WASHINGTON — If anything can tip the global power struggle between China and the United States into an actual military conflict, many specialists and administration officials say, it is the fate of Taiwan.
Beijing has increased its military harassment of what it considers a rogue territory, including menacing flights by 15 Chinese warplanes near its shores over recent days. In response, Biden administration officials are trying to calibrate a policy that protects the democratic, technology-rich island without inciting an armed conflict that would be disastrous for all.
Under a longstanding — and famously convoluted — policy derived from the United States’ “one China” stance that supports Taiwan without recognizing it as independent, the US provides political and military support for Taiwan but does not explicitly promise to defend it from a Chinese attack.
As China’s power and ambition grow, however, and Beijing assesses Washington to be weakened and distracted, a debate is underway whether the United States should make a more specific commitment to the island’s defense, in part to reduce the risk of a miscalculation by China that could lead to unwanted war.
The debate reflects a core foreign policy challenge seizing the Biden administration as it devises its wider Asia strategy. Be it the White House, the State Department or the Pentagon, which is reviewing its military posture in Asia, officials are re-evaluating core tenets of American strategy for a new and more dangerous phase of competition with China.
US officials warn that China is growing more capable of invading the island democracy of nearly 24 million people, situated about 100 miles off the coast of mainland China, whose status has obsessed Beijing since Chinese nationalists retreated and formed a government there after the country’s 1949 communist revolution.
Last month, the military commander for the Indo-Pacific region, Admiral Philip Davidson, described what he sees as a risk that China could try to reclaim Taiwan by force within the next six years.
The United States has long avoided saying how it would respond to such an attack. While Washington supports Taiwan with diplomatic contacts, arms sales, firm language, and even occasional military maneuvers, there are no guarantees. No statement, doctrine, or security agreement compels the United States to come to Taiwan’s rescue. A 1979 congressional law states only that “any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means” would be of “grave concern to the United States.”
The result is known as “strategic ambiguity,” a careful balance intended to avoid provoking Beijing or emboldening Taiwan into a formal declaration of independence that could lead to a Chinese invasion.
Biden administration officials, who are formulating their China policies, are giving special attention to Taiwan and trying to determine whether strategic ambiguity is sufficient to protect the increasingly vulnerable island from Beijing’s designs. But they also realize that Americans may look unfavorably at new, faraway military commitments after two decades of bloody and costly conflict in the Middle East.
That is why Davidson raised eyebrows last month when he acknowledged under questioning, in a departure from standard government messaging, that the policy “should be reconsidered,” adding, “I would look forward to the conversation.”
“I think there’s been a shift in peoples’ thinking,” said Richard Haass, a former director of policy planning at the State Department under president George W. Bush and now the president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “What you’ve seen over the last year is an acceleration of concern in the United States about Taiwan.” He described a sense that “this delicate situation that appeared to have been successfully managed or finessed for decades, suddenly people woke up to the possibility that that era has come to an end.”
Haass helped prompt a conversation on the subject last year after publishing an essay in September in Foreign Affairs magazine that declared that strategic ambiguity had “run its course.”
“The time has come for the United States to introduce a policy of strategic clarity: one that makes explicit that the United States would respond to any Chinese use of force against Taiwan,” Haass wrote with his colleague David Sacks.
Haass and Sacks added that the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, may question the United States’ willingness to defend its alliances after four years under president Donald Trump, who railed against “endless wars” and openly questioned US relationships and security commitments. While more hawkish-sounding, a clearer pledge would be safer, they argued.
“Such a policy would lower the chances of Chinese miscalculation, which is the likeliest catalyst for war in the Taiwan Strait,” Haass and Sacks wrote.
In recent months, the idea has been gaining traction, including on Capitol Hill.
Senator Rick Scott, Republican of Florida, has introduced a bill that would authorize the president to take military action to defend Taiwan against a Chinese attack — making US intentions ambiguous no more. When Haass testified last month before a House Foreign Relations Committee panel on Asia, he was peppered with questions about how to deter the Chinese threat to Taiwan.
Although of limited value in territorial terms, Taiwan in recent years has gained a greater strategic importance as one of the world’s leading producers of semiconductors — the high-tech equivalent of oil in the emerging supercomputing showdown between the United States and China, which faces microchip supply shortages.
Those factors combined have led the Biden administration to offer displays of support for Taiwan that some experts call surprisingly forceful.
When China sent dozens of warplanes over the Taiwan Strait days after Biden’s inauguration in January, the State Department released a statement declaring the United States' “rock solid” commitment to the island. Biden raised the subject of Taiwan during his phone call in February with Xi, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan raised their concerns about the island during their meeting last month in Anchorage with two top Chinese officials.
“I think people are bending over backward to say to China, ‘Do not miscalculate — we strongly support Taiwan,’” said Bonnie Glaser, the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Glaser said she had been surprised at the Biden team’s early approach toward Taiwan, which so far has maintained the Trump administration’s amplified political support for the island, a posture some critics called overly provocative. She noted that Blinken had recently urged Paraguay’s president in a phone call to maintain his country’s formal ties with Taiwan, despite pressure from Beijing, and that the US ambassador to Palau, an archipelago state in the Western Pacific, recently joined a diplomatic delegation from that country to Taiwan.
“That is just really outside of normal diplomatic practice,” Glaser said. “I think that was quite unexpected.”
But Glaser does not support a more explicit US commitment to Taiwan’s defense. Like many other analysts and US officials, she fears that such a change in policy might provoke China.
“Maybe then Xi is backed into a corner. This could really cause China to make the decision to invade,” she warned.