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Lawmakers walk tightrope on upping Taiwan's diplomatic status as Biden casts doubt on 'ambiguity'

Rachel Oswald, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in News & Features

“The parts that give me heartburn are the civil sovereignty and the question of whether or not we are getting anything out of some of these more provocative statutory changes that, in my judgment, may irritate the Chinese and accelerate their preparation for military action,” said Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, at the markup. He was among five committee members to vote against the bill.

Meanwhile, it appears the debate around whether Washington should maintain its policy of “strategic ambiguity” with regard to how the U.S. would respond to a military conflict between China and Taiwan could be reaching its messy terminus.

In an interview with CBS that aired Sunday, President Joe Biden gave his most unequivocal answer to date that the U.S. military will respond with force if China launches an “unprecedented attack” on Taiwan. When asked by a “60 Minutes” interviewer whether that meant “U.S. forces, U.S. men and women would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion,” Biden responded, “Yes.”

White House officials like chief National Security Council spokesman John Kirby have tried to walk back the president’s statement by saying he was answering a “hypothetical question about the defense of Taiwan” and that no formal change in U.S. policy had been made.

Still, the writing on the wall is becoming increasingly clear. That’s both as a result of Biden’s repeated statements on the matter but also, and perhaps more consequentially for the long term, because of the clear bipartisan direction Congress is taking with bills like the Taiwan Policy Act.

“My argument is that we need strategic clarity but tactical ambiguity,” said Lo Chi-cheng, a lawmaker with the governing Democratic Progressive Party, who sits on the Taiwanese parliament’s Foreign and National Defense Committee. “Meaning, if China decides to take military action against Taiwan, the U.S. would definitely react. That’s strategic clarity. But how it will react: military reaction, economic or whatever, that’s unknown.”

 

Because the signals from the U.S. across multiple administrations have been increasingly pro-Taiwan and anti-China, it doesn’t really matter if the U.S. government continues to officially cling to its policy of “strategic ambiguity,” argued Chieh Chung, a defense analyst with the National Policy Foundation, a think tank aligned with the opposition Kuomintang party.

“The PLA (Chinese military) already thinks the U.S. will intervene anyway, so it doesn’t matter, ambiguity or not, they are already planning and preparing for it,” he said. “The only difference between ambiguity or not is about the politics. If the U.S. officials stopped the ambiguity, it would make the (Chinese Communist Party) speed up the timeline for an invasion.”

U.S. “strategic ambiguity” feeds into a Beijing propaganda narrative of maintaining “strategic patience” toward Taiwan, said Lai of the Institute of Political Science Academia Sinica.

What’s more, the Chinese government believes the U.S. is in a state of irreversible political and economic decline. Though China’s rise as a world power is still on an upward trajectory, it hasn’t yet reached military parity with the U.S. she said.

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