Commentary

What Strategic Ambiguity?

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post on June 12, 2006.

For decades, the United States has practised a policy of “strategic ambiguity” about what its response would be if conflict broke out in the Taiwan Strait. Former assistant secretary of defence Joseph Nye was only a little more blunt than other US officials when he told his Chinese hosts in 1995: “We don’t know, and you don’t know.” But now another US official, Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, may have inadvertently eliminated any ambiguity in an emotional, off-hand remark to a congressional committee.

He made the comment while responding to withering criticism by some members of the House International Relations Committee about the Bush administration’s refusal to allow Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian to make a transit stop in the continental US. Mr Zoellick warned that Washington should not become too supportive of Taiwan, because that would encourage pro-independence forces on the island. “Let me be very clear,” he said. “Independence means war. And that means American soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines.”

Although his comment was clearly designed to dampen enthusiasm in Congress for the Taiwanese cause, it is more likely to be seen as a green light by the pro-independence faction in Taiwan. For strategic ambiguity to work, both Taipei and Beijing must be uncertain of the US response to a crisis. That uncertainty supposedly will lead to caution in both capitals.

The Taiwanese could assume that the US would come to their defence if Beijing launched an unprovoked attack, but a US rescue might not occur if Taiwan provoked the mainland. Conversely, Beijing would have to worry that the US might defend the island under any circumstances.

What Mr Zoellick said, however, is that US forces would intervene even if Taiwan created a crisis by asserting its independence. Strategic ambiguity has been revealed as a fraud. Mr Zoellick’s remark confirmed that Washington would prevent the mainland from conquering Taiwan regardless of how a conflict began.

Mr Chen and the hardline elements of the Democratic Progressive Party could scarcely imagine a clearer green light for their goal of an independent Taiwan. And, given the turbulent politics in Taiwan these days, Washington has even more reason than usual to worry about what Mr Chen might do during his final two years in office. His administration is currently buffeted by an array of financial scandals that has reached his immediate family. His public approval rating is even lower than President George W. Bush’s rating in the US. With the national legislature controlled by an opposition coalition, any domestic policy agenda Mr Chen might have is dead on arrival.

He may well believe that his only chance for a lasting legacy is to validate Taiwan’s independence - even given the threat of a military response from the mainland. Now that he knows US intervention is certain, he may be more inclined to take that step.

This development underscores the perilous nature of US policy. Washington is at the mercy of decisions in both Beijing and Taipei over which it has little or no control. A precipitous action by either capital could plunge the US into war. And Washington may now have to worry more about Taiwan’s conduct than the mainland’s.

Strategic ambiguity was a dubious policy which assumed that both Taipei and Beijing would assess the likely US response in exactly the way Washington wanted. But at least it gave the US the option of avoiding a war at the last minute by abandoning Taiwan. Mr Zoellick’s inadvertent candor has eliminated that option.

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.