By Jianli Yang
The 110th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of China comes at a time of unprecedented Chinese military provocations against Taiwan. The democratic island nation of Taiwan still largely uses the legal system and keeps the national title of the Republic of China. However, the authoritarian system that took root in Taiwan following the Chinese Civil War and the Kuomintang’s retreat to Formosa has long been overturned, and Taiwan has since undergone a comprehensive democratic transformation. Xi Jinping’s speech on October 10 (the National Day of the ROC) received so much attention because, as everyone knows, his remarks were directed mainly at Taiwan.
President Xi clearly identified China’s objective at the outset of his speech: “The Taiwan issue arose out of the weakness and chaos of the Chinese nation, and it will be resolved as national rejuvenation becomes a reality.” In other words, once China is strong enough, it will annex Taiwan. Xi Jinping has set a clear target for China to attain “great rejuvenation” by the year 2050, despite the obvious fact that he will no longer be in power by that time. As leader of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi is eagerly seeking to establish his place in history with the achievement of “reunification” with Taiwan, and he himself firmly believes that he is closer to accomplishing this historical feat than any of his predecessors. This is his legacy project. As a result, Xi feels a strong sense of urgency. His fourteenth Five-Year Plan and high-tech strategic pursuits indicate that he expects himself to remain in power until 2035. And before then, China must be strong enough to gain control over Taiwanese territory. This goal is clear.
Strategically, Xi Jinping cannot make such a statement explicitly, but it is readily apparent to even casual observers; this is “strategic tacitness.” If peaceful reunification fails, China will pursue reunification by force. Once the prescribed “time limit” has been reached, China will seek to annex Taiwan militarily. Prior to this “time limit,” China will strive to rapidly narrow its gap with the United States, or even surpass it, to the extent that China is strong enough to seize control of Taiwan by force. Nonetheless, in his speech, Xi asserted that peaceful unification was his first choice: “National reunification by peaceful means is most in line with the interests of the Chinese nation as a whole, including our compatriots in Taiwan. We will adhere to the basic policies of peaceful reunification and ‘one country, two systems,’ uphold the one-China principle and the 1992 Consensus, and work for the peaceful development of cross-Strait relations.”
Xi added, “Those who forget their heritage, betray their motherland, and seek to split the country will come to no good end; they will be disdained by the people and condemned by history.” This statement is a threat to the various forces in Taiwan—in fact the majority of the Taiwanese people—who are moving further and further away from mainland China. It indicates that Xi will use any available means to prevent Taiwan’s independence, including deterrence by force as well as harsher suppression of political figures who advocate and promote Taiwan’s independence. Xi will use the two-pronged strategy of a “peaceful” and “coercive” approach to unification, pursuing each with equal vigor. Under the “peaceful” approach, China will put pressure on Taiwan to agree to peaceful reunification, formulate a concrete plan to implement “one country, two systems” in Taiwan, sow divisions among the Taiwanese people, and try to persuade as many politicians and people in Taiwan as possible to agree to peaceful reunification. The “coercive” approach entails China making preparations to annex Taiwan by force, including fortifying China’s military capabilities and strengthening its armed forces to prepare to invade the island. China will exploit the threat of military aggression to promote unification and prevent Taiwanese independence, in response not only to Taiwan’s internal impulse for independence but also external agitation and support for Taiwan’s independence. The sequence of China’s two-pronged approach is to seek unification firstly through “peaceful” means and only secondly through “coercion.” On the surface, China will make carefully crafted and choreographed efforts to achieve a peaceful unification; beneath the surface, China will be actively preparing for unification by force, or invoking the threat of force if necessary. Xi is taking a page from ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu: “Supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”
However, Xi’s formula for unifying Taiwan is “one country, two systems.” With Hong Kong as a lesson from the past, Xi certainly understands that it would be almost impossible to apply this formula to deceive the people of Taiwan into accepting a “peaceful reunification.” If he wants to unify with Taiwan during his time in power, it is likely that he will eventually have to resort to war or quasi-war to achieve this end.
It is undeniable that the United States is the key to the Taiwan issue. If China were certain that the United States would not substantively defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion, Beijing would have completed the “reunification of the motherland” long ago. Therefore, in his speech, Xi Jinping did not forget to issue a warning to the United States and other Taiwanese allies: “The Taiwan issue is solely an internal matter for China, and any outside interference will not be tolerated. No one should underestimate the resolve, the will, and the ability of the Chinese people to defend our national sovereignty and territorial integrity.” In Xi’s solution to the Taiwan issue, regardless of whether unification is pursued peacefully or by violence, he must assume that democratic powers such as the United States and Japan will intervene, and prepare accordingly.
Escalating US-China tensions and intensified Chinese military threats over Taiwan have triggered a debate in the US over “strategic ambiguity”—supposedly the long-standing US policy to stay quiet on whether it would defend Taiwan should China attack.
In my view, “strategic ambiguity” does not accurately describe the US policy on Taiwan that has been executed by successive Republican and Democratic administrations over the past 40-some years. A better description would be “strategic tacitness.” Strategic tacitness is best embodied by the Taiwan Relations Act, which the US Congress passed in 1979 when the United States severed relations with Taiwan (i.e., the Republic of China) and discarded its mutual defense treaty with the island. The TRA stipulates that the United States maintains special commitments to Taiwan. For instance, as a matter of policy, the United States will “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States; provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character; [and] maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.”
These stipulations are not unambiguous. Enactment of the TRA was a tacit way for the US to convey that it will come to defend Taiwan if China seeks to change the island-nation’s future by force. What successive Democrat and Republican US presidents have said and done regarding Taiwan has been very much in line with this strategic tacitness—sometimes they even showed strategic clarity.
Early in his presidency, George W. Bush, for example, said that the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense if the nation were attacked. The most recent instance is from President Joe Biden. In an interview aired by ABC News on Aug. 19, 2021, Biden was asked about the effects of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and responses in Chinese media telling Taiwan this showed Washington could not be relied on to come to its defense. Biden answered, “We have made—kept every commitment. We made a sacred commitment to Article 5 [of the North Atlantic Treaty] that if in fact anyone were to invade or take action against our NATO allies, we would respond. Same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with—Taiwan. It’s not even comparable to talk about that.”
Biden said all this so naturally and direct from his heart that despite the White House’s later attempts to backtrack, it did not change anyone’s tacit understanding that it is the “same with Taiwan.” It would be foolish to assume that the Chinese are unsure of whether the US would remain on the sidelines if China attempted to annex Taiwan by force, and it would be foolish for the Chinese to assume that the US would not. And China is not so foolish. Indeed, China assumes that the US would come to Taiwan’s defense, that the US assumes that China assumes the US would do so, and so on. This is strategic tacitness on both sides.
Naturally, Beijing is uncertain about how the US would respond specifically, just as Washington knows little about the specific courses of actions that China would take if and when it attacks Taiwan. This is tactical ambiguity that both parties must maintain.
When it comes to the debate on strategic ambiguity versus strategic clarity, the key issue is essentially how to best deter China’s ambition of annexing Taiwan by force. Many arguing for strategic ambiguity tend to believe that an American message of strategic clarity could trigger a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. They are wrong. Whether China will do it, and when it will do it, ultimately depends on whether and when China has, or believes it has, the capability to take the island, taking the US and its allies into consideration.
Deterrence is nothing if it is not credible. In order to make America’s deterrence credible, the US must first ensure that Taiwan’s defense capacity combined with that of the US and its allies (such as Japan, Australia, and India) will maintain supremacy over that of China by a significantly huge margin.
Second, the US and its allies should help Taiwan break the leverage China has used rather successfully to pressure Taiwan, aiming to “break resistance without fighting.” That leverage is Taiwan’s economic dependency on China. It is very strategic to rapidly establish free-trade relations with Taiwan.
Above all, the US must have goal clarity when it comes to Taiwan. This is the most important factor in determining the credibility of US deterrence. The United States must answer the following questions: What are its goals with respect to Taiwan? And what is the basis for setting these goals? These questions are inextricably linked to American values and strategic interests. Unless goals are clearly established, the US policy on Taiwan will be inconsistent and wavering, thus affecting its credibility. In the wake of the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, this topic has become even more urgent and important.
As a democracy, the United States must ensure that the American people understand and accept its major international actions, such as defending Taiwan. It is war. By now, the United States is well aware that if the American people withdraw their support, it is almost impossible for the US to achieve victory in wars. Therefore, with respect to the Taiwan issue, the United States must establish goals based on its own values, strategic interests, and international standing in order to win the support of its people. Ultimately, the US must answer the questions raised in Jay Nordlinger’s op-ed piece in the National Review: “What would the American public accept? What should the public accept? What would make the most sense? What would be the least wrong?”
Writing for Foreign Affairs, President Tsai Ing-Wen of Taiwan stressed, “A failure to defend Taiwan would not only be catastrophic for the Taiwanese; it would overturn a security architecture that has allowed for peace and extraordinary economic development in the region for seven decades.” This is a much-needed stern warning to the democratic world. And it is my belief that a clearly defined and consistently held goal based on American values and strategic interests in Taiwan will redefine what the US should be. It has never been more important or urgent, as the credibility and strength of American democracy are suffering setbacks both domestically and internationally.
This article first appeared in Providence on October 27, 2021