Strategic ambiguity and Taiwan


In the arcane world of international relations, there are all kinds of obscure phrases, codes, euphemisms and dog whistles, each wrapped with their own “inside-baseball” interpretations. Apologies for the mixed metaphors. Sometimes it’s hard, if not professionally involved in the game of foreign affairs, to demystify it all.

Only in Vladimir Putin’s Kafkaesque mind would he, for example, describe the genocidal crimes in Ukraine as “a special military operation.” That would be a classic case of political euphemism to sugarcoat a brutal war against the Ukrainian people as an explanation for the Russian people.

There are other more benign vocabulary for foreign affairs insiders. Nations that have reached a period of increasingly good relations have brought about reconciliation or “rapprochement” or “détente,” or “entente,” leftover vocabulary from when French was the diplomatic language of international relations.

The Cold War yielded deterrence phrases like “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD) to express the insanity of launching multi-warheaded intercontinental nuclear weapons since such action would likely obliterate everyone, resulting in a so-called “nuclear winter.”

Today, the war in Ukraine has been called a “proxy war,” meaning that it’s really a war between Russia and the U.S./NATO but fought indirectly in a smaller nation. “Realpolitik” is another diplomatic expression that’s fitting with respect to Putin’s War. It refers to hardball actions to get what you want without caring about the morality or ethics of what you’re planning to do. It’s the Machiavellian notion that the ends justify the means. Putin is a master of realpolitik.

All this is a prelude to what’s come to be known as “strategic ambiguity.” In today’s world of diplomatic language the question is what moves a country to segue from strategic ambiguity and deterrence to the dark realm of realpolitik.

The deterrence of nuclear weapons and the totality of their destructiveness makes them a dangerously threatening weapon when two nations face off against one another. Putin has threatened the use of theater nuclear weapons to forestall NATO support of Ukraine. Would he ever use them? It’s hard to know, but this is the essence of strategic ambiguity. If he’s truly insane he might, but such ambiguity concentrates the mind when it comes to what might come next.

When Putin massed his troops along the Ukrainian border he dissembled over and over again, leaving many to argue over what his real intentions might be. But that strategic ambiguity with his nuclear threats of deterrence served him well until he literally made his move into the Ukrainian territory of realpolitik and invaded his southern neighbor.

Which brings me to Taiwan and President Biden’s break with decades of strategic ambiguity over what we might do if China decided to invade Taiwan. At a recent news conference in Japan, when asked if China were to invade Taiwan would the United States intercede militarily to defend the country, his one-word response was “yes.” That set off a firestorm of diplomatic conjecture. Did he mean we would send U.S. troops, or did he mean we would do what we are doing with Ukraine and just supply heavy weaponry?

The White House hasn’t been clear about exactly what he meant and many now say what he really did was to ratchet up the U.S.’s strategic ambiguity to a new level, leaving China with one more factor to put into its calculus over whether or not to invade Taiwan.

If I had to bet, I’d say Biden indeed meant that he would send in U.S. troops, putting an end to the puzzle of what the U.S. would do, and the diplomatic question of whether the U.S. believes that Taiwan is an independent nation or an appendage of the People’s Republic of China. An historical case can be made either way as to the territorial roots of this island nation that used to be called Formosa. But for the past 73 years the island has been governed as the independent Republic of China.

The cost for China to invade Taiwan is inflating. The sanctions against Russia for invading Ukraine, the isolation, the economic and humanitarian pariah status of Russia has had devastating consequences. Xi Jinping’s government has clearly taken notice of these consequences and may be reassessing thoughts about its own “special military operation” against Taiwan.

Strategic ambiguity is a strategy that has evolved from Cold War deterrence. Call it a new way of introducing a sense of uncertainty in an adversary’s security and strategic calculations.

Over the course of recent U.S. administrations, the United States’ policy vis-à-vis Taiwan has drifted from strategic ambiguity to tortured equivocation. Now, given the changes brought about by what has happened in Ukraine, the time has come to be more direct and assertive with Chinese leadership. On this, I think President Biden was right.

One country two systems turned out to be a Chinese ruse with respect to Hong Kong. It’s time to move from strategic ambiguity to overt deterrence with respect to Taiwan. It’s time to turn the island nation into a “porcupine” bristling with so much high-tech weaponry to make the proposition of an invasion of Taiwan too painful for China to endure. We’ve learned lessons from Putin’s War on Ukraine, and the specter of the Ukrainian nightmare will loom large in a China that is struggling to keep its economy solvent and its people happy living under an increasingly authoritarian and isolationist regime.

Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.

Bill Sims Contributing columnist Sims Contributing columnist

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