Strategic Ambiguity in Cross-Strait Relations


The US needs to take a firmer stance on Cross-Strait relations if peace is to be maintained in the region. The growing military ability of the People’s Republic of China, in addition to a stronger sense of Taiwanese national identity are making current politics maintaining peace obsolete.

Cross-Strait relations have been tenuous, since the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1950, with both sides claiming to be the legitimate government. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) considers Taiwan a breakaway province and President Xi considers reunification a top priority of his administration. Preventing the PRC from regaining Taiwan is a matter that cannot be stressed enough for the US.  It must be considered the top priority in counterbalancing the PRC’s rising military and regional power. Taiwan lies in the middle of what is known as the “first island chain”, a wall of several countries and their straits that blocks the PRC’s access east to the Philippine Sea and the Pacific Ocean. The PRC desires to break this chain, in order to weaken American influence in the region and expand their military control. Losing Taiwan would shift the naval balance of power in the region into the PRC’s favor. That outcome would be a disastrous scenario for democratic US allies in the region, such as Japan. The current US strategy for Taiwan is outdated and must be revised to reflect the current geopolitical situation.

The US policy regarding a potential conflict between the PRC and Taiwan is described as “strategic ambiguity”. In other words, the US purposefully takes no stance on the matter, which discourages Taiwan from seeking independence. “Strategic ambiguity” has been the official US policy since President Carter cut ties with Taiwan in 1979, in an effort to further open up the PRC to American interests. The US also created the US-Taiwan Relations Act, in hopes of protecting Taiwan. Section 2 of this Act implies that the US may intervene if Beijing attacks saying,

“It is the policy of the United States to consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of a grave concern to the United States”.

This act has maintained de-facto diplomatic relations between the US and Taiwan, but purposefully remains vague over military intervention. This policy made sense at the time and has maintained a Cross-Strait peace. However, this policy has become outdated due to Beijing’s increasing military power and stronger Taiwanese national identity.

The main differences since 1979 are that Taiwan is now a democratic nation and that its people self-identify more as Taiwanese than Chinese. According to a survey by National Chengchi University, 60.6 percent of participants regard themselves as purely Taiwanese, a large increase from 17.6 percent in 1992. Significant demonstrations occurred in 2014, when students and civic groups took over the parliamentary building and successfully protested against a trade agreement with the PRC. This event, known as the “Sunflower Movement”, demonstrated a phenomenon that will ultimately dictate Cross-Strait relations; young people are now identifying more as Taiwanese and want less dependency on the PRC. This is in spite of the fact that President Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT party in Taiwan made history meeting with President Xi last November, negotiating over 20 agreements, focusing on closer economic ties with the PRC. The KMT’s decisions to cozy up to the PRC ended up costing them, when DPP opposition candidate Tsai Ing-wen handily won the 2016 presidential election. Even though a majority still supports maintaining the status-quo, hoping to avoid conflict, the number of Taiwanese that want full independence is growing.

Adding to the risk of violence in the Cross-Strait, the PRC’s military is much stronger than in 1979 and more capable of a large-scale invasion. Last month, the PRC began construction on its first ever-overseas military base in Djibouti, illustrating how far they have come. While it is far from Taiwan, this is significant shift in the PRC’s ideology, once considering overseas bases as imperialistic. Additionally, satellite imagery from last August revealed a PRC training base in Inner Mongolia, bearing eerie similarities to the streets of central Taipei. These indicators of invasion preparations caught the eyes of many analytical firms. An extensive 430-page RAND report from last year details what a possible war in Taiwan and the Spratly Islands would look like. The report finds that in a hypothetical 2017 invasion of Taiwan, the PRC’s military only has a clear advantage in two out of 10 categories (PRC airbase attack and PRC anti-surface warfare) and is more or less equal in four others (air superiority, US airspace penetration, US counter space, and PRC counter space). Essentially, due to the close proximity to the Chinese mainland the outcome is unclear. The PRC’s military has come a long way since 1979 and the US military advantage in the region is shrinking.

Due to a growing sense of Taiwanese identity, it is becoming increasingly unlikely democratic Taiwan will reunify with the PRC. As the PRC feels that its ability to regain Taiwan’s favor is becoming unfeasible, they will contemplate more forceful means. Therefore, it is best that the PRC know that the US will not stand down to aggression against Taiwan. Strategic ambiguity can no longer reliably deter invasion. The US must change their strategy to better reflect China’s Anti-Secession Law (2005), which states that an attempt at Taiwanese Independence would trigger war. This law created a binding legal code that fortified the PRC’s determination in Taiwan and ended the tacit agreement of the status-quo of Taiwan between the US and the PRC. As China grows more powerful and determined, and as Taiwan continues its current anti-mainland trajectory, the US has no room for ambiguity.

Photo Courtesy of Benjamin Dunn