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 itsresponse would be if conflict broke out in the Taiwan Strait. Former assistant secretary ofdefence Joseph Nye was only a little more blunt than other US officials when he told hisChinese 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 ambiguityin an emotional, off-hand remark to a congressional committee.

He made the comment while responding to withering criticism by some members of theHouse International Relations Committee about the Bush administration's refusal to allowTaiwanese President Chen Shui-bian to make a transit stop in the continental US. Mr Zoellickwarned that Washington should not become too supportive of Taiwan, because that wouldencourage 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 theTaiwanese cause, it is more likely to be seen as a green light by the pro-independencefaction in Taiwan. For strategic ambiguity to work, both Taipei and Beijing must be uncertainof the US response to a crisis. That uncertainty supposedly will lead to caution in bothcapitals.

The Taiwanese could assume that the US would come to their defence if Beijing launched anunprovoked 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 anycircumstances.

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

Mr Chen and the hardline elements of the Democratic Progressive Party could scarcelyimagine a clearer green light for their goal of an independent Taiwan. And, given theturbulent politics in Taiwan these days, Washington has even more reason than usual toworry about what Mr Chen might do during his final two years in office. His administration iscurrently 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 policyagenda Mr Chen might have is dead on arrival.

He may well believe that his only chance for a lasting legacy is to validate Taiwan'sindependence - even given the threat of a military response from the mainland. Now that heknows 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 mercyof decisions in both Beijing and Taipei over which it has little or no control. A precipitousaction by either capital could plunge the US into war. And Washington may now have toworry more about Taiwan's conduct than the mainland's.

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