‘Strategic Clarity’ on Taiwan Is Clearly Mad

From The American Conservative:

Richard Haass and David Sacks make the case for the very dangerous idea of explicitly committing the U.S. to defend Taiwan:

The policy known as strategic ambiguity has, however, run its course. Ambiguity is unlikely to deter an increasingly assertive China with growing military capabilities. The time has come for the United States to introduce a policy of strategic clarity: one that makes explicit that the United States would respond to any Chinese use of force against Taiwan.

If the U.S. declared its intention to come to Taiwan’s defense, it would be taking on another major security commitment that the U.S. does not have to assume and it would be extending a guarantee that Beijing would not believe. The U.S. is not bound by treaty to come to Taiwan’s defense, and it would be hard for the Chinese government to take such a commitment seriously enough that it would deter them from attacking if that is what they were otherwise determined to do. The authors specifically rule out a treaty with Taipei on the grounds that this would “force Xi’s hand,” but they never explain why making this security guarantee wouldn’t have the same effect.

There is not much public support for coming to Taiwan’s defense. According to a survey conducted by the Chicago Council for Global Affairs last year, just 35% of Americans favor U.S. military action to respond to an attack on Taiwan. 59% oppose doing this. The U.S. cannot make such an important commitment to go to war to defend another country when there is so little public support for doing so. It goes without saying that Taiwan matters far more to the Chinese government and the Chinese people on the mainland than it matters to us, and the U.S. would be at a significant disadvantage in fighting a war to defend Taiwan if this bluff were ever called.

Insofar as an explicit U.S. security guarantee might encourage Taiwan to declare independence, it could end up triggering the very crisis that the guarantee is supposed to forestall. Extending security guarantees can have destabilizing effects as well as stabilizing ones. When a government believes that it has full U.S. backing, it can start to behave more recklessly than it otherwise would. Haass and Sacks say that the DPP-led government has behaved pragmatically in recent years, so why would we want to change U.S. policy in a way that gives them incentives to take greater risks? We should be wary of encouraging yet another government to engage in what Barry Posen calls “reckless driving” because it thinks that the U.S. will bail them out.

There is no compelling reason to abandon strategic ambiguity. The authors say it has “run its course,” but there is no evidence that it no longer does what it is intended to do. They admit that it “kept this powder keg from exploding,” so why do away with it now? They point out the growing power imbalance between Taiwan and the mainland, as if this were a good reason to make an explicit security guarantee to the weaker side. They note that it is no longer certain whether the U.S. could prevail in such a conflict, and they actually think this is an argument in favor of their position. What Haass and Sacks propose is to increase tensions between China and Taiwan through a new provocation on our part. In Beijing’s view, this would be equivalent to their making a security guarantee to part of our country. They would react angrily, and it is possible that it might provoke them to take the military action that the guarantee is supposed to stop.

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