President Joe Biden’s recent statement that the United States would intervene militarily if China tried to take Taiwan by force was hardly a gaffe. The U.S. policy of strategic ambiguity has outlived its usefulness.
Since President Richard Nixon went to China and put the two nations on the path to normalized diplomatic and trade relations, the United States has recognized one China. It has opposed Beijing regaining control of Taiwan through force but has been ambiguous about whether it would intervene militarily if China invaded.
Per the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the United States provides Taiwan with defensive weapons but withholding an ironclad assurance that America would rush to its defense had two purposes.
First, it avoided directly antagonizing Beijing to cross the straits or take wider aggressive actions in the South and Western Pacific. Second, it discouraged Taiwan from provoking a confrontation, for example, like declaring its independence.
All that increasingly is now moot.
In response to a 2019 controversy surrounding a sculpture at the London School of Economics that depicts Taiwan as part of China, President Tsai Ing-wen asserted Taiwan is a sovereign and independent state. Short of renting Independence Hall and sending President Xi Jinping a letter, that’s about as clear as it gets.
China has hardly been restrained in its military buildup, efforts to intimate Taiwan and its neighbors in the Pacific, or preparations for an invasion if it becomes so disposed.
For the United States, securing our Pacific allies is as much a problem of credibility as it is deploying the right kind of forces in sufficient numbers.
America, by ceding control of the Black Sea and Ukrainian ports, permits Russia a chokehold on the global swing supplier of wheat, oilseeds and perhaps other key agricultural commodities. Moscow has the capacity to create shortages throughout the developing world and drive food prices to punishing levels.
Over the long haul, Western sanctions will stifle the development of the Russian economy but Moscow’s counter sanctions on wheat and oilseed supplies are having quite immediate effects.
The United States and NATO allies have been restrained in the weapons supplied Ukraine, because they have been needlessly intimidated by the prospect of President Vladimir Putin resorting to chemical or nuclear weapons.
U.S. holds back
This policy compels Kyiv to ward off an army superior in numbers and equipment in absurd conditions. The Russians can bomb Ukrainian cities and civilians at will, but Ukrainian forces are not permitted to strike targets inside Russia lest they lose access to U.S. and other NATO weapons and financial aid.
Biden has made plain the United States won’t commit American forces unless those are attacked.
Taiwan provides the world with 92% of the global supply chain’s advanced semiconductors. Consequently, a Chinese invasion or even a blockade would bring Western economies to their knees within months.
Taiwan’s defense spending has fallen from 5.2% to about 2% of GDP since 1990, too many of the weapons it has purchased won’t be useful in an invasion, and its reserves are hardly in the state of readiness that the Ukrainian army has proven to be.
U.S. policy makers insist on seeing the fight with Russia in Ukraine or China in Taiwan in local terms but in both places, the adversary enjoys the manifest advantages of proximity.
Get their butts kicked
The military literature indicates that the U.S. Navy and Air Force would face great challenges supplying Taiwan now that China has modernized and expanded its forces.
Saying to Beijing unambiguously, cross the straits and America will defend the island state is foolish—American forces would likely get their butts kicked.
Instead, tell Beijing, cross the straits and China is in a global war with the U.S. Navy, and be prepared to sink Beijing’s dreams of Pacific glory within a week. Thoughtful plans have been offered for such a capability by President Barack Obama’s Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy but Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has failed to offer a credible strategy.
Even the most appropriate statement of policy and realignment of American forces rings hollow when in Europe, where the United States enjoys superiority, it refuses to even permit its surrogate to take the fight to the Russians.
In addition to prudent investments in U.S. Pacific forces, Biden can best avoid a miscalculation in Beijing about American resolve by standing up to Russia now.
That should begin with the United States, through NATO or another coalition of willing nations, providing naval escorts for Ukrainian exports to break the Russian blockade. And providing Kyiv with offensive weapons to establish parity with or outgun Moscow’s army and strike targets within Russia at will.
Those would send a rather unambiguous message to Beijing.
Peter Morici is an economist and emeritus business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist.