Rising tension between Taiwan and China poses the biggest threat to Asia’s geopolitical stability this year. The Biden administration must navigate this fragile relationship carefully to avoid the disastrous risk of a full-out war between the U.S. and China. Yet the U.S.’ current approach — being purposefully vague about its support for Taiwan — is ineffective against an increasingly aggressive China. Instead, Washington should make it clear that it would defend Taiwan from a Chinese invasion while reminding Beijing that the U.S. does not support Taiwanese independence. Biden must walk a fine line between these two interests.
Currently, China and the U.S. disagree over Taiwan’s political status. Since 1949, Taiwan has been governed separately from mainland China as a thriving democracy. However, China views Taiwan as a “breakaway province” and vows to reunify the island with the mainland one day. In 1979, the U.S. severed diplomatic relations with Taiwan to recognize mainland China under the “One China” policy. Yet Washington has continued an unofficial friendly relationship with Taiwan, supplying arms and conducting trade with the island.
For the past four decades, Washington’s official policy on Taiwan has been one of “strategic ambiguity,” which is “maintaining the ability to come to Taiwan’s defense” without committing to it. Although strategic ambiguity worked in the past, it’s a dangerously reckless policy today because U.S.-China-Taiwan relations are tenser than ever. On one hand, deterring an increasingly ambitious China from attacking Taiwan requires “power and will.” Emboldened by its successful containment of the coronavirus, China has been amping up nationalist sentiment at home and intensifying its pressure campaign on Taiwan. On the other hand, Taiwanese public sentiment against China is growing, and its president has been unafraid to stand up to Beijing. Finally, the U.S. is engaging with Taiwan more openly, angering China. In 2020, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo removed all restrictions on diplomatic contacts with Taiwanese officials. The Biden Administration has gone even further, encouraging working diplomatic relations with Taiwan. These developments all contribute to unstable cross-strait relations.
Because China hasn’t ruled out attacking Taiwan and the U.S. hasn’t ruled out defending Taiwan, any misreading of intentions could easily spiral out of hand. A war over Taiwan would gravely threaten its democracy: we can look to China’s crackdown on Hong Kong as a sobering precedent for Taiwan under Beijing’s control. Taiwan’s fall would also wreak global economic havoc, as the island produces over half of the world’s semiconductors.
U.S. support for Taiwan should be unambiguous in the case of a Chinese invasion. Taiwan is a key strategic ally that shares the U.S.’ commitment to free markets and societies. Moreover, if the U.S. leaves Taiwan hanging, it will lose the trust of other allies such as Japan and Australia. There are three ways the U.S. can articulate this new policy of strategic clarity:
First, Biden should make an official statement reiterating U.S. support for the One China policy while asserting that the U.S. will defend Taiwan if it comes under Chinese invasion. To back up this statement, Congress should pass a law that would impose harsh economic sanctions on China for attacking Taiwan.
The U.S. can also support democracy in Taiwan by strengthening its economic relationship with the island. In July last year, the U.S. and Taiwan held trade talks for the first time since 2016. However, we could go further and explore a free trade agreement with the island, which would help ensure its economic vitality under Chinese pressure. Taiwan is especially eager to upgrade its current trade agreement with the U.S., which is almost three decades old. Members of Congress have been supportive of this too.
Finally, the U.S. should continue its long-term “pivot to Asia.” Even if the war in Ukraine is our immediate priority, we cannot lose sight of China. To deepen its presence in Asia, Washington can coordinate with allies who are also invested in the stability of the region. For instance, Japan is hoping to establish stronger relations with the U.S. and Taiwan. All three governments would benefit from agreeing on a China strategy.
The U.S.’ noncommittal attitude toward Taiwan worked in the 1980s, but it’s a laughable strategy against the high-stakes situation today. As China steps up pressure on Taiwan, maintaining cross-strait peace requires the U.S. to be clear about its intentions.
Evelyn Shi (PPS ’24) is a Public Policy Undergraduate at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. This piece was submitted as an op-ed in the Spring ’22 PUBPOL 301 course. This content does not represent the official or unofficial views of the Sanford School, Polis, Duke University, or any entity or individual other than the author.