The End of Strategic Ambiguity in the Taiwan Strait

The collapse of confidence in long-term advantage means the era of strategic ambiguity is over.

The Diplomat
Date: September 13, 2020
By: Eric Chan

Credit: Office of the President, ROC (Taiwan)

Our Taiwan National Defense University international group had almost finished the tour of a naval vessel at Zuoying Naval Base when the escorting ship commander suddenly halted. An embarrassed silence followed. He had clearly overheard some of the sotto voce comments from the group about the state of the ship, which was painstakingly maintained but undeniably antiquated. The commander turned around and quietly said, “When the enemy comes, they will pay a price.”

“When the enemy comes,” not “if.” The certainty of the phrase struck me at the time, and even more so today.

For years, U.S. policy toward Taiwan’s defense has been oriented around the principle of strategic ambiguity, outlined in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. There is no guarantee of any sort.

China also had a policy of strategic ambiguity: a refusal to renounce the use of force against Taiwan, but emphasizing the economic gains of cooperation. The viability of strategic ambiguity rests on an assumption: that time is on our side. As long as each player thought that long-term trends favored their cause, there was significant incentive to tamp down short-term tensions.

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