Monday, February 24, 2014

Another problem with ending strategic ambiguity

Taiwan currently controls Pratas Island (Dongsha) and Taiping island, the largest of the Spratlys. Map source.

Lately calls for ending US strategic ambiguity towards Taiwan have appeared in the media, as they do cyclically. I raked one by Etzioni over the coals a couple of weeks ago. Joseph Bosco has also been calling for the US to unambiguously declare it would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack (2010 for example).

Responding to the piece on Etzioni I wrote:
In the Senkakus the situation is crystal clear: we have an exact analogy for Taiwan, a foreign territory, Japan, backed by the US with strong and periodically renewed clarity. Everyone knows that the Senkakus are currently Japanese, that China wants to annex them, and that the US will defend them.
I had forgotten of course, that Taiwan also offers a mirror to the Senkakus: the ROC holdings in the South China Sea.

Imagine if the US were to declare that it would defend Taiwan in case of Chinese attack. Because the ROC/Taiwan holds islands in the South China Sea, this may commit the US to defending them without -- as always -- declaring who is the proper claimant. These islands are claimed by several nations, not just the PRC and ROC, meaning that the US could find itself angering nations whose friendship it needs (just as Taiwan already is with these claims). And that's just the beginning...

...because what is happening in the Senkakus, the slow growth of tension via military and diplomatic moves, creating Japanese countermoves that Beijing can portray as "aggression", can just as easily happen in the South China Sea, if the US position becomes unambiguous, just as it is in the Senkakus. A well-defined policy invites testing of limits, a policy with no definition has no limits that can be tested.

 In addition to creating incidents Beijing can use to construct an "aggressive Japan" narrative, tension generated by Beijing is used by Beijing to harm the relationship between the US and its allies -- in other words, one of Beijing's most important strategic goals is transferring tension from the Beijing-Washington relationship to the Washington-Taipei and Washington-Tokyo relationship.

Just tossing this idea out there. But by unambiguously promising to defend Taiwan, the US may simply involve itself even deeper in the South China Sea disputes in unwelcome, complicated, and unpredictable ways.

ADDED: I also wanted to point out that if the US guarantees to defend Taiwan against attack, it guarantees the South China Sea holdings, which are held by the ROC as Chinese claims. This would put the US in the very awkward position of fighting for Chinese claims over the South China Sea islands (against China!), or else rejecting those claims formally by refusing to defend them.
Daily Links:
Don't miss the comments below! And check out my blog and its sidebars for events, links to previous posts and picture posts, and scores of links to other Taiwan blogs and forums!


Anonymous said...

And again, this is a very US-centric view. "Strategic ambiguity" is merely a means of milking the relationship with Taiwan and avoiding any kind of responsibility to the island. All the more reason for Taiwan to push for unification--at least Beijing is clear about it's position and its long-term commitments. If the US position remains "ambiguous" at best, then independence is off the table. In that case it's clearly in Taiwan's interest to negotiate the best possible deal it can get from Unification with the mainland.

Michael Turton said...

I can't agree, because Taiwan has no way of (1) leaving if the agreement is not carried out and (2) ensuring that it is carried out. And we all know how real Beijing's promises are.


Anonymous said...

Taiwan is reflected in the unclaimed Spratley Islands. The recent change of control from the Philippines to a PRC invasion is indicative of the PRC intent for Taiwan. Actual control can be disputed because of claim jumping. But do international tribunal claims really work for the Taiwanese? It is far bigger than the Scarborough Atoll.