The US's clear and unambiguous strategy towards the Taiwan Strait

Chinese academic Deng Qingbo believes that the US has never been ambiguous about its policy towards the Taiwan Strait. Theirs has always been a clear policy dictated by the US’s national interests, in particular those of the financial and military-industrial capitalists. The US’s stance in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine crisis supports this view. Are debates about whether the US policy should move from “strategic ambiguity” to "strategic clarity" moot?
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen oversees a military drill during the annual Han Kuang exercise, in Penghu, Taiwan, 25 May 2017. (Taiwan Presidential Office/Handout via Reuters)
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen oversees a military drill during the annual Han Kuang exercise, in Penghu, Taiwan, 25 May 2017. (Taiwan Presidential Office/Handout via Reuters)

Taiwan and Ukraine are fundamentally different and not comparable. However, when the US refused to send troops and did little to help Ukraine, Taiwan became anxious that the US would be unable to do much if China attempted to reunite with Taiwan by force in the future.  

Recently, there has been a flurry of discussions on whether the US should make a policy shift from “strategic ambiguity” to “strategic clarity” towards the Taiwan Strait. However, it is important to note that the US has never adopted a so-called policy of strategic ambiguity towards the Taiwan Strait. This is because its strategy has been clear from the start: the Taiwan issue must be fully subordinate to the US’s national interests. 

A clear and unambiguous strategy

Although the US is full of praise for Taiwan and calls it a “beacon of democracy”, these empty praises will come to nothing once the US’s national interests are at stake — the US will not hesitate to make decisions in the interests of its own country, just as how it announced its recognition of the People’s Republic of China in 1979, forsaking the Taiwan authorities.       

Because of this clear strategy, the orientation of the US’s policy towards both sides of the Taiwan Strait is very clear as well: from China’s perspective, the US is clearly playing the Taiwan card to contain China. It wants to use the Taiwan issue to coerce China for its own benefit, but will never truly support the reunification of both sides of the Taiwan Strait. From Taiwan’s perspective, while the US has repeatedly emphasised in the past and present that it does not support Taiwan independence, this is because it is not yet time to show its hand.

As the US’s national interests are subject to change over time, its Taiwan policy, in turn, appears to be “ambiguous”.

A Taiwanese soldier takes part in a demonstration at an army base in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, on 6 January 2022. (Sam Yeh/AFP)
A Taiwanese soldier takes part in a demonstration at an army base in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, on 6 January 2022. (Sam Yeh/AFP)

However, US politicians certainly understand that the status quo cannot be maintained forever. By hindering cross-strait reunification and maintaining a divide, residents on both sides of the Taiwan Strait will inevitably grow more hostile towards each other over the long term, making reunification even more difficult. In other words, the US’s strategy of condoning Taiwan independence forces is also very clear.        

Thus, the US’s Taiwan policy essentially consists of one clear strategy that is subordinate to the US’s national interests, and is served by two distinct policies.

US national interests led by monopoly capitalists

As the US’s national interests are subject to change over time, its Taiwan policy, in turn, appears to be “ambiguous”. For example, the US would sometimes openly condemn and assert its opposition against Taiwan independence. But at other times, it selectively ignores or covertly encourages and condones the Taiwan Democratic Progressive Party’s various acts of “de-sinicisation” and behaviours that promote its pro-independence agenda.        

The Covid-19 pandemic has taken the lives of over 900,000 people in the US but its politicians have chosen to ignore it. This again highlights that while the US claims to be the leader of democratic nations, its policies are not truly in the interests of the everyday American but are instead typical of monopoly capitalist countries. 

In other words, the national interest of the US is equivalent to the interest of monopoly capitalists — specifically, the Wall Street and military-industrial capitalists.

Hence, a two-pronged Taiwan policy is necessary, and there is no ambiguity in this as well.

People are seen on Wall Street outside the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York City, US, 19 March 2021. (Brendan McDermid/File Photo/Reuters)
People are seen on Wall Street outside the New York Stock Exchange in New York City, US, 19 March 2021. (Brendan McDermid/File Photo/Reuters)

Hence, while the US’s national interests are subject to change over time, we will know the boundaries within which its national interests lie, as long as we also know the boundaries within which the interests of Wall Street and military-industrial capitalists lie. From this perspective, the US’s national interests are clear, and its China and Taiwan policies are even clearer and not at all ambiguous.   

On this basis, US capitalists, especially Wall Street “predators”, currently still have much to gain from China’s rapidly developing market. At the same time, moderate cross-strait tensions and arms sales to Taiwan are also in the interests of US military-industrial groups.

Hence, a two-pronged Taiwan policy is necessary, and there is no ambiguity in this as well. On one hand, the US has to keep its relations with China intact and will not support Taiwan independence right away. On the other hand, it will continue its arms sales to Taiwan while also demanding more benefits, such as forcing the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) to set up a factory in the US and pressuring Taiwan to approve imports of ractopamine-fed US pork.

As for whether the US will send troops to Taiwan, that will of course depend on where the US’s national interests lie at the time.

Reaping benefits from battlegrounds

Looking ahead, if mainland China continues to grow stronger, and the economies of China and the US move from complementing to strongly competing with each other — especially with increasing competition in core interests such as the technology sector and finance — the US’s Taiwan policy, which is based on its national interests, will become clearer. That is, the US will not hesitate to use Taiwan to provoke and entrap China, and drag both sides of the Taiwan Strait into a war to disrupt China’s development, in turn creating a lasting wound between brethren, just as it is doing with Ukraine.

As for whether the US will send troops to Taiwan, that will of course depend on where the US’s national interests lie at the time. It is too early to say now as the US’s interests could change, which has led many people to believe in its strategic ambiguity. 

However, the truth is clear. With a powerful China, just as in the case of Russia which is also a formidable match against the US, neither the US financial nor military-industrial capitalist would gain from a direct conflict with China. In fact, they would be taking an enormous risk in doing so. Hence, the capitalists would adopt the same strategy as with Ukraine, muddy the waters, and turn to other areas to gain benefits.

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Taiwan’s reservists take part in a military training at a military base in Taoyuan on 12 March 2022. (Sam Yeh/AFP)

Similarly, in Ukraine, the US’s approach is to drag Russia into war and force all of Europe to abandon the strategy of facilitating cooperation with Russia. By tying up Europe and NATO, European safe-haven capital has flowed into the US in large quantities, and the US military-industrial complex has continued to reap the monopoly benefits of NATO's existence.

Clearly, the US will try to replicate this approach for the Taiwan issue in future, by stirring up a conflict between mainland China and Taiwan. The US will not and will not have the need to send troops. Capital from mainland China and Taiwan, and even the whole of the Asia Pacific region, will flow to the US as a safe haven, while the opportunity for US arms sales expands.

From the abovementioned, it is indeed laughable that Taiwan politicians are worrying over whether the US will send troops to Taiwan to fight against mainland China. This is because the answer is clear and the US’s strategy is clear. 

Therefore, Taiwan’s fate is also clear — if the people of Taiwan cannot read the situation and continue to allow pro-independence politicians to manipulate the political situation in line with the US’s strategy, then Taiwan will just become a battleground where US financial and military-industrial capitalists will reap the benefits, while risking peace in the Taiwan Strait and even the Asia Pacific region.

China has its own policy direction and approach in resolving the Taiwan issue. It will not build its policy on speculation about whether the US will send troops.

‘Consistent, robust, bipartisan and longstanding’ approach

Currently, academic discussions on whether the US should stick to strategic ambiguity on Taiwan is inconclusive because even if the US declares whether or not it will send troops to Taiwan, this strategic clarity may change at any time according to US’s national interests. For example, will the US be able to fulfil its commitment to send troops under any circumstances? This is still questionable and remains ambiguous. 

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This handout picture taken and released by Taiwan’s Presidential Office on 3 March 2022 shows Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen (centre) walking with former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo (left) during his visit to the Presidential Office in Taipei. (Handout/Presidential Office/AFP)

In other words, the US does not have a choice between strategic ambiguity or clarity on Taiwan, to begin with, only a choice to gain the greatest interests for US financial and military-industrial capitalists. Hence, it is easy to understand what White House Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell meant by the so-called “consistent, robust, bipartisan and longstanding” position on Taiwan.

China has its own policy direction and approach in resolving the Taiwan issue. It will not build its policy on speculation about whether the US will send troops. This is because, for China’s policymakers, the US’s strategy towards Taiwan is clear and unambiguous. In fact, countries in the region also should not pin their hopes of regional peace and stability on whether the US will send their troops. For the US, its national interests trump everything else. 

Countries in the Asia Pacific region must learn from Europe. Europe has been the biggest loser in the Ukraine crisis, facing a series of problems such as an influx of refugees, capital outflow, energy crunch and weakened autonomy. The Asia Pacific region would also be the loser in a future Taiwan Strait conflict if it is unable to avoid such a crisis. 

Related: Has the US shifted its position on Taiwan, again? | Lessons from Ukraine: Is it time to give up strategic ambiguity in the Taiwan Strait? | China-US relations: ‘Strategic clarity’ on Taiwan may lead to hot war | 'Afghanistan today, Taiwan tomorrow’?