Source National Interest

WASHINGTON, U.S.-The People’s Republic of China (PRC)’s exercise surrounding Taiwan this past week, conducted in response to a visit by U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, is only the latest development in an extended competition over Taiwan.

The formation of the Select Committee on Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party, the Taiwan Enhanced Resilience Act, and the CHIPS Act have brought to the fore a bipartisan appetite for supporting Taiwan and being tough on the PRC.

Last year, the Taiwan Policy Act, reviewed by the Senate, would have provided unprecedented recognition by naming the island a “major non-NATO ally.” It is increasingly important to evaluate and discuss whether, after over forty years of intentionally ambiguous policy, an overt defense commitment—“strategic clarity”—would really make Taiwan safer.

Arguably, strategic clarity opens the door to unnecessary conflict because of two faulty assumptions. First is that, in the current status quo, Taiwan is at a high risk of being invaded. Second, that a explicit defense commitment to Taiwan will deter the PRC.

The omitted possibility for fait-accompli missions targeting defenses beyond the main island of Taiwan demonstrates why strategic clarity has a high risk of destabilizing the fragile cross-strait status quo, and setting a dangerous trajectory for Sino-American relations into the future.

“Strategic Clarity” Will Not Be Clarifying

Central to understanding how strategic clarity would be detrimental to Taiwan’s interests is understanding the particular circumstances of Matsu and Kinmen islands, which lie just off the coast of the Chinese mainland but are governed by Taiwan. Their geographical location makes them a preliminary target in a PRC campaign to occupy Taiwan, and a critical factor in creating a cross-straits defense policy.

At the beginning of the Cold War, the United States found itself in a position similar to the present, with chances to clarify its security guarantees to Taiwan.

The resulting 1954 Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty bound the United States to defend the main island and the Penghu (Pescadores) islands but did not clarify a position on Taiwan’s other smaller islands. When the PRC responded by attacking these, Taiwanese leadership asked for public guarantees on Kinmen and Matsu.

Recognizing the calculus and context for defending these islands could easily change in the future, the United States denied these requests. Instead, private assurance was given that the United States would support the defense of Kinmen and Matsu.

Three years later, the PRC’s campaign progressed with an amphibious invasion of Kinmen and Matsu, which America responded to by presenting a conventional façade, heavily reliant on the threat of nuclear escalation.

In short, while the main island stayed safe, China was undeterred by the treaty from attacking other Taiwanese holdings and bringing the world close to nuclear war, illustrating issues with clarifying the Taiwan issue. The PRC’s machinations for these islands remain and their capabilities have since substantially grown.

Since agreeing to the three joint communiqués with the PRC and the enactment of the Taiwan Relations Act, the United States has not taken a “clear” official position on the sovereignty of Taiwan, nor explicitly defined a policy to defend Taiwan.

Switching to strategic clarity now, like in the 1950s, requires making an impossible choice over whether to include the Kinmen and Matsu islands or not.

If defense commitments are clarified, but Kinmen and Matsu are not explicitly mentioned, then clarity is not achieved—this would bolster the PRC’s perception that the islands are fair game, yet an attack on the islands would still appear as a U.S. commitment failure if it did not intervene. On the other hand, including the islands in a defense commitment is even more dangerous.

The Kinmen and Matsu islands remained under Taiwan in the 1950s only by the lack of PRC military capabilities—nuclear threats and deployment of the 7th fleet to the Taiwan Strait functioned as a checkmate which the PRC had no means of contesting. The balance of military power has since shifted dramatically.

Nuclear threats will not have the same effect against the PRC as then, especially with the latter having secured second-strike capabilities. The PRC has also ramped up production of both commercial dual-use means of transport and amphibious assault ships. 

Taiwan, meanwhile, has substantially reduced its forces on the islands. In a twenty-first-century crisis, conventional defense of the islands is impractical and increasingly unpopular. Kinmen and Matsu are now deep within the PRC’s anti-access/area denial (A2AD) umbrella. 
In fact, the islands are so close that numerous drones, heavy artillery, and other short-range systems not usually evaluated as A2AD capabilities can cover the islands. 
In order to succeed, military operations under this umbrella require stealth, division of forces, missile defense, significant suppression of opposing fires and intelligence, and raw numbers. A lack of any of these elevates the need for others. An operation to defend Kinmen or Matsu would possess none.

Overall then, while an invasion of Taiwan would certainly be a costly endeavor for the PRC, there is no doubt even an opposed occupation of the Kinmen and Matsu islands could be achieved in short order.

Strategic Clarity Takes Peaceful Reunification off the Table

Despite the PRC’s recent sound and fury, peaceful reunification still plays a large and explicit role in PRC strategy according to President Xi Jinping. Strategically, the PRC’s current pursuit of peaceful reunification is sound.

If there is a way diplomacy, propaganda, and/or coercion could still allow the PRC to peacefully unify with Taiwan, Xi would prefer to exhaust all other options in that direction before taking actions that irreversibly escalate the dispute which may lead to conflict with the United States.

To achieve peaceful unification, Kinmen and Matsu play a uniquely important role. The islands’ ties to the PRC, both economically and culturally, make them unusually close to the mainland.

The PRC would rather these particularly pro-unification parts of Taiwan be leveraged as advocates for peaceful reunification, rather than crushing them by force.

Invading the islands would not only deracinate the PRC connection into the Taiwanese political context, but it would also irreparably alienate the remaining Taiwanese by proving fears of CCP malintent correct.

The CCP would be locked out of a peaceful strategy. Unification would remain an albatross around Xi’s neck, with the only solution being a risky full-scale invasion.

The prospects of peaceful reunification are thus predicated on the possibility that U.S. interest in Taiwan may falter, and that the PRC will be able to successfully convince Taiwan through isolation and dependency that unification is in its best interest. Partially because of this, U.S. deterrence policy has historically been tailored to deter a Taiwanese declaration of independence as much as a PRC invasion.

Formal guarantees cement U.S. support, devastating the case for peaceful reunification and emboldening separatist factions in Taiwan. This would provide the PRC with its crisis justifying an invasion as per its Anti-Secession Law.

The PRC’s pursuit of peaceful reunification would cease, precluding the continuation of the status quo détente.

The PRC is currently deterred from invading Kinmen and Matsu for good reason: aggression would undermine the effort and wealth the PRC has sunk toward curating an air of responsible leadership.

This runs counter to a growing realization the PRC needs friends, even apologizing for interference abroad. Without a substantial shock to the system, the PRC does not have a good reason to face the serious and long-term costs of invading Kinmen or Matsu now: it would lose the possibility of peacefully reunifying, and face global condemnation even if it succeeded.

The PRC May Respond to Strategic Clarity by Invading Kinmen or Matsu

In this light, strategic clarity is dangerous because it necessitates an escalatory PRC response. Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership closely follows any U.S. government move perceived as supporting Taiwanese independence and responds appropriately, with the magnitude and hostility of the response calibrated by how threatened the PRC leadership feels.

One might believe it is likely PRC responses will remain in the form of signals short of war.

However, the PRC has issued continual warnings that the status of Taiwan is a red line. Beyond a certain point, provocative actions taken by the United States would trigger a military response.

Worth noting is that the PRC uses crises to permanently alter the regional status quo in its favor; from expanding control in the South China Sea, to continuous patrolling of vessels in the waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands.

These actions seek to wear down and delegitimize the original threatening presence.

Since the visit of a congressional delegation last August led by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi—seen by the PRC as threatening the One China policy—the PRC has taken action to intentionally weaken Taiwan’s sovereignty, commencing unprecedented military exercises around the island and continually crossing the Taiwan Strait median line with aircraft.

A true change in U.S. commitment to Taiwanese sovereignty would force the PRC to take action to delegitimize that commitment.

An assault on Kinmen or Matsu would be an extreme response to an extreme threat, but nonetheless consistent with PRC strategy and historical responses.

Bombastic foreign policy rhetoric obfuscates that the CCP’s greatest worries have always been internal threats.

Among these, reunification is characterized as an internal issue and remains extremely salient in the mainland.

In the face of slipping economic growth and unpopular zero-covid measures, the CCP was willing to emphasize Taiwan as a priority at the 20th Party Congress, positioning the issue as a goal on which leaders will be judged.

A policy challenging CCP leadership would further polarize the issue, empowering hawkish voices within the Party.

Proponents of strategic clarity present a narrative where any day Xi Jinping may surprise the world with a full-scale invasion of Taiwan, or engage in such as a domestic diversion.

It is because of this potentiality, they argue, that strategic clarity is necessary.

This position is untenable. While there are building internal frustrations, and Xi may wish he could easily invade Taiwan, the current diplomatic environment and strategy of the CCP undercuts any justification that Xi is gambling the continued existence of his government on an unprovoked and costly invasion.

Invading Taiwan would perhaps be the most difficult military operation ever. Sea conditions in the Taiwan Strait limit the window of large-scale invasion to only two small windows in April and October, and preparations for such would be transparent in the months leading up.

Routes would be predictable and could be mined or ambushed by aircraft and submarines.

The island itself is also highly defensible. Suitable landing areas are few and narrow, denying a massive amphibious landing necessary to leverage the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) overwhelming numbers.

Beaches are prone to becoming jammed with ships entering, exiting, and sinking. PLA’s massive arsenal of missiles would be severely limited by targets to attack.

Moreover, Taiwan has significantly increased purchases of difficult-to-detect anti-armor, anti-tank, and anti-ship missiles since 2017.

The island’s mountainous and foliage-covered geography ensures that many positions would remain undetected and intact to repel incoming forces.

This is to say nothing of the capabilities of the United States, Japan, and Australia, which have all indicated involvement in the event the PRC attempts an invasion, bringing the possibility of success far lower.

And even if a limited or full invasion were successful, the PRC would face disastrous economic and diplomatic costs.

In short, Taiwan faces a low risk of being invaded. Only 10 percent of experts in a recent survey believed that an amphibious assault with the goal of taking Taipei was likely in the next ten years.

This starkly contrasts with 64 percent of those polled believed that the PRC would respond “negatively and significantly, provoking a crisis” if the United States ended strategic ambiguity. Over 70 percent agreed that the PRC believes the United States is willing to bear at least substantial costs in a conflict over Taiwan.

Current U.S. policy is already explicit: the Taiwan Relations Act contains language almost as strong as in U.S. defense treaties, and in the Three Communiques—from which the One China Policy is based—the United States exclusively ties Taiwan and peaceful settlement.

In a separate poll, a majority of experts expressed that they do not approve of strategic clarity on Taiwan.

America’s position is already clear enough toward the audience that matters the most: the PRC. Why kill a policy which continues to work?

The United States Should Support Taiwan… Just Not through Strategic Clarity

Strategic clarity is a rhetorical rather than a substantive change in U.S. policy—one which ultimately does not make Taiwan safer and may be dangerous enough to trigger a crisis by pushing the PRC to invade either Kinmen, Matsu, or both.

The inability of the United States to respond to a Kinmen or Matsu fait accompli—the very public idea of Taiwanese territory being captured by the PRC—would severely weaken not just Taiwan’s position, but also the perception that America can support its alliance commitments across the world.

Instead of high-profile diplomatic gestures, the United States can make Taiwan safer under current strategic ambiguity without risking conflict from highly provocative actions.

First, the United States should focus on providing Taiwan with defensive assets at a rate that keeps the PLA uncertain about its capability to invade Taiwan. These assets should be capable of reaching operational capacity in the next few years, not be easily targeted by PLA missiles, and should not be tied to airstrips or ports which will be PLA priority targets.

This requires clearing existing backlogs, as well as signing deals on new smart naval mine-laying craft, smart artillery, and redundant, robust intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance capabilities across the whole range of battlespaces.

Dispersing assets that mitigate missile effectiveness and Chinese intelligence gathering such as more anti-air defenses as well as shore-based anti-ship and anti-submarine warfare tools are also key parts of making Taiwan’s defense equation add up.

The United States can build up credibility that it will come to Taiwan’s defense by posturing more forces capable of responding quickly and affecting conflict from outside the missile range of the Chinese mainland.

Second, there is no military solution that denies an invasion of Kinmen or Matsu. However, this has been the case for years. The islands remain Taiwanese because of astute diplomacy in maintaining the cross-strait status quo.

The United States should pursue a diplomatic goal of motivating allies—particularly non-regional allies who may not otherwise willingly damage relations with the PRC—on board with sanctions against non-peaceful attempts to change the status quo. Sanctions can change the calculus of a potential invasion in a way the U.S. military power cannot.

The Taiwan Strait will remain a geopolitical flashpoint, and the United States will play a deciding factor in its direction. Sober diplomacy, smart military investment, and leadership of allies can maximize the security of Taiwan.