Language : English 简体 繁體

Reading Between the Lines on Taiwan

Aug 03, 2021
  • Li Yan

    Deputy Director of Institute of American Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

At a recent online seminar of the Asia Society, a U.S. think tank, Kurt Campbell, coordinator for the Indo-Pacific region on the National Security Council, publicly stated that the United States supports the development of “unofficial relations” with Taiwan but will not support Taiwan independence.

Against the backdrop of recent U.S. administrations pushing U.S.-Taiwan interactions forward and the Biden administration’s continued manipulation of the Taiwan card, Campbell’s statement seems to mean something else — and it warrants attention.

His words are a direct response to the Taiwan-related policy debate in the United States. They imply that the U.S. will not abandon its long-standing posture toward Taiwan at this stage. Since Joe Biden took office as U.S. president, a new wave of policy debate has emerged in the U.S. strategic community around the country’s policy toward Taiwan. The core issue of this debate is whether the U.S. should abandon its decadeslong “strategic ambiguity” toward Taiwan (that is, not explicitly stating what it will do in the event of a military action by Beijing) and make clear by policy that it will take military action in the island’s defense as a deterrent to coercive actions that would change the status quo in the Taiwan Strait.

These arguments were promoted by both traditional Taiwan-friendly elements within the United States and by some influential members of the strategic community, including former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass. Thus the debate has important policy implications.

In response to these debates, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan have recently spoken out to assert that U.S. support of the one-China policy remains unchanged. Campbell’s remarks went furthest, explaining more clearly the Biden administration’s approach to Taiwan — namely that it will not move toward supporting Taiwan independence but will continue to promote U.S.-Taiwan interaction.

The three high-level officials’ successive statements indicate that the U.S. will continue its current “strategic ambiguity” toward Taiwan at this stage, and essentially frame the limits of the Biden administration’s relations with Taiwan.

Campbell’s statement also suggests that the Biden administration’s strategic review of China is complete. The debate over whether to abandon strategic ambiguity toward Taiwan came in the broader context of the Biden administration’s comprehensive review of its strategy toward China. Since June, the U.S. Defense Department’s China Working Group has announced the completion of its strategic military review of China, the U.S. trade representative and treasury secretary have spoken on the first phase of the U.S.-China economic and trade agreement and the U.S. has had intensive communication at the diplomatic level with allies in Europe and elsewhere about China strategy.

In general, although the Biden administration has not explicitly declared the completion of its strategic review of China, the basic outline is already clear. The Taiwan question is the most sensitive matter in China-U.S. relations, and with Campbell and others clearly explaining the Biden administration’s Taiwan policy, it is clear that this also largely means the China review is finished. As a result, the U.S. recently gave hints about high-level contacts between China and the U.S. In the wake of the policy clarity on sensitive issues such as Taiwan, it is likely that the U.S. will next seek diplomatic contacts with China by all means to implement its strategy.

To some extent, Campbell’s remarks suggest that implementation of the strategic review of China has begun, and a crisis management move by the U.S. in the face of China’s strong defense of its rights — and U.S. reluctance to force a showdown — indicate the limits of its suppression of China.

Campbell’s Taiwan-related remarks also imply that the U.S. will not abandon its established strategy of continuous enhancement of U.S.-Taiwan relations and using Taiwan to restrain China. Campbell’s declaration of what the U.S. will not do on Taiwan also indicates what the U.S. will continue to do, short of supporting Taiwan independence.

Over the years, successive U.S. administrations have been slicing the sausage to promote a gradual warming of U.S.-Taiwan relations. As the U.S.-China strategic game has escalated in recent years, Taiwan’s geostrategic and technological value to the U.S. (mainly in the semiconductor industry) has become more prominent, and manipulation of the Taiwan question has become a necessary means of containment and suppression of China. The Biden administration’s many policy practices since taking office, such as the so-called U.S.-Taiwan trade and investment dialogue and the landing of transport aircraft in Taiwan, also indicate that it will not change its basic considerations or its approach to developing relations.

Although Campbell’s remarks set the limits of U.S. policy toward Taiwan at this stage, they do not indicate a retreat of  U.S. policy toward Taiwan. The Biden administration will still do its best to create trouble and exploit this sensitive issue, which concerns China’s core interests.

Of course, for Taiwan’s ruling party authorities, who are desperately seeking a substantive breakthrough in U.S.-Taiwan relations, Campbell’s statement is tantamount to a pot of cold water. The decadeslong history of U.S. manipulation of the Taiwan issue has repeatedly shown that the basic foothold of U.S. policy over Taiwan is safeguarding its own interests, which is also the basic logic of the ups and downs of U.S.-Taiwan relations. Given China’s growing ability to safeguard its core interests and the increasing variety of tools in its policies toward Taiwan, the differences in interests between the United States and the forces seeking Taiwan independence will eventually be revealed, and the costs of the U.S. policy of constantly playing the Taiwan card will increase. It will only become more difficult to maintain a balance between developing U.S.-Taiwan relations and avoiding a showdown with China.

You might also like
Back to Top