U.S. Strategy of Strategic Ambiguity and China’s Strategy of Intimidation

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 strategy combines demonstrations of its military capability in the Western Pacific with uncertainty over whether and how Washington might 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 into accepting political unification with the People’s Republic of China. China’s intimidation strategy combines demonstrations of PRC military capabilities in the Taiwan area along with statements affirming that, while unification is inevitable, Taiwan has an opportunity to accept unification under highly 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 and complete independence from 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 personal as well as political. 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 vital interests include a potential shift in the balance of power in the Western Pacific and the survival of democracy on Taiwan. In the case of China, there is strong nationalistic feeling that supports 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 on one side or the other,  then avoiding a war might become paramount and the possibility of conflict would likely diminish.

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 weaken its resolve to protect Taiwan and/or Taipei to reduce appreciably its will to resist Beijing’s entreats.

If a military conflict does occur between the U.S. and China over Taiwan, it 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 in the confrontation depends largely on 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 over.

Weighing these fluid factors suggests that the handling of the Taiwan issue is likely to become even more sensitive in the foreseeable future. As to the questions initially asked:

(1) Will China’s strategy of intimidation become more effective? Probably not, even though the strategy will likely stay in place since Beijing will feel compelled to both pressure Taiwan as well as to warn the United States to avoid intervention into China’s unification.

(2) Should the U.S. strategy of strategic ambiguity continue? Probably yes, because it remains an effective deterrent to both Beijing and Taipei from escalating their mutual hostility over the issue of Taiwan’s political future.