US policymakers caught in hubris-driven ignorance trap over Taiwan question
Published: Jun 13, 2022 05:00 PM
Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Does the US really want to go to war over Taiwan? Probably not. But a combination of arrogance and ignorance makes such a conflict all but inevitable.

"Strategic ambiguity" has a certain ring to it, implying a certain level of gravitas to a situation where specificity is not desired. For decades now, the United Sates has maintained an official policy of strategic ambiguity when it comes to the question of the defense of Taiwan. This policy is derived from the imperfect language contained in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which simultaneously portends to recognize the "One China" policy of the People's Republic of China while embracing the fiction of an independent Taiwan worthy of defending against any effort by China to forcibly implement that which a "One China" policy guarantees - that Taiwan is an indivisible part of China.

The policy of "strategic ambiguity" is the byproduct of two competing policy directions undertaken by the US simultaneously. One is an extension of George Kennan's policy of Cold War containment, ostensibly promulgated to deal exclusively with the Soviet Union in the aftermath of the World War II but expanded to include China once the Chinese mainland was consolidated under the control of the communist government. When long-time US ally Chang Kai-shek fled with his surviving Kuomintang army to Taiwan, the US stepped in to guarantee security of Taiwan.

The geopolitical realities of the Cold War, however, soon tested the US commitment to Taiwan. Exploiting tensions between the Soviet Union and China, President Richard Nixon, in 1972, undertook to open relations between the US and China. This followed a 1971 vote by the United Nations General Assembly to recognize "that the representative of the Government of the People's Republic of China is the sole legal representative of China in the United Nations." The elevation of China as a global actor, and the desire on the part of the US to woo China away from the Soviet orbit, required the US to find an off-ramp from its Cold War-era posture of defending Taiwan without being seen as abandoning a long-time ally to its fate. The result was the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which put the American imprimatur on the One China policy while maintaining the fiction of US security guarantees to Taiwan.

The purpose of such an inherently contradictory policy was born in the naïve belief that the US would be able to ride herd over China's transition from a centrally controlled communist state into a classic capitalistic society where the moderating influences of an emergent middle class would see the gradual transformation of China away from communist authoritarianism to free market democracy. In doing so, Chinese mainland would become more like Taiwan, and any future unification would be more akin to Taiwan absorbing the Chinese mainland than vice versa.

The American fantasy, however, did not play out along the lines as its supporters had hoped. While the Chinese mainland did, in fact, develop a vibrant and expansive middle class, this was done under the careful management of the Communist Party of China, which never relinquished political power to the forces of Western capitalism. PRC's ability to maintain a decidedly non-Western form of governance while out competing the West (including the US) in the global marketplace threw a monkey wrench into the geopolitical designs of those in the US who hoped that China could be tamed by the US-directed economic and political forces encapsulated by the so-called "rules based international order", those institutions foisted on the global community in the aftermath of the World War II which were designed to perpetuate US hegemony in the name of global development. 

The result was the US turning its policy of "strategic ambiguity" on its head, making fictitious its stated embrace of a "One China" policy while breathing life back into the dormant notion of defending Taiwan from ostensible Chinese aggression. President Joe Biden's "slip of the tongue" in publicly committing the US to the defense of Taiwan pulled the veil away from the changed arc in US-China policy, and in doing so shed light on an uncomfortable truth - as things stand, the US lacks the capacity to defend Taiwan in the case of a full-scale cross-Straits war. To paraphrase a line from the classic movie, Top Gun, Joe Biden's ego is writing checks the American body can't cash. American military leaders and policymakers know this to be true but are caught in the trap of hubris-driven ignorance, where their pride won't allow them to give voice to the obvious. The biggest policy challenge facing America today is how to find a diplomatic offramp from a policy direction whose only logical outcome is war.

The author is a former US Marine Corps intelligence officer. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn