With heightened rhetoric, is the United States moving away from “strategic ambiguity” over Taiwan?

Military tensions between China and Taiwan, the democratic and autonomous island that Beijing considers its own, are at their worst in more than 40 years, according to the Taiwanese defense minister. The United States, Taiwan’s main military ally, responded by reiterating its support for Taiwan – while remaining deliberately ambiguous as to whether it would defend the island in the event of a Chinese invasion. This policy, known as “strategic ambiguity,” determined US-China-Taiwan relations for decades. But does the Biden administration’s heightened rhetoric suggest a shift in America’s stance?

Biden claims ‘rock solid commitment’ to Taiwan

As Taiwan reports a worrying increase in provocative military activity from Beijing, with incursions by Chinese military planes into the island’s air defense identification zone reaching record levels, Taiwan’s defense minister has warned that it will begin. October that the mainland would be fully capable of invading the island by 2025..

Senior US officials pushed back against China and expressed support for the island.

Condemning Beijing’s military actions as “coercive” and a threat to peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region, President Joe Biden said on Wednesday that the US engagement in Taiwan was “rock solid.”

When asked a day later at a CNN town hall if the United States would protect Taiwan if China attacked, Biden responded by saying, “Yes. We have a commitment.

But the White House quickly backed down on the president’s statements, saying they did not signify a break with the policy of “strategic ambiguity.”

This deliberately vague policy, employed by the United States in an attempt to dissuade China from invading Taiwan and Taiwan from declaring independence, dates back to the normalization of American diplomatic relations with Communist China in 1979.

The United States initially recognized the Republic of China (Taiwan) and not the Communist-led People’s Republic of China after the Chinese Civil War ended in 1949, when the defeated Kuomintang (or Nationalist Party) fled to Taiwan. As the Kuomintang made the island the seat of its government and the Communists began to rule the mainland, both sides claimed to represent all of China.

In establishing relations with the People’s Republic of China, the United States accepted Beijing’s position that there is only one China (known as the “One China Policy”) and sever formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

However, in the same year, President Jimmy Carter enacted the Taiwan Relations Act, which provided for unofficial but comprehensive relations between the two countries – including the sale of items and services to strengthen Taiwan’s self-defense. The law also provides the ability for Congress and the president to act if the island is threatened.

Strategic ambiguity has been the foundational principle that has guided US-Taiwan relations for decades. And yet, the Biden administration appears to be taking a more forceful approach towards its support for the island.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday called on UN member states to support Taiwan’s “robust” participation in the United Nations system and specialized agencies (Taiwan was excluded from the organization in 1971 and replaced by the People’s Republic of China).

Citing the global nature of the Covid-19 crisis and Taiwan’s “world-class response”, Blinken said the island should play a role in UN organizations like the World Health Assembly, adding that the exclusion of Taiwan “undermines the important work of the UN”.

‘Push the envelope’

“The strategic ambiguity remains… but the framework for implementing strategic ambiguity is changing, as the context in which the three actors interact with each other has changed dramatically,” said Dean P. Chen, associate professor of political science at Ramapo. College of New Jersey and author of “US Taiwan Strait Policy: The Origins of Strategic Ambiguity”.

This shift under strategic ambiguity, Chen said, began with the Trump administration, which lifted rules banning high-level contacts between U.S. and Taiwanese officials and increased arms sales to the United States. island as well as the intensification of US military activities in the surrounding area. . Despite their differences, Biden did not stray from Trump’s Taiwanese policies.

“Officials from both administrations agree that Beijing is a disruptor to this relationship,” Chen said.

Steven M. Goldstein, director of the Taiwan Studies Workshop at Harvard University, agrees that the administration’s recent remarks are not indicative of a change in policy, but signal a growing harshness on Beijing.

“I think Biden’s statement that the United States defends Taiwan, and certainly Blinken’s statement, is pushing the boundaries as a signal to the Chinese – even though the Chinese are pushing the boundaries themselves with these flights in the area. Taiwan Defense ID, “Goldstein said. .

“The United States is moving closer to the red line as a means of showing a policy of hardening. “

Indeed, deepening US-Taiwan relations to counter China’s “evil” global influence is on the US agenda, said Sandra Oudkirk, the new director of the American Institute in Taiwan. (the de facto United States Embassy), during its first public press conference on Friday. . The US diplomat said Washington was actively working on new areas of cooperation with the island on cybersecurity and supply chain issues.

In an interview with CNN on Wednesday, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen for the first time confirmed that American troops were training Taiwanese forces on the island, citing a “wide range of cooperation with the United States aimed at increasing our defense capacity ”.

“Beside the Beijing red line, there is room to push the limits”

As the United States updates its Strategic Ambiguity Framework to be more compatible with the current geopolitical situation, Chen believes the limits of the US-Taiwan relationship will continue to be pushed, but stop before the red line. of Beijing: recognize Taiwan as a sovereign nation.

“There are substantial and significant things that the United States can do to deepen Taiwan’s involvement in regional and world affairs,” he said. “Blinken made a statement in favor of Taiwan’s more meaningful participation in international organizations like the UN. We will see more high ranking officials continually visiting and interacting with each other. […] I think the United States will try to carve out a new niche for Taiwan in a creative way. ”

Of course, all of these actions have already provoked the ire of Beijing, which has accused Taiwan of “collusion” with foreign forces like the United States. The concern is that this irritation could at some point provide a justification for China to lash out more aggressively, leading to a further deterioration in relations between the three parties.

“The danger of the Taiwan question is that it has become an intransigent and immutable controversy, in which all actors must learn to persist unsatisfactorily,” Goldstein said.

“However, as sincere as I believe the Chinese say they will not allow Taiwan to be lost, I think the Chinese are also aware that a conflict would be a disaster for the Communist Party’s plans.”

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