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Published: 22:06, August 14, 2022 | Updated: 22:09, August 14, 2022
US being 'forced' into 'strategic clarity'?
By Lau Siu-kai
Published:22:06, August 14, 2022 Updated:22:09, August 14, 2022 By Lau Siu-kai

August 2022 will prove to be a significant turning point in the history of Sino-American relations over the question of Taiwan. Two decisive steps have been taken by China in the aftermath of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, a trip angrily denounced by Beijing. 

By successfully executing massive military exercises around Taiwan, the People’s Liberation Army has convincingly demonstrated that it can blockade the island or take it back by force and, at the same time, deter the US and Japan from coming to Taiwan’s defense. Immediately afterwards, Beijing released a white paper titled “The Taiwan Question and China’s Reunification in the New Era”. In the white paper, Beijing reaffirms its longstanding policy of prioritizing reunification through peaceful means, but it will resort to nonpeaceful means if necessary. The military exercises and the white paper together show that reunification by whatever means necessary is a primary national goal that will be pursued with determination whatever the costs entailed.

Before these momentous actions, embedded in Beijing’s policy toward Taiwan are certain elements of “strategic ambiguity” in the sense that Beijing refuses to spell out its preferred date of reunification and vows to take drastic action only when Taiwan declares not only de facto independence but also de jure independence or when foreign armed forces have entered the island. The military exercises and the white paper have largely dispelled Beijing’s “strategic ambiguity”. Instead, by adopting “strategic clarity”, Beijing deliberately and, in no uncertain terms, declares that it will not wait indefinitely and will instead accelerate the process of national reunification through cross-Straits political negotiation over the details of the policy of “one country, two systems”. If peaceful reunification fails, then nonpeaceful reunification will result. Beijing leaves it an open question whether the favorable terms in the policy of “one country, two systems” offered to Taiwan will still be applicable if reunification is achieved primarily by force.

By practicing “strategic clarity”, Beijing has eschewed its more or less “passive” or “defensive” stance and instead seized the initiative over the Taiwan question. The mode, peaceful or unpeaceful, of China’s reunification, hence, hinges upon the way the US reacts to Beijing’s initiative. Undeniably, the eventual decision of the US will have a decisive impact on the attitude of Taiwan’s residents toward national reunification.

After establishing a diplomatic relationship with China in 1979, the US adopted a policy of “strategic ambiguity” over the Taiwan question. The rapid rise of China and her being designated as a “strategic threat” by the US has changed the US calculus toward Taiwan. Thenceforth, since Taiwan can be used as an ally in US policy to contain and weaken China, an eternally divided China is in the best national interest of the US. Nonetheless, instead of clearly stating that the US will come to Taiwan’s military rescue if the mainland “invades” Taiwan, the US has consistently followed a policy of “strategic ambiguity”, leaving Beijing uncertain as to whether the US will go to war with China over Taiwan. To the US, “strategic ambiguity” serves the purpose of deterring Beijing from taking the unpeaceful path toward national reunification.

In my opinion, the policy of “strategic ambiguity” is taken because, according to international laws and agreements, the US has no moral right or legal basis to intervene in cross-Straits affairs. As pointed out in the white paper, the one-China principle was enshrined in the Cairo Declaration in 1943, the Potsdam Declaration of 1945 and the UN General Assembly Resolution 2758 in 1971. That Taiwan is an integral part of China is embedded in the one-China principle. This one-China principle is also endorsed by the three China-US joint communiques in 1972, 1979 and 1982. In all the communiques, the US “acknowledges” the Chinese position that there is only one China and Taiwan is part of China. In addition, in the Joint Communique on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations between the People's Republic of China and the United States of America in 1979, the US recognizes the government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole government of China. When taking together, all the international declarations and the bilateral agreements between the US and the PRC leave no doubt that there is only one China, that this one China is the PRC, that Taiwan is an inalienable part of the PRC, and that the government of the PRC is the only legitimate government of China. It’s thus right for the white paper to assert that “the one-China principle represents the universal consensus of the international community; it is consistent with the basic norms of international relations”. It’s also right for the white paper to say that “we are one China, and Taiwan is part of China. This is an indisputable fact supported by history and the law. Taiwan has never been a state; its status as part of China is unalterable”.

Nevertheless, in pursuing the strategy of containing and weakening China by permanently dividing her, many American leaders and officials opt to cunningly argue that the US only “acknowledges” but never “accepts” the position of the PRC that Taiwan is part of China, and they try arduously and sinisterly to use domestic legal instruments, such as the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 and the notorious “Six Assurances”,  as the legal basis of US policy toward Taiwan, thus hollowing out the one-China principle, denying that Taiwan is part of the PRC, treating Taiwan as an independent political entity and the protectorate of the US, and threatening China to refrain from using force to achieve national reunification.

Nevertheless, all these legal shenanigans employed by the US are not endorsed by the international community, except for her stalwart allies. Therefore, if the US gives up its policy of “strategic ambiguity” and pledges that it will militarily defend Taiwan, it will run afoul of international law, be condemned as interfering in the internal affairs of China, and be criticized as infringing upon the sovereignty of an independent country (China). A policy of “strategic clarity” will expose the US to accusations of lawlessness, hegemonism and hypocrisy, and leave it isolated in the international community.

It’s also very likely that the policy of “strategic ambiguity” was chosen because the US does not want to go to war with China even when China was weak and when the response of the then-Soviet Union is unfathomable. As China becomes increasingly powerful militarily and there is no certainty that the US can win decisively and at a tolerable cost in a hot war with China, the policy of “strategic ambiguity” has enabled the US to avoid as far as possible a war with China when its chance of victory is getting dimmer and dimmer.

In recent years, in the face of China’s rising military clout and prowess, the voices calling for the US to pursue a policy of “strategic clarity" are getting louder and louder. Writing in Foreign Affairs in 2020, Richard Haass and David Sacks argued that “to defend its achievements and continue to deter Chinese adventurism, the United States should adopt a position of strategic clarity, making explicit that it would respond to any Chinese use of force against Taiwan. Such a policy would lower the chances of Chinese miscalculation, which is the likeliest catalyst for war in the Taiwan Strait”. Bob Menendez, an American senator and co-sponsor of the highly provocative Taiwan Policy Act of 2022, which would recognize Taiwan as a “major non-NATO ally”, wrote in The New York Times in August that “the United States needs less ambiguity to guide our approach to Taiwan. In today’s world with Mr Xi’s China a robust and credible deterrence to preserve peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait requires clarity in word and deed”.

By seizing the initiative over Taiwan affairs, China has adopted a policy of “strategic clarity”. Now the ball is in the US’ court. China’s bold and decisive actions have surprised and shocked the US, leaving it in a quandary and painful dilemma. In the new situation, the policy of “strategic ambiguity” is no longer tenable. Its continuation will alarm and worry its allies and partners, particularly those in the so-called “Indo-Pacific”, who will see the US as weak, faltering and untrustworthy. Taiwan residents will find the US an unreliable “protector” and hence will become more favorable to China’s formula of peaceful reunification via “one country, two systems”. On the other hand, if the US adopts instead the policy of “strategic clarity” and vows to take military action against China if Beijing attempts to take over Taiwan by force, not only will the US go into a war with a great power on its turf where the US can hardly win, but it will also find that its network of allies and partners is unwilling to go along.

At the end of the day, while it is inarguable that Taiwan is an enormous strategic asset to the US, it is still far from being its core interest for whose defense the Americans are willing to shed a lot of blood. On the other hand, in the eyes of the Chinese people, Taiwan pertains simultaneously to national sovereignty, security, territorial integrity, prestige and honor. It’s also a highly emotional issue for the Chinese people who had suffered from the ravages of Western and Japanese imperialism for more than a century. As declared loudly in the white paper, “Resolving the Taiwan question and realizing China’s complete reunification is a shared aspiration of all the sons and daughters of the Chinese nation. It is indispensable for the realization of China’s rejuvenation. It is also a historic mission of the Communist Party of China (CPC). The CPC, the Chinese government and the Chinese people have striven for decades to achieve this goal”.

Through its powerful actions, China has forced the US to clarify its intentions and plans for Taiwan. World peace and the long-term relationship between the Chinese and American peoples are contingent upon the decisions of the US. Let us hope that the US will come up with a policy of “strategic clarity” that will respect the historical aspirations of the 1.4 billion-plus Chinese people and preserve world peace. US actions in the days ahead, especially the way The Taiwan Policy Act of 2022 fares, will provide a good indicator of American intentions toward China’s reunification and peace in the world.

The author is a professor emeritus of sociology, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and vice-president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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