This Wednesday, Tsai Ing-wen will be sworn in for a second term as Taiwan’s president, having won this January’s election with a record vote.
Quite the turnaround.
18 months ago, Tsai Ing-wen’s political future looked grim. About to enter the final year of her first term as Taiwan’s president, her party had suffered a stunning defeat in nationwide local elections, her approval rating was in the dumps, and her nomination for reelection was even in some doubt. But, with Chinese leader Xi Jinping threatening to use force against Taiwan if it didn’t accept unification, and with his deepening subjugation of Hong Kong signaling that the promise of “one country, two systems” was anything but, Tsai cruised to victory in Taiwan’s seventh direct presidential election. And now she enters office having led what is arguably the world’s most effective response to COVID-19.
It’s a different story across the Strait. Beijing has attempted to exert control over nature, over people, over other countries when it comes to the handling of the virus—but failed significantly in each case. The virus became a pandemic and, despite the power of the ever-present surveillance state, China’s leaders failed to prevent the true story of its incompetence from getting out. Nor has Beijing been able to claim the high ground globally, with most in the West now seeing through the Chinese narrative that it handled the pandemic responsibly. Although seen as perhaps the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao, Xi is decidedly not in control of events. A full reopening in the People’s Republic of China remains elusive and Xi will likely be unable to inoculate the Chinese economy against a global downturn. And, now, because of Chinese behavior and bullying, even smaller countries like Australia, Sweden, New Zealand, the Netherlands, and Lithuania are openly defying Beijing.
Xi’s frustrations are compounded by the entirely deserved and expanding respect that Taiwan has received for how the Tsai administration has dealt with the virus. Instead of silently accepting that fact, and allowing time to move the diplomatic needle back to normal, Beijing has made it clear that its priority will be to continue to isolate Taipei internationally, most recently by withholding its blessing for Taiwan’s minimal participation as an “observer” at the meeting of the World Health Organization. (Members will vote on extending an invitation to Taiwan on May 18.) And China continues to pressure Taiwan militarily. The pressure could well escalate, and dangerously so. President Xi may see squeezing the “separatist” Tsai administration as a nationalist card to play to unite the Communist Party and cement his legitimacy at home.
Indeed, in late March, the head of Taiwan’s intelligence agency testified in an open legislative hearing that, in light of Chinese domestic challenges, he pegged the likelihood of China using force against Taiwan “tomorrow” at a 6 or 7 out of 10, with 10 being very likely. Faced with a persistent challenge that could quickly become an acute one, what are Taiwan and the United States, Taiwan’s primary security partner, to do?
Taiwan’s current effort to modernize its defenses is significant but it won’t substantially contribute to deterring China in the immediate future. To do so, Taipei could consider a special defense budget to rapidly grow its munitions stockpiles—an essential element in Taiwan’s ability to hold out any length of time should a conflict start. More controversially, President Tsai should order a large-scale reserve mobilization “exercise,” which would see reservists called up across Taiwan for a period of intensive training. Significant in numbers, an adequately trained reserve force would also complicate decision-making in Beijing.
The United States has an important role to play here as well. Indeed, the Taiwan Strait is arguably the most likely place for a dangerous, large-scale conflict between the U.S. and China to start. This prospect is due not only to developments in China, but to policy choices that have been made in Washington.
The policy of “strategic ambiguity”—in which neither China nor Taiwan can be sure whether the United States will intervene in a conflict—has not only outlived its usefulness, but contributed to instability in the Strait. The odds of Taiwan initiating a conflict, as past American administrations might have worried about when the island was under one-party rule and China was poor and weak, are now vanishingly small. Meanwhile, the odds of a Chinese blockade, missile strike, or invasion grow with each passing year. To effectively dissuade China from that course, clarity is in order.
Congressman Mike Gallagher (R-Wisconsin) recently argued that “now is the time for a declaratory statement of policy committing the United States to the defense of Taiwan.” He’s right. Given Taiwan’s strategic centrality in East Asia—an island gate to the larger Pacific—such a statement might be the single most effective thing President Trump could do to ensure continuing peace in the region.
Unfortunately, the entirety of the U.S.-Taiwan relationship is marked by ambiguity. The “one China” policy—in which Washington “acknowledges” the PRC view that there is only one China of which Taiwan is a part, but about which the United States takes no actual position—is, like its “strategic ambiguity” cousin, past its prime.
Taiwan is a sovereign state with robust democratic institutions, armed forces, foreign diplomatic partners, and one of the world’s largest economies. It looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and yet the United States does not even call it a chicken. Is it a country? A territory? A self-governing collection of islands? The State Department would rather not say.
Taipei might not welcome an effort to establish formal diplomatic ties at the moment, a move that could precipitate crisis at a time when China is weakened and poised to lash out. However, to deter China now and in the years ahead, Washington needs to begin the process of breaking out of the policy vises that have prevented it from bringing Taiwan in from the cold and, in turn, shoring up America’s own strategic position in Asia.