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A stronger China tests America's 'strategic ambiguity' on Taiwan


With international relations, when is keeping things vague better for maintaining peace than clarifying intentions? The U.S. has been vague with Taiwan for four decades and kept the peace. But there are signs of a shift toward more clarity, as NPR's China affairs correspondent John Ruwitch explains.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Strategic ambiguity - that's the U.S. approach. Washington, which has no formal ties with Taiwan but is friendly with the island, has never promised to help it fight in the event of a conflict with China. It's also never promised not to step in. David Sacks is a research fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

DAVID SACKS: And the calculation behind that was that if China was not sure that we wouldn't come to Taiwan's defense, it would deter a Chinese attack.

RUWITCH: Taiwan has been politically separate from the mainland since 1949, when the Communist Party took power in China and the Nationalist Party fled to the island. But Beijing claims it is Chinese territory and hopes to bring it back into the fold eventually, by force if needed. For years, the mere possibility that the U.S. might intervene has given Chinese leaders pause. But Sacks says things have changed.

SACKS: China has undertaken a massive military modernization, and it's focused above all else on a Taiwan contingency, on developing the capabilities to invade and annex Taiwan and to prevent the United States from coming to Taiwan's defense.

RUWITCH: Sacks co-authored a piece in Foreign Affairs last year that got a lot of attention. It laid out the case for abandoning strategic ambiguity in favor of strategic clarity. Not everyone agrees, though, that ditching ambiguity is the right move.

STEVEN GOLDSTEIN: Strategic clarity in which we say we will defend Taiwan against attack would surely be the end of any substantial working relationship with China. There's no question about that.

RUWITCH: Steven Goldstein is director of the Taiwan Studies Workshop at Harvard University's Fairbank Center. He says there's another risk in shifting to clarity.

GOLDSTEIN: It's also dangerous in the sense that it could encourage independence elements on Taiwan.

RUWITCH: Strategic ambiguity is about dual deterrence, keeping China from invading and preventing Taiwan from moving toward formal independence - a big red line for Beijing. Polls show that most people in Taiwan have a negative view of China, but just a small percentage support moving toward formal independence. George Yin, an international security expert in Taiwan, says some surveys suggest that a clear promise of American military help might change the equation.

GEORGE YIN: If the U.S. pursues, you know, strategic clarity, that could actually change the public's level of support for Taiwan's pursuit of de jure independence.

RUWITCH: The irony of strategic ambiguity is that for years, successive U.S. administrations have made it work by occasionally sending not-so-ambiguous signals to one side or the other. In the early 2000s, Taiwan's president Chen Shui-bian pushed the envelope on independence. Paul Haenle, who worked on China issues at the National Security Council at the time, says the Bush administration reminded Taiwan that America didn't support either side changing the status quo.

PAUL HAENLE: White House envoys were sent to Taipei to tell Chen Shui-bian to kind of cool things down, and he didn't. And I think the relationship really deteriorated.

RUWITCH: In recent weeks, President Biden has made some remarks that have deviated from the normal script. In August, he said the U.S. was committed to defending the island in the same way it was committed to defending its NATO allies. And last month he said America would come to Taiwan's aid in the event of a Chinese attack. The White House clarified that American policy had not changed. Again, George Yin.

YIN: My guess is that what President Biden - said they are not mistakes.

RUWITCH: Whether or not they actually helped deter Beijing is another question. China's military is stronger than ever, and it has tools that may be able to deny the U.S. a role in a Taiwan conflict, like hypersonic missiles that can hit ships at sea.

ORIANA SKYLAR MASTRO: I think the administration is under the false impression that if you make China more certain about the U.S. commitment to defend Taiwan, that will change China's calculus.

RUWITCH: Oriana Skylar Mastro is an expert on China's military and politics at Stanford University.

MASTRO: I think they're, primarily in Beijing, thinking about, will they succeed? It's an issue of U.S. capabilities, not an issue of U.S. resolve.

RUWITCH: And U.S. capabilities, she says, are not the deterrent that they used to be. In war games and simulations in recent years, the American side often loses. John Ruwitch, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE PUTBACKS' "SNAKE EYES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.