U.S. Strategy of Strategic Ambiguity and China’s Strategy of Intimidation
There is a great deal of posturing in American and Chinese policy towards Taiwan. Two examples are the American strategy of ambiguity and the Chinese strategy of intimidation. The U.S. ambiguity combines demonstrations of its military capability in the Western Pacific with uncertainty of whether and how Washington would response to PRC aggression against Taiwan. One of the principal U.S. objectives in its posturing strategy is to persuade China that it is not in its interests to use force or excessive intimidation to compel Taiwan’s government to accept political unification with the People’s Republic of China. China’s intimidation combines demonstrations of PRC military capabilities in the Taiwan area along with statements affirming that, while unification is inevitable, Taiwan has the open to accept unification under favorable terms. One of the main PRC objectives in its posturing strategy is to persuade the U.S. that it is not in its interests to enable or encourage Taiwan to move in the direction of formal independence from a united China. Given the increase in PRC power and influence in recent years, the question needs to be asked as to whether China’s strategy of intimidation might now be more effective and, relatedly, whether America’s strategy of strategic ambiguity still is the most effective deterrent of PRC aggression in the Taiwan Strait?
Answers depend a great deal on who is in power in Beijing, Washington, and Taipei. In the case of China, given its autocratic system of government, the determination of the Chinese leader to pursue a strategy of intimidation is crucial. In the case of the United States and Taiwan, the decisions of the American and ROC presidents are highly determinative of their responses to PRC intimidation. One important factor in both the U.S. and Taiwan is public opinion. There is a high degree of unpredictability here, since very few Americans or Taiwan residents want a war with China. At the same time, however, moving into a military confrontation with China is something generally accepted as a possibility due to the vital interests involved. These include a potential shift in the balance of power in the Western Pacific and the survival of democracy on Taiwan, as well as the fulfillment of the dream of a united China. Since the Korean War until the present, these key interests have been relatively solid. If these interests would change, then avoiding a war might become paramount and peace in the Taiwan Strait might become more permanent.
One of the major wildcards in the effectiveness of the U.S. and Chinese strategies is the ability of China to inflict sufficient damage on U.S. and Taiwan military forces to cause Washington to pull the plug, so to speak, on protecting Taiwan and Taipei’s collapse of will to resist Beijing’s entreats.
A military conflict between the U.S. and China over Taiwan is not likely to be a full-scale war. Rather, it would probably be a conflict whose outcome would be determined by the infliction of costs too great to bear by the parties involved. Washington, for example, is vulnerable due to the American public’s aversion to high casualties and prolonged wars. Beijing, on the other hand, is vulnerable due to the centrality of the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese people’s intolerance for their country being humiliated due to government incompetence. While both vulnerabilities can be exploited without a full-scale war, success requires a robust military presence in the Western Pacific. That is one reason why there is an expanding arms race in the Indo-Pacific region, a race that appears to be far from finished and whose outcome might not be apparent due to the nuances of deterrence, intimidation, ambiguity, and balance of power.
The handling of the Taiwan issue is likely to become even more sensitive in the foreseeable future.