U.S. Strategy of Reassurance is No Longer Enough for Taiwan

Lisanto 李奕良/Unsplash

For the past 80 years, America’s policy of strategic ambiguity towards its defense of Taiwan held Beijing’s Pacific ambitions at bay. But as the Chinese posture of aggression grows bolder―as evidenced by the record-breaking 56 Chinese planes that intruded on Taiwanese airspace on October 5―regional stability in the Pacific is gradually thinning. Considering Chairman Xi Jinping’s Chinese dream of national rejuvenation and the possibility of invasion, as well as President Joe Biden’s recent statements on the United States’s “rock-solid” commitment to Taiwan, the region is likely to become the flashpoint for conflict in East Asia.

However, Taiwan’s fall would be a catastrophe for American global leadership and firmly establish Beijing’s authoritarian reach. To maintain regional stability, the U.S. and its allies in the region should reaffirm the importance of Taiwan’s independent and democratic identity by adopting an engagement policy that aims to increase Taiwan’s autonomy, bolster liberal values, and leave no room for Beijing to operate in the gray zone of American policy, something current policy has failed to do.

Preventing a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is U.S. law, as captured by America’s six assurances to Taiwan and the Taiwan Relations Act. Together, they commit the United States to maintain the current state of cross-Strait relations, including providing Taipei with military hardware and training to defend against a Chinese invasion.

While the Biden administration has made clear it does not support Taiwanese independence, its actions have strengthened Taiwan’s position in the face of Chinese aggression. Two proposed pieces of legislation in Congress, the Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act and the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement, would further expand U.S. economic and military ties with Taiwan. A clearer approach that would bolster Taiwan’s autonomy and deter China should go beyond by increasing military engagement and government-to-government exchanges, as well as legislation deepening the U.S.-Taiwan relationship.

While clarity on U.S. policy can serve as its own deterrent and reassure allies, it also could also strain the U.S.-China relationship. The biggest struggle is striking a balance between actions that challenge Beijing and increase tensions while keeping the threshold below conflict. In the past, stating that America does not support independence provided space between U.S. policy and Beijing’s red line. But China’s number one priority today is resolving the Taiwan issue. Reassurance alone no longer works. Regional deterrence might.

Regional deterrence, especially with other democratic countries in the Indo-Pacific region, has the potential to taper Chinese aggression and perhaps even prevent outright conflict. Deterring Beijing requires a clearly communicated message that America and its allies will not remain passive in the face of Chinese aggression towards Taiwan.

One framework for such collaboration could be the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), a platform bringing together the U.S., Australia, Japan and India, with potential for cooperation with Taiwan and other allies in the Indo-Pacific. As former Prime Minister of Australia Kevin Rudd stated, the Quad represents “one of the most consequential challenges” for China; but “[for] Xi, the critical question is whether the Quad will evolve to be large, coherent, and comprehensive enough to effectively balance against China.”

Meanwhile, the AUKUS security pact, based on a nuclear submarine cooperation between Australia, the U.K. and the U.S., is an institution that is large, coherent, and comprehensive enough to check Chinese aggression. Unlike Australia’s previous diesel submarines, nuclear submarines will be able project power into the first island chain, particularly in a scenario where the U.S. and its allies come to Taiwan’s aid. But the deterrence implied in this pact will not be ready for another 15 to 20 years, when the nuclear submarines are projected to be operational.

In the interim, American policy should harness a bold strategy that convinces China that the risks of invading Taiwan exceed the benefits. The U.S. and its allies can serve as a powerful counterbalance against China if America’s vision for the group is realized. The strategy should include multilateral defense agreements limited in scope to a Chinese attack on Taiwan. China has to believe Taiwan’s allies are ready to defend it.

Some fear, however, that such multilateral action will escalate tensions over Taiwan. But in the face of an emboldened China exerting what its leadership believes is the country’s manifest destiny, current U.S. foreign policy has failed to maintain the status quo in the Taiwan Strait. As it stands, the U.S. seems to be unsure of its own wording. There is an apparent contradiction between President Biden’s statements of commitment to Taiwan and the pressure to continue following the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s official rhetoric. This confusion makes it clear that America must update its “One China” policy to match its new strategic goals in the competition with a rising China.

Now, the United States should rally a credible deterrent anchored in the Quad and the AUKUS pact as part of its efforts to reinforce Taiwan’s identity. America must clearly and readily match President Biden’s call for relentless diplomacy with a policy that prioritizes Taiwan’s autonomy and strengthens regional deterrence. Waiting for the day when the CCP lowers the sword poised over Taiwan’s throat is no longer a viable option.

Alice Cho is a current Masters student in Georgetown’s Security Studies Program specializing in International Security and Asia-Pacific affairs. In the past, she has co-written pieces for Real Clear Defense and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies on issues regarding China and U.S. presence in the Pacific. She is currently interning at the Project 2049 Institute.

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