In the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, President Joe Biden told the United Nations General Assembly that the upshot is to “close this period of relentless war.”
But if the forever war is over, the prospect of an even more dangerous war is emerging elsewhere — in the Straits of Taiwan.
Lately, the sabers have been rattling like thunder. The Beijing regime sent record numbers of fighter jets and bombers into Taiwan’s air defense zone in a show of strength. The Taipei government responded with a huge military parade showing off tanks, missile systems and warplanes.
The rhetoric was equally pugnacious, with Chinese President Xi Jinping emphasizing that the ultimate fate of the province, which has long enjoyed de facto independence, is nonnegotiable. “The historical task of the complete reunification of the motherland must be fulfilled,” he declared. On the other side, President Tsai Ing-wen vowed “to defend ourselves in order to ensure that nobody can force Taiwan to take the path China has laid out for us.”
For decades, both governments have operated under an unspoken compromise: As long as Taiwan did not declare independence, China would not use force to conquer the island. The status quo is far from satisfying to either side. But it has prevented the dispute from escalating to war.
The U.S. has played a crucial role in preserving this odd arrangement. On the one hand, Washington doesn’t contest China’s claim to Taiwan. On the other, it sends advanced weaponry to Taipei and stipulates that the province’s fate should be resolved peacefully.
To balance these two positions, Washington has been purposefully vague on what it would do if China should try to absorb Taiwan by force. Maybe the U.S. would use every military means at its disposal to defeat China. Maybe it would stand aside. Or maybe it would do something in between.
The policy, “strategic ambiguity,” has two simple goals. We don’t want to give Taiwan the idea that it can declare independence, and we don’t want to give China the idea that it can seize the island. We want to preserve the status quo by keeping both uncertain about our intentions.
But there is a push from people in Congress and the U.S. foreign policy establishment to embrace “strategic clarity.” They want Washington to proclaim that if Taiwan is attacked, we will go to war to defend it. To make that commitment more credible, the advocates want to beef up our naval and air forces in the region — and even send ground troops to Taiwan.
You might think that the public’s appetite for such risks would be nonexistent after two decades of war. But a poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that 52% of Americans favor using U.S. troops if Taiwan comes under attack.
There are two big problems with making a public commitment to defend Taiwan. The first is that it might very well backfire, spurring China to invade rather than accept what looks like a huge step toward separating Taiwan permanently from the mainland. A measure aimed at deterring war could persuade Beijing that war is the only option.
The second drawback is that it would plunge the U.S. into a fight that would carry enormous costs — and probably could not be won. Fighting in China’s backyard, over territory that Beijing and its people regard as sacred soil, would put us at a severe disadvantage. And the worst-case scenario is as bad as scenarios get: a nuclear cataclysm.
Public support for this commitment may be a mile wide, but it’s about an inch deep.
Sacrificing American lives on a large scale over Taiwan is likely to seem far less reasonable once it becomes a reality. This is one of those checks we are prepared to write only because we assume it will never be cashed.
It would be a crime and a tragedy for China to seize Taiwan by force. That’s why we should preserve our options for making China pay a heavy price for such aggression — providing weapons to Taiwan, imposing economic sanctions and mobilizing China’s neighbors to band against it. But going to war with China is another matter entirely.
Sometimes, making your intentions clear is sensible. But in high-stakes competitions, often the best strategy is keeping others guessing. A policy that has worked for so long to prevent war and preserve a free Taiwan is one worth keeping.