Shoot It Straight on Taiwan


Last month, a spokesperson from the office of Taiwan’s president told China to grow up. “The [Chinese Communist Party] wants Taiwan for their 100th birthday. Just pick something else. Grow up.” The statement, via Twitter, was a response to Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s speech marking the Chinese Communist Party’s centenary. In his remarks, Xi warned, “Resolving the Taiwan question and realizing China’s complete reunification is a historic mission and an unshakable commitment.” To reinforce his point, he added that China would “take resolute action to utterly defeat any attempt toward ‘Taiwan independence.’” The informality of Taiwan’s public response belies a new, more dangerous era in the Taiwan Strait.

Changing circumstances merit fresh thinking about how to ensure peace between China and Taiwan going forward, but a decades-old policy framework restrains American flexibility in reacting to those changes. The result is a Taiwan Strait that edges ever closer to crisis while Washington tinkers with policies that may no longer be sufficient to avert catastrophe.



Beyond official Washington, however, there is a robust debate about how best to ensure continuing peace in the Taiwan Strait. That debate most notably features an ongoing reappraisal of America’s ambiguous commitment to defend Taiwan against Chinese aggression. Some argue that “strategic ambiguity” — in which Washington keeps both Beijing and Taipei guessing about its willingness to intervene in a cross-strait conflict — remains an effective way to restrain each side’s destabilizing impulses. Others argue that ambiguity leaves too much room for doubt in the halls of Zhongnanhai about American will and intentions, thus opening the door to Chinese adventurism.

Alastair Iain Johnston, Tsai Chia-Hung, George Yin, and Steven Goldstein have made a novel contribution in War on the Rocks by using survey data to explore the pros and cons of clarifying that commitment. The potential effects of clarity on Taiwan’s people is an underexplored area of investigation, making Johnston et al.’s effort particularly worthwhile. But although the authors essentially endorse the current U.S. approach of strategic ambiguity, their results arguably support the opposite conclusion — that strategic clarity will positively contribute to deterring China.

But is strategic clarity possible? Josh Rovner maintains that efforts to resolve ambiguity are a waste of time because neither Beijing nor even Washington can know with certainty how the United States will react in a crisis. But this is true even of America’s formal alliance commitments. Deterrence has always been a challenge. If American leaders could persuade their Soviet counterparts that the United States would wage a nuclear war to defend the free half of a divided city behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, it should be within the wherewithal of U.S. leaders today to clearly convey seriousness of purpose in defending Taiwan going forward. With the growing threat to peace in the Taiwan Strait emanating primarily from China — not from Taiwan — American officials should begin the hard work of doing so. 

Outlining the Debate

The intersection of a number of trends makes a Taiwan Strait crisis in the next 10 years far more likely than it had been over the last two decades. Xi appears to be a true believer in the cause of “reunification” and has exerted personal control over a Chinese military that will soon have a reasonable shot at successfully invading Taiwan. His inflexibility in dealing with the Tsai government in Taipei, which has been cautious and conservative in its approach to cross-strait relations, and his disinterest in winning hearts and minds in Taiwan both suggest he recognizes peaceful unification is not in the cards anytime soon. With domestic challenges mounting — an arguably stagnating economy, environmental degradation, demographic implosion — at a time when Xi’s leadership is set to extend beyond the two-term norm set by his predecessors, solving the “Taiwan question” might be enormously appealing. If the People’s Liberation Army begins telling Xi “yes, we can” instead of “no, we cannot,” the temptation to resort to force against Taiwan will only grow.

Meanwhile, although Taiwan lies only 80 miles from China at its closest point, the two are separated by yawning political and societal gaps. Those gaps are growing wider. According to public opinion surveys, the number of people in Taiwan identifying as Taiwanese has trended consistently upward over the past three decades, while the numbers identifying as either Chinese or both Taiwanese and Chinese have trended downward. Today, 64.3 percent of survey respondents identify as Taiwanese, up from 17.6 percent in 1992. There has also been growing support for independence and shrinking support for unification since the early 1990s, although the majority of respondents prefer to maintain the status quo for the time being.

In other words, physicists may soon get an answer to a question that has long vexed them: What happens when an unstoppable force (in this case, China) meets an immoveable object (Taiwan)? To avert such a collision, some (myself included) have argued that it is time for Washington to set aside its policy of strategic ambiguity in favor of strategic clarity. Proponents of clarity see a number of benefits, foremost among them lessening any doubts in Beijing about American intentions.

Johnston et al. get the basic gist of the pro-ambiguity and pro-clarity arguments correct, but they miss important points on both sides. For those favoring strategic clarity, for example, it is important to consider that the balance of risk has changed, a point the authors overlook. Today, China using force appears far more likely than a Taiwanese declaration of independence: While Beijing is committed to unification one way or another, Taiwan’s voters have proved themselves cautious custodians of cross-strait relations, even rejecting a proposal to compete at the Olympics under the name of “Taiwan” instead of “Chinese Taipei” as recently as 2018. But to date, that shift has not led to a fundamental change in the American approach. The United States continues trying to deter both outcomes with one policy: strategic ambiguity. Proponents of clarity would prefer Washington focus its efforts on deterring the real threat to peace in Asia, which they argue comes from the intersection of China’s advancing military capabilities and what they see as Beijing’s emerging intent to use them.

The authors also miss a key pro-ambiguity argument. Clarity would be destabilizing, this argument goes, not because it would encourage Taiwan to declare independence, but rather because it could eliminate nonviolent routes to unification. If Taiwan knows that the United States will definitely intervene on its behalf, the thinking in Beijing might go, Taipei will have reduced incentive to submit to less violent forms of coercion. But why would Taiwan ever agree to unification if it has a U.S. security guarantee? If Beijing did embrace such thinking, it could make use of force more likely as force will be the only path by which China can secure unification.

This compelling argument for ambiguity, however, relies on two questionable assumptions: that the Chinese leadership has not already given up on peaceful unification and that the leadership is content with accepting Taiwan’s de facto independence indefinitely. But Xi Jinping can read the public opinion polling referenced above as easily as we can. He almost certainly knows there are few if any paths to a future in which Taiwan would willingly choose subsummation. He has, moreover, made unification a key aspect of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” which he has promised to deliver by midcentury. Indeed, even if as-yet unforeseen developments do not lead China to act in the coming decade, there may well be a deadline for unification: 2049 is the all-important centenary of the People’s Republic of China.

What the Data Show (And What They Don’t)

One argument in support of strategic clarity is that it will enhance morale in Taiwan, which will in turn contribute to more effective deterrence vis-à-vis China. Some public polling points to defeatist attitudes among Taiwan’s population regarding the country’s ability to defend itself and personal willingness to contribute to such a fight. A 2019 survey, for example, “found that a plurality (almost 45 percent) plan to ‘leave the country,’ ‘unhappily accept the situation,’ ‘hide’ or ‘choose to surrender’ if there is war. … 23 percent ‘don’t know’ how they might respond.” When lives and livelihoods are on the line, it may turn out that such polling was not predictive — and some political scientists have tracked growing willingness to fight over time — but for now, these results do little to give Beijing pause.

On the other hand, the theory goes, if Taiwan knows that it will not have to fight alone, it will be less likely to conclude that resistance to Chinese aggression will be futile and, in turn, more likely to commit the blood and treasure required to fight for what otherwise might be a lost cause. Johnston et al. found evidence to support this contention. Their 2019 survey sought to measure whether “the degree of certainty with which Americans would come to Taiwan’s military defense” has an effect on Taiwanese “willingness to fight” in the event of a hypothetical Chinese attack. Unsurprisingly, “willingness to fight” goes up as the U.S. position shifts from nonintervention to ambiguity to clarity. As a result, the authors argue, “strategic clarity would appear to be better for deterring China so long as there is no prior declaration of independence.”

The authors also explored the potential effects of strategic clarity on Taiwanese views toward independence. In particular, they sought to measure “the likelihood that respondents will support Taiwanese independence after being attacked by the People’s Republic of China” under conditions in which U.S. support is unclear and in which the United States comes to Taiwan’s defense. Johnston at al. conclude that “confidence in American military intervention appears to increase support for independence” in the event that China uses force. Put plainly, this is not a useful scenario to present to respondents when trying to suss out the deterrent effects of strategic ambiguity versus clarity. The authors contend that clarity increases support for independence, which makes Chinese use of force more likely. But in the scenarios they present, China’s use of force is an independent variable. In effect, deterrence has already failed, irrespective of Taiwanese views on independence.

These findings, in fact, lead to a conclusion at odds with that presented by the authors. If strategic clarity leads to greater support for independence following an attack on Taiwan, this arguably bolsters the case for clarity. In such a scenario, and especially in the event China does not achieve rapid victory, the already-limited space for a negotiated settlement is far narrower than if there were less support for independence. In other words, under conditions in which the United States is committed to defending Taiwan, China’s use of force is more likely to result in a nightmare outcome for Beijing — defeat in battle and Taiwan’s de jure independence. Or put another way, it will be far more difficult for China to find a way to declare victory on the homefront even while failing to annex Taiwan if Taipei has adopted a maximalist goal in response to Chinese aggression. Strategic clarity, then, should give Beijing more cause to think twice.


Although there is no silver bullet for staving off a conflict, clarifying the American commitment to defend Taiwan could put cross-strait ties on firmer footing. Today, it is China that is the primary source of tension in the Taiwan Strait. Although it has refrained from using lethal force against Taiwan since the second Taiwan Strait crisis in the late 1950s, its goal remains fundamentally revisionist: to annex a foreign country that is independent in all but name. A Taiwanese move toward formal independence would likewise be revisionist in nature. But there is an elementary difference between the two: While the Chinese party-state is avowedly committed to “reunification,” there is no such commitment to independence in Taiwan. And while future Taiwanese leaders may not be the responsible stewards of cross-strait ties that Tsai Ing-wen is today, it is difficult to imagine a future in which any party besides China is the one that opts for war.

That is why deterring Beijing, not Taipei, should be the name of the game. What is more, this imbalance of risk comes at a time when the post-1979 Taiwan Strait settlement — based on a “One China” fiction — is fraying. China appears less willing to go on feigning that peaceful unification is possible. Taiwan, for its part, is less willing to embrace a “One China” framework in its engagement with China. The United States, meanwhile, is less keen to pretend that Taiwan is not a sovereign state with which it should be able to engage at will.

The fundamental question is whether China, Taiwan, and the United States can find a new modus vivendi in the Taiwan Strait. Can a new arrangement secure Taiwan’s functionally independent existence, avoid creating regime-threatening domestic political difficulties for the Chinese leadership, and safeguard the U.S. position in Asia? Strategic clarity could ultimately help create the conditions for such a settlement to emerge.



Michael Mazza is a nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a senior nonresident fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute, and a nonresident fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Image: Xinhua (Photo by Liu Dawei)