U.S. Analyst Urges Clarification of Taiwan Defense Strategy Amid Strategic Ambiguity

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    by Sidney Hunt
    Published: May 17, 2024 (4 weeks ago)

    As tensions simmer in the Taiwan Strait, a prominent U.S. defense analyst has called for a reevaluation and clarification of Taiwan’s defense strategy, citing the need to address ambiguities surrounding the island’s security commitments and deterrence posture. The plea comes amidst growing concerns about Taiwan’s ability to deter potential aggression from China and maintain stability in the region.

    Dr. Samantha Hayes, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), raised the issue in a recent policy paper titled “Taiwan’s Strategic Ambiguity: Clarifying Defense Posture in an Era of Uncertainty.” In her analysis, Hayes argues that Taiwan’s current policy of strategic ambiguity, which seeks to maintain uncertainty about the island’s defense commitments to deter Chinese aggression while avoiding provocation, has become increasingly untenable in the face of evolving geopolitical dynamics.

    “Taiwan’s strategic ambiguity served as a prudent approach during the Cold War era, when the geopolitical landscape was relatively stable and Taiwan’s security environment was less precarious,” Hayes wrote in the paper. “However, in today’s increasingly contested and unpredictable strategic environment, strategic ambiguity has become a liability, fueling uncertainty and undermining deterrence.”

    At the heart of the issue is the ambiguity surrounding Taiwan’s security commitments and the extent of U.S. support in the event of a Chinese military incursion. Under the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979, the United States is obligated to provide Taiwan with defensive weapons and to maintain the capacity to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security or social or economic system of the people of Taiwan.

    However, the TRA deliberately leaves ambiguous the question of whether the U.S. would intervene militarily to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack, a policy known as strategic ambiguity. This ambiguity is intended to deter Chinese aggression while providing the U.S. with flexibility in its response to a potential crisis in the Taiwan Strait.

    “Strategic ambiguity has served as a deterrent to Chinese aggression for decades, but its effectiveness is increasingly in doubt,” said Hayes. “China’s growing military capabilities, assertive behavior in the region, and rhetoric about reunification have raised doubts about the credibility of U.S. security assurances and Taiwan’s ability to defend itself.”

    Hayes argues that the ambiguity surrounding Taiwan’s defense strategy has created uncertainty among U.S. allies and partners in the region, who are unsure of America’s commitment to upholding the status quo in the Taiwan Strait. This uncertainty, she contends, could embolden China to escalate its pressure tactics against Taiwan, potentially leading to a destabilizing conflict with far-reaching consequences for regional security.

    “To maintain stability and deter potential aggression from China, Taiwan needs to clarify its defense strategy and enhance its deterrence capabilities,” Hayes wrote. “This requires a comprehensive reassessment of Taiwan’s security needs, a clear articulation of its defense commitments, and increased investments in defense capabilities to ensure its ability to defend itself against emerging threats.”

    Hayes’ policy paper has sparked debate among policymakers and analysts in Washington, with some endorsing her call for greater clarity in Taiwan’s defense strategy, while others caution against abandoning strategic ambiguity altogether. The issue is likely to remain a topic of discussion in U.S.-Taiwan relations as both countries seek to navigate the complex and rapidly evolving dynamics in the Indo-Pacific region.

    As tensions continue to simmer in the Taiwan Strait, the need for a clear and credible defense strategy for Taiwan is becoming increasingly urgent. How Taiwan chooses to address the ambiguities surrounding its security commitments will have significant implications for regional stability and the broader geopolitical landscape in East Asia.