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Is China Forcing the U.S. Toward “Strategic Clarity” in Its Taiwan Policy?


Liu Zhaojia, the vice president of the National Association for Hong Kong and Macau Studies argues that Beijing has moved towards its own position of “strategic clarity” on Taiwan policy following the publication of a dedicated white paper in August 2022 and the performance of a large-scale military exercise around the island following U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit. These developments, according to the author, make clear that Beijing “will not wait indefinitely for Taiwan’s return to China.” This departure from a “passive” stance by Beijing, Liu holds, will render the U.S. position of “strategic ambiguity” to be “no longer tenable” and force the U.S. to “clarify its intentions and plans” regarding Taiwan.

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From a historical perspective, August 2022 is sure to be a major turning point in Sino-U.S. relations with respect to the Taiwan issue. In August, China took two decisive actions after U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi insisted on visiting Taiwan despite angry condemnations from Beijing. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army successfully conducted an unprecedented large-scale military exercise around the entire island of Taiwan. This provided ample proof that the mainland has the ability to completely blockade Taiwan or recapture Taiwan by force, while simultaneously preventing the United States and Japan from rushing to Taiwan’s rescue with military aid. Immediately after this event, Beijing issued a white paper entitled The Taiwan Question and China’s Reunification in the New Era. In the white paper, Beijing reiterated its preferred policy of achieving national unity through peaceful means, which it has constantly advocated. However, Beijing also warned that it would resort to non-peaceful means if necessary. Together, the military exercises and the white paper demonstrate that reunification by any means necessary is the nation’s primary goal, and that China will unswervingly strive to bring this goal to fruition, regardless of the costs.

从历史角度来说,2022年8月肯定是中美在台湾问题上的关系的重大转折点。当月,在美国国会众议院议长南希·佩洛西(Nancy Pelosi)不顾北京的愤怒谴责而执意访问台湾之后,中国采取了两个决定性行动。中国人民解放军围绕台湾全岛成功进行了前所未有的大规模军事演习,充分证明大陆有能力对台湾进行全面封锁或者以武力夺回台湾,而且同时能够阻止美国和日本在军事上驰援台湾。紧接着,北京发表了《台湾问题与新时代中国统一事业》的白皮书。在白皮书中,北京重申其一直以来倡导的、通过和平手段达至国家统一的首选政策,但却警告如有必要,它将诉诸非和平手段。军事演习和白皮书共同表明,以任何必要手段实现统一是国家的首要目标,而不管付出何种代价,中国都将坚定不移地努力让这个目标得以最终达成。

Before these major actions, there had always been some element of “strategic ambiguity” in Beijing’s policy toward Taiwan, namely, Beijing’s refusal to state its preferred date for national reunification. Beijing simply vowed to resort to the strategy of reunification by force only if Taiwan were to declare de jure independence in addition to de facto, or in the event foreign armed forces had entered the island. The military exercises and white paper have largely done away with Beijing’s “strategic ambiguity.” Instead, by adopting a policy of “strategic clarity,” Beijing has deliberately and unequivocally declared that it will not wait indefinitely for Taiwan’s return to China. Instead, it has officially launched a national reunification plan, in the hope of accelerating the national reunification process through political negotiations between the two sides on the details of the “one country, two systems” policy. Beijing has emphatically stated that, if peaceful reunification fails, non-peaceful reunification will occur. At the same time, Beijing has left it an open question whether the favorable conditions of the “one country, two systems” policy that the mainland has previously offered to Taiwan will still apply if national reunification is achieved primarily by force.


China’s “strategic clarity” policy has more or less altered its “passive” or “defensive” stance of the past, and China has now seized the initiative on the Taiwan issue. So far, the final model of China’s reunification, whether peaceful or non-peaceful, actually depends on the manner and intensity of the United States’ response to China’s initiatives. It cannot be denied that the final decision taken by the United States will have a decisive impact on the attitude of Taiwan residents towards national reunification.


Following the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the United States in 1979, the United States adopted a policy of “strategic ambiguity” on the Taiwan issue. The rapid rise of China and its designation as a “strategic threat” by the United States have, to a considerable extent, changed the United States’ view of Taiwan’s strategic value. Henceforth, because Taiwan can become an ally of the United States in containing and weakening China’s policies, a permanently divided China is in the national interest of the United States. Even so, the United States has not made it clear that, in the event of a Chinese “invasion” of Taiwan, the United States will come to the rescue of Taiwan militarily. Instead, it has always pursued a policy of “strategic ambiguity,” leaving China uncertain as to whether the United States will start a war with China over the Taiwan issue. For the United States, the purpose of “strategic ambiguity” is that it is a less costly strategic approach to prevent China from pursuing reunification by non-peaceful means.


In my opinion, one important reason for adopting the policy of “strategic ambiguity” is that, according to international law and international agreements, the United States has no moral right or legal basis to intervene in cross-strait affairs. As pointed out in the white paper, the “One China” principle has been embodied in international documents such as the Cairo Declaration in 1943, the Potsdam Declaration in 1945, and the UN General Assembly Resolution 2758 in 1971. Taiwan is an indivisible part of China and the central content of the “One China” principle. This “One China” principle was also endorsed by three Sino-U.S. joint communiques in 1972, 1979, and 1982. In all these communiques, the United States expressed “acknowledgment” (承认) or “recognition” (认识到) of China’s position that there is only one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. In addition, in the 1979 Joint Communiqué on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations between the People’s Republic of China and the United States of America, the United States recognized the government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole legitimate government of China. In conclusion, all international declarations or proclamations and bilateral agreements between China and the United States clearly state that there is only one China, that this China is the People’s Republic of China, that Taiwan is an indivisible part of the People’s Republic of China, and that the government of the People’s Republic of China is the sole legitimate government of China. Therefore, the assertion in the white paper that “the One China principle is the general consensus of the international community and in accord with the basic norms of international relations” is correct. The white paper said that “The world only has one China, the historical and legal facts that Taiwan is a part of China cannot be doubted, and the status of Taiwan, which has never been a country but a part of China, cannot be changed” is also correct.


However, in pursuing a strategy to permanently divide China in order to contain and weaken China, U.S. leaders and officials have opted to slyly contend that the United States has only “acknowledged” or “recognized” but has not “accepted” (接受) the position of the People’s Republic of China, namely that Taiwan is part of China. They deceitfully try to use domestic legal instruments, such as the Taiwan Relations Act of 1980 [translator’s note: correct year of this act is 1979] and the sinister “Six Assurances” to Taiwan, as the legal basis for U.S. policy toward Taiwan, placing it above international law. This hollows out the “one China” principle, denies that Taiwan is part of the People’s Republic of China, treats Taiwan as an independent political entity and a “protectorate” of the United States, and threatens China not to use force to achieve national reunification.


However, none of these legal tricks employed by the U.S. are widely recognized by the international community, only by its few hardcore allies. Therefore, if the United States abandons its “strategic ambiguity” policy and makes a commitment to defend Taiwan militarily, this would violate international law. The United States would be condemned by most countries for interfering in China’s internal affairs and criticized as violating the sovereignty of an independent country (China) and thereby violating the provisions of the United Nations Charter. A policy of “strategic clarity” will cause the United States to face accusations of lawlessness, hegemony, and hypocrisy from countries around the world, leaving it isolated in the international community.


The reason that the United States chose the policy of “strategic ambiguity” is also very likely due to the fact that, even though China was not as powerful as the United States, they could not predict how the Soviet Union would respond and the United States did not want to start a war with China that would lead to a U.S.-Soviet conflict. As China becomes more powerful militarily, it is unclear whether the United States could achieve a decisive victory at a tolerable cost in a hot war with China. Therefore, the policy of “strategic ambiguity” allows the United States to minimize the chance of war with China. Today, if the United States was to start a war with China in its own territory, the odds that the United States would be able to defeat China are becoming increasingly slim.


In recent years, faced with China’s constantly growing military influence and strength, the voices in the United States calling for the United States to change to a policy of “strategic clarity” are growing louder and louder. Writing in the 2020 issue of Foreign Affairs, Richard Haass and David Sacks say, “To defend its achievement and continue to deter Chinese adventurism, the United States should adopt a position of strategic clarity, making explicit that it would respond to any Chinese use of force against Taiwan. Such a policy would lower the chances of Chinese miscalculation, which is the likeliest catalyst for war in the Taiwan Strait.” U.S. Senator Bob Menendez is one of two sponsors of the provocative Taiwan Policy Act of 2022. The bill explicitly recognizes Taiwan as a “major non-NATO ally.” In August, the senator wrote in The New York Times that “the United States needs less ambiguity to guide our approach to Taiwan. In today’s world — with Mr. Xi’s China — a robust and credible deterrence to preserve peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait requires clarity in word and deed.”

近年来,面对中国不断增强的军事影响力和实力,美国国内要求美国改行“战略清晰”政策的声音越来越响亮。理查德·哈斯(Richard Haass)和戴维·萨克斯(David Sacks)在2020年的《外交事务》(Foreign Affairs)杂志上撰文称,“为了捍卫其已有的成就并继续威慑中国的冒险主义,美国应该采取战略清晰的立场,明确表示将会对中国对台湾使用武力作出回应。这样的政策将能降低中国误判的可能性,而中国的误判则是导致台湾海峡战争最有可能的催化剂。”美国参议员鲍勃·梅嫩德斯(Bob Menendez)是极具挑衅性的《2022年台湾政策法案》(Taiwan Policy Act of 2022)的两名倡议者之一。该法案明确承认台湾是“主要的非北约盟友”,他在八月份出版的《纽约时报》上写道,“美国需要减少模棱两可的立场来指导我们对台湾的态度。在当今世界——在习近平主政的中国下——维护台湾海峡和平与稳定需要有以言行清晰为基础的强大而可信的威慑。”

Since U.S. President Joe Biden took office, he has repeatedly said inadvertently that, if Taiwan is “invaded” by China’s military, the United States will send troops to defend Taiwan. However, after each time Biden speaks, his officials rush to reiterate that the United States’ “One China” policy has not changed. It should be said that the United States has continued to maintain its position of “strategic ambiguity” to date. However, in recent years, the United States has continued to provoke China on the Taiwan issue, so it seems to intend to gradually do away with its position of “strategic ambiguity.”


Today, China has taken the initiative in Taiwan affairs and adopted a policy of “strategic clarity.” With the ball now in the U.S. court, China’s bold and decisive actions have surprised and shocked the United States, putting it in a dilemma and a painful situation. In this new situation, the policy of “strategic ambiguity” is no longer tenable. Its continuation will shake and worry the United States, its allies, and its partners, especially those allies and partners in the so-called “Indo-Pacific” region. They will see the United States as weak, wavering, and untrustworthy. Residents of Taiwan will feel that the United States is an unreliable “protector” and will therefore be less resistant to the “one country, two systems” model that would facilitate China’s peaceful reunification of the country. On the other hand, if the U.S. adopts a policy of “strategic clarity” and vows to take military action against China if it attempts to seize Taiwan by force, this would not only plunge the United States into a war between great powers that it would be difficult to win and would exact a heavy toll, but it will also cause the United States to discover that the allies and partners in the international network it leads are reluctant to endorse and follow its dangerous policies toward China. Even more seriously, a Sino-U.S. war could evolve into a nuclear war and a world war.


In the final analysis, although Taiwan is indisputably a huge strategic asset for the United States, it is not among the core interests of the United States, so Americans will not be willing to shed a great deal of blood to defend Taiwan. However, on the other side, Taiwan is tied to national sovereignty, security, territorial integrity, prestige, dignity, and honor in the eyes of the Chinese people. For the Chinese people, trampled down by Western and Japanese imperialism for more than a century, Taiwan is a highly emotional issue. As the white paper passionately exclaims: “Solving the Taiwan issue and realizing the complete reunification of the motherland is the common will of all Chinese sons and daughters, an inevitable requirement for realizing the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, and the unswerving historical task of the Chinese Communist Party. The Chinese Communist Party, the Chinese government, and the Chinese people have made long-term and unremitting efforts to this end.”


Strong Chinese action will force the United States to clarify its intentions and plans with regard to Taiwan. World peace and the long-term relationship between the Chinese and American peoples will depend on the decisions made by the United States. We hoped that the United States can come up with a set of “strategic clarity” policies that respect the historical aspirations of the more than 1.4 billion Chinese people, allow our two peoples to live in friendship from generation to generation, and are conducive to the maintenance of world peace. The actions taken by the United States in the days ahead, especially its handling of the Taiwan Policy Act of 2022, will provide a good indication of the United States’ intentions toward the reunification of China and world peace.


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Cite This Page

刘兆佳 (Liu Zhaojia). "Is China Forcing the U.S. Toward "Strategic Clarity" in Its Taiwan Policy? [中国倒逼美国对台政策走向“战略清晰”?]". CSIS Interpret: China, original work published in Aisixiang [爱思想], August 15, 2022

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