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How China sees the U.S. policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’ in the Taiwan Strait

Changes in U.S. policy have heightened Beijing’s concerns about an incremental drift toward Taiwan independence.

- October 15, 2020

Tensions are running high across the Taiwan Strait. Beijing sent a number of warplanes close to Taiwan’s airspace last month, and China Central Television aired a large-scale simulated assault on Taiwan this past weekend. Taiwan has increased its defense spending, purchasing advanced weaponry from the United States, and conducted military exercises of its own.

Foreign policy analysts both within the U.S. government and outside have called for greater U.S. support for Taiwan. Some policymakers support a shift away from Washington’s long-standing policy of “strategic ambiguity” — which avoids making it clear what the U.S. responses would be in a military conflict across the strait — toward strategic clarity, with an unambiguous and unconditional U.S. security commitment to Taiwan.

What would be the implications of such a move? These three factors weigh on Beijing’s likely response.

1. China fears Taiwan’s incremental drift toward independence

The dominant view in Washington attributes the deterioration of cross-strait relations in recent years to Beijing’s unilateral change of the status quo, most notably through military intimidation and diplomatic isolation of Taipei. From Beijing’s perspective, however, the status quo changed when Taiwan’s leader Tsai Ing-wen chose not to fully embrace the “1992 consensus” at the time of her May 2016 inauguration.

The 1992 consensus refers to the understanding between Beijing and Taipei that there is one China, but they can have different interpretations of whether the one China means the People’s Republic of China in Beijing or the Republic of China on Taiwan. With the 1992 consensus, Beijing got the affirmation of “one China” and Taipei got some flexibility. Tsai did try to move closer to the 1992 consensus by acknowledging the “historical fact” of the 1992 talks and vowing to respect Taiwan’s constitution, but stopped short of explicitly accepting the 1992 consensus.

After a brief period of mutual restraint in the beginning of Tsai’s administration, Chinese commentators grew increasingly suspicious, claiming the Tsai government was pursuing “historical and cultural Taiwan independence” as well as the “de-Sinicization” of cross-strait relations. They pointed to examples of downplaying Chinese history in Taiwan’s textbooks, and encouraging Taiwanese business executives to move out of mainland China. Beijing responded by peeling away Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, refusing Taiwan’s participation in international organizations, and putting China’s military power on display.

2. To Beijing, Washington also appears to be changing the status quo

Many Chinese observers have grown concerned that the Trump administration seems to be revising the U.S. “one China policy,” in which Washington recognizes Beijing as the sole legal government of China, but still maintains an unofficial relationship with Taipei. China fears that Washington is taking a “whole-of-government” approach to upgrading ties with Taipei, including high-level visits, Taiwan’s participation in international organizations, and cooperation on 5G, as well as increased economic relations and arms sales.

Beijing is also concerned by the language the U.S. government has used to refer to Taiwan. Though the United States — along with most of the countries in the world — does not officially recognize Taiwan as a “country,” the U.S. Defense Department’s June 2019 Indo-Pacific Strategy Report described Taiwan as one of the “four countries” with which the United States would strengthen partnerships. And the TAIPEI Act of 2019 mentions Taiwan as a “nation.”

These developments have left Chinese observers increasingly anxious about the lead-up to the U.S. election, and the fact that President Trump is trailing in the polls as coronavirus cases are rising. Some observers in Beijing are concerned that Trump would take extraordinary steps vis-a-vis Taiwan — a particularly sensitive issue for Beijing — to appear “tough on China” and boost his electoral prospects.

3. Beijing faces nationalist pressure at home

Many in China, meanwhile, have grown pessimistic about the prospects for peaceful unification. Chinese analysts have long noted the growing share of Taiwan residents who identify as Taiwanese rather than Chinese, or both Chinese and Taiwanese. And Taiwan’s opposition Kuomintang, which generally advocates for a closer relationship with Beijing, has declining support, especially among younger voters. After a landslide electoral defeat in early 2020, the Kuomintang now appears to be wavering about the 1992 consensus.

These developments, in addition to the Trump administration’s high-profile moves like sailing a warship through the Taiwan Strait and sending senior U.S. officials to Taiwan, elicit very strong nationalistic reactions from Chinese citizens. As Washington stepped up its efforts to help Taiwan, some on Chinese social media have called for “unification by force.”

How might Beijing respond to a shift in U.S. policy?

Beijing has rejected in principle any foreign interference on the Taiwan issue, but in practice has found at least half of the U.S. “strategic ambiguity” policy useful. When Taiwan’s former leader Chen Shui-bian sought to move closer to Taiwan independence during 2002-2007, the Bush administration tried to rein in Chen and convinced Beijing that the United States did not support Taiwan independence.

A stronger show of support for Taiwan would likely lead Beijing to conclude that the United States now tacitly supports Taiwanese independence, some Chinese analysts believe. An unconditional U.S. security commitment, for example, could embolden Taiwan’s political leaders. The public nature of a shift of the U.S. declaratory policy toward strategic clarity will likely incite nationalistic sentiments in China, putting further pressure upon the Chinese leadership to respond firmly.

China has long factored in the possibility of a U.S. intervention in its operational plan for a Taiwan contingency. A shift to strategic clarity is unlikely to enhance Washington’s ability to deter Beijing if China decides to use force against Taiwan. But it would likely cement Beijing’s pessimism about trends toward Taiwan independence and the erosion of Washington’s one China commitment. Ironically, strong pessimism about where things are going has historically been a major cause for Chinese use of military force. The result could be the very conflict that Beijing, Washington and Taipei have long sought to avoid.

Jie Dalei is an associate professor in the School of International Studies at Peking University.