December 18, 2022
From a Twitter thread I wrote on May 23, 2022:
1. How to evaluate Biden’s recent statements that the US would defend Taiwan in the event of an attack by China? Is this a smart thing, a dumb thing, or does it even matter? A thread.
2. On the one hand, the US has no formal obligation to defend Taiwan, at least not since 1979. The US opposes use of force to change the status quo, sells weapons to Taiwan to defend itself, but has not said exactly what it would do if Taiwan were attacked.
3. On the other hand, the working supposition by everyone, the Chinese, the US military, etc is that the US would intervene. This was the message sent by dispatching carrier groups to the Taiwan Straits numerous times over the years, when tensions rose.
4. So in many ways, Biden’s words don’t change anything except making the implicit a bit more explicit. But Biden’s words don’t carry the force of law, though they do carry the force of policy (the intentions that would define his decisions in a crisis).
5. A debate has quietly raged in DC over the tradition of “strategic ambiguity” towards Taiwan and whether it should be changed, and made less ambiguous.
6. Defenders of ambiguity say the policy has worked well for many years, and has successfully created a space for Taiwan to flourish without twisting Beijing’s tail.
7. They would also argue that ambiguity gives the US flexibility in gearing its response – and its commitment – to circumstances that can’t be fully foreseen. For instance, the US might not intervene if Taiwan was the prime mover in a crisis, by declaring independence.
8. Critics of ambiguity argue that Beijing’s intentions and capabilities have grown more assertive in recent years, requiring a more assertive deterrence. In its absence, China might miscalculate that the US would stand aside, when it actually wouldn’t.
9. Some (but not all) critics of ambiguity believe the US should be supportive of Taiwan declaring formal independence, and shouldn’t tacitly condition its commitment on Taiwan staying silent in this regard.
10. It could also be argued that announcing a formal commitment to defend Taiwan is a way of preparing American public opinion for the possibility we might go to war over the issue, and why.
11. Contrary to what you might hear in coming days, this is no a debate that breaks nicely along partisan lines. Many Republicans have criticized “strategic ambiguity” and urged a more explicit commitment, like Biden seemed to just give.
12. Here is Ted Cruz, for instance, pressing Biden’s appointee as US ambassador to China, and arguing that ambiguity signals weakness.
13. And here is Nancy Mace deliberately implying that Taiwan should be recognized as an independent country.
14. One would think Biden’s statement should please them, but I suspect that it won’t.
15. My own view is that there are many concrete things the US can do to signal its intentions and capabilities without making a formal pledge that might hamstring our decisions later. That in many ways, actions matter more than words.
16. I also think that while the US has long been committed to defend Taiwan if attacked, it has never committed to fight a war on its behalf to change its political status. That that is simply not a fight we ever signed up for.
17. Meanwhile, I think we should be educating the American public why defending Taiwan, if attacked, is something that matters to them and is worth American blood. Because if they aren’t convinced of this, all our words will be meaningless when the time comes.
18. If deterrence fails, and China calculates that the US will stand back – before or after suffering casualties – their perception of the will of the American people to fight – or not – will be the crucial factor in their decision, not words of US presidents or diplomats.
19. But other people I know who are knowledgeable about China and Taiwan have different views on all these points, and I respect them.
20. I think this is a valid criticism. I also think they’d be finding some grounds to criticize him no matter what he did or said.