelming offshore military superiority, making the other side to believe the US is able to bear the cost of a military showdown. The US resolve is now put into question considering Beijing’s mounting area-denial capability displayed in the new status quo.
Third, Pelosi’s presumptuous behavior undermined Biden administration’s ability to stick firmly to “strategic ambiguity” in the future. Since the abrupt deterioration of China-US relations during Trump’s reign, the debate heated up about whether to keep the long-established and rewarding ambivalent tactic or to opt for a radical and thirst-quenching “strategic clarity.” It is one of the reasons why US politicians started to flirt with line-crossing moves in recent years. However, it is noted that Biden still maintained the traditional vague stance during his call with President Xi a few days prior to Pelosi’s travesty. Biden literally reaffirmed the “dual deterrence” policy by saying that “the United States strongly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.” However, Pelosi’s Taiwan visit has now raised people’s expectation for Democrats’ belligerent stance towards China. Any realistic policy towards China will be reviewed under public pressure. On the other hand, despite the White House’ implicit disapproval of Pelosi’s visit, Beijing holds Biden administration responsible for condoning her as the House Speaker traveled to Taipei on a C-40 military airliner. As the Russia-Ukraine conflict raged on, the US can’t afford to escalate tensions with another nuclear power, but Pelosi made it harder for Biden to make a sound compromise with Beijing as he might look soft and weak. Either way, “strategic ambiguity,” the least bad US tactic on the Taiwan issue, is no longer a consensus for American elite and the support for it is dwindling. Future US presidents will be struggling to maintain it.
Subscribe to Sinical China for more original pieces to help you read Chinese news between the lines. Xu Zeyu, founder of Sinical China, is a senior correspondent with Xinhua News Agency, China’s official newswire. Follow him on Twitter @XuZeyu_Philip
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