US and Taiwan: Strategic Ambiguity, Increased Trade, and Weapons Sales

News AnalysisDespite several public slip-ups by the president, the U.S. policy of strategic ambiguity remains in place while the United States increases economic ties and weapons sales to Taiwan. On May 23, President Joe Biden stated publicly that the United States would fight for Taiwan, the third such comment in recent months. In all three instances, Beijing responded condemningly, and the White House walked back the president’s remarks. Still, Washington has issued statements reaffirming that there has been no change in U.S. policy regarding Taiwan. The Biden administration has vowed to increase economic engagement with the island nation and has been stepping up efforts to provide appropriate weapons to the Taiwanese army. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has motivated the U.S. government to encourage Taiwan to rethink its defense plans and purchase U.S. weapons capable of repelling a Chinese sea-born invasion in advance. Ukraine’s success thus far in making the Russians pay for each inch of territory taken has confirmed that a smaller, nimbler military with the right weapons can hold off or possibly defeat a much larger aggressor. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen is determined to orient the nation’s defenses towards asymmetric warfare, purchasing a large number of mobile lethal weapons, which will be difficult for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to target and counter. As the PLA grows more powerful, it is crucial that Taiwan, along with the United States and Japan, play an active role in defense of the Taiwan Strait. As a result of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) military modernization over decades, the PLA now has the largest navy in the world, and its land-based missile force is believed to have the capability to target specific U.S. ships at sea. Although the United States still has the better jet fighters, it has fewer bases in the region, giving the PLA a home court advantage. In March, a U.S. delegation of five former senior national security officials visited Taiwan to meet with Tsai to discuss the island’s defense strategy and weapons purchases. While the Taiwanese defense ministry has accepted many U.S. recommendations regarding appropriate weapons, they are not always in complete agreement. Attempts were made to purchase several weapons, including the Lockheed Martin MH-60R Seahawk helicopter; however, American advisers feel these are ill-suited for the specific mission of defending Taiwan from a CCP invasion. Lt. Gen. Scott D. Berrier, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said on May 3 that Taiwan and the United States could learn much from Ukraine’s defense against Russia to determine which weapons and strategies would work best against a PLA invasion. A U.S. Navy MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter from the “Blue Hawks” of Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 78 fires chaff flares during a training exercise near the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson in the Philippine Sea on April 24, 2017. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Sean M. Castellano/Handout via Reuters) The United States maintains an official position of “strategic ambiguity” regarding Taiwan. While the U.S. government recognizes only “one China,” it obligates itself under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 to provide Taiwan the means to defend itself from a PLA invasion. The term “ambiguity” refers to the fact that it is not clear if, in addition to providing Taiwan with weapons and training, the United States would actually fight for Taiwan. As tensions between the United States and the Chinese regime escalate, some U.S. lawmakers have called for an end to strategic ambiguity. Japan’s former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe published an article in April 2022, which stated that the United States should clarify whether or not it would fight for Taiwan. As Japan views its own defense becoming more closely entwined with that of Taiwan, the Japanese want to know if they can count on the Americans if conflict breaks out. Abe said that doubts about the U.S. willingness to fight might make the situation more dangerous as it would embolden China. Another take on strategic ambiguity is that it may be a greater deterrent than a public commitment to fight. An official commitment would likely instigate a war. Additionally, the Chinese regime might launch an attack on U.S. forces, probably in Japan, if it knew for sure that the United States would fight. However, if the regime thought the United States would not fight, it would invade Taiwan first while being careful not to suck Japan or the United States into the conflict. Consequently, strategic ambiguity may be the best strategy because Beijing is uncertain of what to do. It would not risk a preemptive strike on the United States because this would almost certainly lead to war with Japan, the United States, and Taiwan. The United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and India would likely enter the conflict against China as well. Recently, the United States rejected Ta

US and Taiwan: Strategic Ambiguity, Increased Trade, and Weapons Sales

News Analysis

Despite several public slip-ups by the president, the U.S. policy of strategic ambiguity remains in place while the United States increases economic ties and weapons sales to Taiwan.

On May 23, President Joe Biden stated publicly that the United States would fight for Taiwan, the third such comment in recent months. In all three instances, Beijing responded condemningly, and the White House walked back the president’s remarks. Still, Washington has issued statements reaffirming that there has been no change in U.S. policy regarding Taiwan. The Biden administration has vowed to increase economic engagement with the island nation and has been stepping up efforts to provide appropriate weapons to the Taiwanese army.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has motivated the U.S. government to encourage Taiwan to rethink its defense plans and purchase U.S. weapons capable of repelling a Chinese sea-born invasion in advance. Ukraine’s success thus far in making the Russians pay for each inch of territory taken has confirmed that a smaller, nimbler military with the right weapons can hold off or possibly defeat a much larger aggressor.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen is determined to orient the nation’s defenses towards asymmetric warfare, purchasing a large number of mobile lethal weapons, which will be difficult for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to target and counter. As the PLA grows more powerful, it is crucial that Taiwan, along with the United States and Japan, play an active role in defense of the Taiwan Strait.

As a result of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) military modernization over decades, the PLA now has the largest navy in the world, and its land-based missile force is believed to have the capability to target specific U.S. ships at sea. Although the United States still has the better jet fighters, it has fewer bases in the region, giving the PLA a home court advantage.

In March, a U.S. delegation of five former senior national security officials visited Taiwan to meet with Tsai to discuss the island’s defense strategy and weapons purchases.

While the Taiwanese defense ministry has accepted many U.S. recommendations regarding appropriate weapons, they are not always in complete agreement. Attempts were made to purchase several weapons, including the Lockheed Martin MH-60R Seahawk helicopter; however, American advisers feel these are ill-suited for the specific mission of defending Taiwan from a CCP invasion.

Lt. Gen. Scott D. Berrier, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said on May 3 that Taiwan and the United States could learn much from Ukraine’s defense against Russia to determine which weapons and strategies would work best against a PLA invasion.

helicopter
A U.S. Navy MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter from the “Blue Hawks” of Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 78 fires chaff flares during a training exercise near the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson in the Philippine Sea on April 24, 2017. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Sean M. Castellano/Handout via Reuters)

The United States maintains an official position of “strategic ambiguity” regarding Taiwan. While the U.S. government recognizes only “one China,” it obligates itself under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 to provide Taiwan the means to defend itself from a PLA invasion. The term “ambiguity” refers to the fact that it is not clear if, in addition to providing Taiwan with weapons and training, the United States would actually fight for Taiwan.

As tensions between the United States and the Chinese regime escalate, some U.S. lawmakers have called for an end to strategic ambiguity.

Japan’s former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe published an article in April 2022, which stated that the United States should clarify whether or not it would fight for Taiwan. As Japan views its own defense becoming more closely entwined with that of Taiwan, the Japanese want to know if they can count on the Americans if conflict breaks out. Abe said that doubts about the U.S. willingness to fight might make the situation more dangerous as it would embolden China.

Another take on strategic ambiguity is that it may be a greater deterrent than a public commitment to fight. An official commitment would likely instigate a war. Additionally, the Chinese regime might launch an attack on U.S. forces, probably in Japan, if it knew for sure that the United States would fight. However, if the regime thought the United States would not fight, it would invade Taiwan first while being careful not to suck Japan or the United States into the conflict.

Consequently, strategic ambiguity may be the best strategy because Beijing is uncertain of what to do. It would not risk a preemptive strike on the United States because this would almost certainly lead to war with Japan, the United States, and Taiwan. The United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and India would likely enter the conflict against China as well.

Recently, the United States rejected Taiwan’s bid to join the new Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) even though Taiwan has the 7th largest economy in Asia and plays a crucial role in global supply chains, particularly for microchips. Taiwan was excluded for fear of scaring off Southeast Asian nations that are heavily dependent on China.

On May 27, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai met with her Taiwanese counterpart, John Deng, to discuss deepening trade relations between the two countries. Formal talks are expected to be held in the coming weeks. Taiwan may also participate in the SelectUSA summit being held in Maryland in June. This summit facilitates foreign investment in the United States.

Whether or not the United States intends to defend Taiwan remains to be seen. However, it is clear that the United States is intensifying its economic engagement with the island nation in addition to its commitment to provide Taiwan with the weapons and strategies to defend itself from the Chinese regime.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.


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Antonio Graceffo, Ph.D., has spent more than 20 years in Asia. He is a graduate of the Shanghai University of Sport and holds a China-MBA from Shanghai Jiaotong University. Graceffo works as an economics professor and China economic analyst, writing for various international media. Some of his books on China include "Beyond the Belt and Road: China’s Global Economic Expansion" and "A Short Course on the Chinese Economy."