A Need for Ambiguity

In an interview Wednesday on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” President Bush said the United States would do “whatever it took” to help Taiwan defend itself, up to and including the use of military force. The White House later insisted that Mr. Bush had said nothing new. But his crystal-clear statement was unquestionably a departure from the longstanding policy of strategic ambiguity—in which the United States expresses a strong interest in Taiwan’s security while avoiding an outright promise to defend it in war.

In one sense, Mr. Bush is right. The United States could never stand by and watch China swallow Taiwan. Even though we have not had a formal security treaty with Taiwan since the 1970’s, it is a thriving democracy of 23 million people that remains an important friend. Doing nothing while China seized it would make our other allies question our commitment to their defense—and might even lead some to consider embarking on dangerous military buildups.

However, China does not have the means to invade Taiwan. If leaders in Beijing ever elect to use force, they will probably try to coerce Taipei with missile strikes or a naval blockade rather than trying to seize the island. Under those circumstances, the United States would want the option of doing nothing—at least at first. President Bush’s ill-considered statement takes a step toward depriving us of that option.

Consider a specific possibility. What if Taiwan clearly moved toward declaring independence and China replied with a limited attack? China might launch one or two conventionally armed missiles against Taiwan’s territory and then demand that Taipei renounce its statements about independence or face further strikes. Or China might deploy its submarines to blockade ships headed toward Taiwan until Taipei reaffirmed its commitment to the concept of a single China.

Under the policy of strategic ambiguity that has been followed by the last four
American presidents, Washington could take a judicious approach in such a situation. It could insist that China call off the attacks and could threaten military action—while quietly telling Taipei to retract any independence rhetoric if it expected American military help. Such a strategy might well work in quelling the conflict before it escalated and before it directly involved the United States.

Unfortunately, Mr. Bush’s statement would seem to commit the United States to help Taiwan in all circumstances. His pledge of American military help if China should attack Taiwan was unequivocal and unambiguous. Taiwan would get our prompt assistance regardless of whether it renounced provocative statements, whether China’s attack was limited or open-ended, or whether we had good military options available.

The China-Taiwan relationship is one of the most dangerous in the world. President
Bush treated it with proper care in his carefully balanced arms sales package for Taiwan, but he mishandled it Wednesday. In this case, clarification of intent is likely to make the Taiwan Strait a less stable, more dangerous place.