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The U.S.-Taiwan security relationship has been purposely ambiguous for four decades. But amid increasing Chinese threats of invasion, America’s commitment to Taiwan needs to be clearer, the island’s de facto ambassador to the United States said this week.
“We need some degree of clarity,” Hsiao Bi-khim, an American-educated lawmaker who became representative of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in Washington this summer, told Today’s WorldView.
The comments come amid soaring tensions between Taiwan and China. This weekend, China aired footage of a military exercise simulating an invasion of Taiwan, as well as a purported confession from a Taiwanese businessman Beijing is holding on spying charges. (Beijing considers Taiwan a breakaway province and has declared its plans for “reunification,” forceful or otherwise.)
Taiwan does not believe China is preparing for a “full-scale military attack,” Hsiao said. But there is “a risk of accident or miscalculation,” and there needs to be a clear “position that military force is not tolerated and that there are multiple stakeholders in the region that want to jointly assure stability and peace.”
Though they have not had diplomatic ties since 1979, informal relations between Taiwan and the United States are strong and growing. This year, shared concerns about China’s threat and the spread of the novel coronavirus brought unprecedented high-level meetings between the two.
But when it comes to the thorny question of whether the United States would intervene if China attacked Taiwan, the Trump administration has followed its predecessors in keeping to a policy of “strategic ambiguity,” refusing to directly answer the question. The initial logic behind the tactic was simple. Ambiguity not only kept China guessing, but it also stopped Taiwan from making potentially provocative moves.
However, with tensions rising again, calls for change appear to be growing inside and outside the White House. In an article for Foreign Affairs last month, Richard Haass and David Sacks argued it was time for a concrete U.S.-Taiwan security pact.
“The United States should adopt a position of strategic clarity, making explicit that it would respond to any Chinese use of force against Taiwan,” Haass and Sacks wrote.
Before President Trump’s term in office officially began, he had shown what was widely perceived as a willingness to upend the balancing act of America’s informal but close relationship with Taiwan.
Shortly after winning election in 2016, Trump received an unprecedented congratulatory phone call from Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen. But as he entered office and pursued a trade deal with Beijing, Taiwanese officials openly worried they’d become a “bargaining chip” in U.S.-China relations.
This year, as U.S. relations with China sunk to new lows and Taiwan’s remarkable success against the coronavirus garnered international headlines, Washington began to push a closer relationship — even as it risked angering Beijing.
U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar visited the country this summer, marking the highest-level visit to Taiwan by a Cabinet secretary since 1979. He was followed by State Department official Keith Krach. Reuters reported this week that the White House is moving forward with three sales of advanced weaponry to Taiwan.
Of course, it’s Trump’s Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, favored to win November’s presidential election, who may be dictating the future of U.S.-Taiwan foreign policy. Trump allies accuse Biden of being soft on China while serving on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and later as vice president.
In 2001, Biden wrote an opinion piece for The Washington Post defending strategic ambiguity. “As a matter of diplomacy, there is a huge difference between reserving the right to use force and obligating ourselves, a priori, to come to the defense of Taiwan,” he argued.
A lot has changed in 20 years: Taiwan has proved its democratic ethos, while U.S. concern about a Taiwan-China conflict has grown. Michèle Flournoy, speculated to be in the running for Biden’s defense secretary, has written of the need for new military capabilities to deter China from attacking Taiwan. But Biden has offered few hints of what his Taiwan policy would look like.
Citing diplomatic norms this week, Hsiao declined to offer specifics on the U.S. election. But she did acknowledge foreign policy may not be a priority for the United States as the country focused on finding solutions to the “broader domestic challenges of the economic situation, the post-pandemic recovery.”
Calls for clarity seem to be a shift for Taiwan. “As far as I know, prior administrations in Taiwan have not asked for a clear U.S. commitment to defend Taiwan,” Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who has argued against a change in policy, wrote in an email.
“I believe that [Tsai] recognizes that such a shift in U.S. policy could provoke a crisis with China, and therefore would not welcome it,” Glaser continued. “That said, if the U.S. consulted the Tsai administration, it would trigger a debate about whether such an offer would ever come again and whether the risks were acceptable.”
Haass and Sacks argue the Trump administration’s erratic foreign policy has highlighted the need for a strategic change. The U.S. government had sown “seeds of doubt as to whether the United States would come to the aid of its friends and allies,” the scholars wrote.
A stalled U.S.-Taiwan trade deal also hints at underlying distance, with reports that U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer has blocked talks in deference to China. “We hope that Taiwan is not seen … as a function of the status of relations with the [People’s Republic of China], especially on the economic side,” Hsiao said when asked about those reports.
In Taiwan, the subject of strategic ambiguity is debated with considerable nuance, Hsiao explained, with disagreement about “what degree of clarity” is in Taiwan’s interest. But she rejected the idea that Taiwan could be pushed by more hawkish voices in Washington. “I have not considered at all the possibility of too much support for Taiwan,” she said.
If there are differences between Taipei and Washington, Hsiao is well-placed to balance them. She is Taiwan’s first female representative in Washington. Unlike her predecessors, she is politically appointed and served as a lawmaker in Tsai’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party until earlier this year.
She also knows America well: She moved to the United States as a teenager and finished high school and college here. She ended up leaving a PhD program at Columbia University to return to Taiwan in 1996 for its first democratic elections — a vote that prompted China to fire missiles inside Taiwan’s territorial waters.
“It was a milestone in our democracy, and yet the Chinese were firing missiles,” Hsiao said, adding that despite her return home she saw it as her “destiny to be a bridge between Taiwan and the U.S.”