US ‘strategic ambiguity’ creeps from Taiwan to Ukraine — and worries both

US officials keep lowering the time frame for China to make a military move on Taiwan. In 2021, Weatherman Philip Davidson estimated that China would attempt to invade Taiwan within the next six years. A short time later, his successor, the Rev. John Aquilino, said it could happen sooner than expected.

Last month, Rear Admiral Mike Gilday, chief of naval operations, saw the prospect of war across the Taiwan Strait as much earlier: “When we talk about the 2027 window, in my mind it has to be the 2022 window or possibly 2023. window.”

However, in the past year or so, China has not significantly increased its military capability to attack Taiwan. That is the fourth century of power escalation since the standoff between the US and China in the Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1995-96.

Instead, what has changed is Beijing’s intent as it assesses the main obstacle to a military conquest of Taiwan: the will of the United States to prevent it.

President Biden has said four times that US forces would be deployed to help defend Taiwan. In 2001, President George W. Bush also said he would do “whatever it takes” to protect Taiwan, and in 2020, when asked by President Trump, he said, “China knows what am I going to do.”

But on all six occasions over three US administrations, White House and State Department officials downplayed the warnings by “clarifying” that US policy on Taiwan’s defense had not changed “without saying what that policy actually is.”

That vague formulation allowed for a policy of strategic ambiguity, which the Clinton administration decisively expressed during the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait Crisis, when China launched missiles toward Taiwan for the first time and Washington sent two carriers to prevent further Chinese aggression. When Chinese officials at the time asked how the US would respond if China attacked Taiwan, Assistant Secretary of Defense Joseph Nye replied, “We don’t know and you don’t know; it would depend on the circumstances.”

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Beijing then stepped up its military preparations to “change the circumstances” for the next crisis. Today, China’s anti-ship ballistic missiles and attack submarines, as one Chinese admiral put it in 2018, threaten to sink one or two US carriers and quickly kill between 5,000 and 10,000 sailors.

The stark difference in Sino-US relative capabilities and intentions was highlighted in this year’s Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) visited Taiwan and angered Beijing.

His barrage of missile fire and naval and air operations on the water, in the air, and through the surrounding space and over Taiwan did not bring a clear response from the US or the allies, despite all the statements and warnings invoking the Relations Act of Taiwan (TRA), which describes threats to Taiwan as “a matter of great concern to the United States.”

A behind-the-scenes understanding with Beijing that Washington would not oppose China temporarily venting its displeasure may have led the West to accept the largest display of hostile military capabilities since the Vietnam War. However, the symbolism of China’s massive military power being exercised unchallenged against America’s strategic “security partner” and democratic partner in the Indo-Pacific was a graphic representation of how the physical and psychological “circumstances” of 1995-96 had changed. .

Along with the shortened time frame of the Adm. Gilday for China to attack Taiwan was his warning that Beijing would, in the meantime, continue to increase the military pressure on Taiwan. That increased pressure could take the form of a repeat of the post-Pelosi show of force, which was effectively a trial for a no-fly zone in and around Taiwan — in other words, a blockade of the island, expressly against it in the TRA.

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Another turning point was Biden’s shocking abandonment of Afghanistan in August 2021. It was seen in Beijing — and much of the world — as an important demonstration of the US’ flagging willingness to make commitments to less formal security partners, such as Taiwan and Ukraine. , keep. .

While Biden accepted China’s no-fly zone around Taiwan, he rejected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s urgent requests for a no-fly zone over Ukraine as a certain invitation to “World War II.”

Perhaps the dueling policy approach was illustrated by Deputy Defense Secretary Colin Kahl, who recently said of the security dangers in both theaters: “We believe we can walk and chew gum at the same time.” He noted that the global network of US allies and partners “is a hedge against a two-war scenario.”

Moscow and Beijing may see the US security dilemma quite differently as they intensify their opposition to the US-led international order. Their small allies, North Korea and Iran, are providing weapons systems to support Russia’s offensive against Ukraine and may be ready to help China against Taiwan.

In addition to sending weapons, they can also support their senior partners by fomenting crises in their own regions, distractions that would enable them to escalate both vertically and horizontally, which worries Washington in Europe and India. -Pacific Ocean.

That concern is why Biden, and to some extent Trump before him, denied both Ukraine and Taiwan the capabilities needed for preemptive defense with weapons that could hit military targets in Russia and the China, respectively.

Washington’s concerns are also reflected in the administration’s subtle pressure on Ukraine to temper its expectations of a successful outcome. National security spokesman John Kirby said last week, “Mr. Zelensky – because it’s his country – decides what success looks like and when to negotiate.”

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But Secretary of State Antony Blinken, also last week, explained the purpose of the administration’s Ukraine policy this way: “Our focus is to make sure that … Ukraine has what it needs … the to take back territory that has been seized from her since February 24.”

As for whether Washington would send troops to support Kyiv’s larger objective of recapturing all Russian-held territory, particularly Crimea, Blinken would only say, “For us, principle No. 1 about anything about Ukraine without Ukraine.”

But the administration appears to be deciding which weapons systems to launch, or whether to impose a no-fly zone, based not entirely on how much Ukraine needs to defend itself but also on expectations of what Vladimir Putin will accept.

Secretary Kahl rightly noted that “a daily effort must be made to shape the perception of our outsiders” about the capabilities of the US and allies in both regions. But at least as important is the understanding of the potential shortcomings of the clear resolve of the US and allies. However, it seems that there is a bit of strategic ambiguity coming from Taiwan policy into US policies on Ukraine as well.

Joseph Bosco served as the China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as the Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He served in the Pentagon when Vladimir Putin invaded Georgia and was involved with the Department of Defence. discussion about the US response. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.


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