A New Balancing Act: Rejecting War & Protecting Taiwan (Marcellus Policy Analysis)

By Matthew Gallagher, Spring 2022 Marcellus Policy Fellow

If maintaining peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region — and if preserving the economic autonomy, political freedom, and human rights of Taiwan — is in the national interest, then U.S. policy must adapt to changing security conditions. The U.S. should commit to military non-intervention if the cross-Strait dispute over Taiwan’s sovereignty were to deteriorate. This position of restraint is intended to prevent such deterioration from occurring. China’s patience on the matter of reunification, and by extension its willingness to either accept or disrupt the status quo, is inextricably linked to its perception of Taiwan’s independence movement. This perception is formed by the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) observations of the synergy between Washington and Taipei. Beijing’s threat perception heightens exclusively during periods of coexistence between a liberal executive in Taiwan and a deeply engaged U.S. government. Therefore, if the U.S. were to shed its cloak of “strategic ambiguity” and clearly commit to staying out of this fight, China would have significantly less reason to start a fight in the first place.

To be clear, an express commitment to military non-intervention does not mean that the U.S. would abandon Taiwan. The U.S. should simultaneously commit to supporting Taiwan’s resilience in three meaningful ways. Specifically, the U.S. ought to recommit to consistent and limited arms sales of a strictly defensive nature, commit to financing projects that enhance Taiwan’s ability to produce energy domestically, and prepare to initiate negotiations on a grand bargain for both avoiding war and protecting Taiwan’s human rights. For China, these U.S. actions would significantly raise the human, economic, and political costs of unprovoked aggression. These costs, paired with a lower threat perception, would be sufficient to make continuity of the status quo the most feasible, viable, and desirable option for China.

With ambiguity steadily losing its utility as a stabilizing approach to the Taiwan Strait, this paper will make the case for why a restrained version of U.S. “strategic clarity” has the greatest potential to replicate the conditions for peace and stability that ambiguity had initially fashioned. The first section will explain why and how ambiguity is failing, the dangers of clearly committing U.S. armed forces to Taiwan’s defense, and the strategic benefits of restraint. The second section will explore the two main defensive services that the U.S. can responsibly provide to Taiwan in order to deter a rational China. The third section will present a grand bargain specifically designed to manage a cross-Strait crisis in case China acts irrationally on Taiwan. The conclusion will summarize policy recommendations.