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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

“Beijing can still afford strategic patience, wait for this distribution of power to tip decisively toward its favor,” she said. “In the coming future, if Washington has come to the realization that the cost of defending Taiwan is definitely too high then maybe the Taiwanese government will realize that Washington will no longer have this appetite or willingness to come defend Taiwan and then the Taiwanese government will pragmatically negotiate with Beijing.”

It remains unclear what Beijing’s short- and long-term response will be to any formal promise of a U.S. military retaliation.

But one possible outcome in the short term for U.S.-Taiwan defense discussions is that it could make it easier for U.S. policymakers to convince Taiwan’s military to accept a shift in strategy toward focusing on preparing for a possible Chinese attack as opposed to deterring one through conventional but expensive large weapons platforms like fighter jets and submarines.

A core U.S.-Taiwan defense debate taking place now is whether Taiwan should move away from conventional deterrence, which relies mostly on missiles that can strike mainland China, and instead focus its limited time and resources on implementing a more asymmetrical defense strategy for the island, as many U.S. officials have been urging.

Key to many Taiwanese experts involved in the debate is whether the U.S. is willing to provide conventional deterrence capabilities that Taiwan would essentially stop pursuing if it is to focus on a strategy of turning Taiwan into a “porcupine.” After all, it’s hard to maintain a policy of “strategic ambiguity” if the U.S. Navy is conducting more freedom-of-navigation exercises through the strait or if the U.S. Air Force flies regular patterns over the area.


“There is an inherent contradiction regarding asymmetrical defense and strategic ambiguity,” said Lai I-chung, president of the Taiwanese Prospect Foundation think tank, noting he was speaking in a personal capacity. “We just cannot operate with both, one of them has to go.”


(Annabelle Chih, a local journalist, contributed to this report. Reporting for this article, the third in a series, was made possible by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.)

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