China’s red lines on Taiwan are clear, regardless of US policy of strategic ambiguity

Despite Biden’s subsequent reiteration of US adherence to the “one China” policy, his apparent gaffe – the third in nine months – would seem to signal a nascent US policy of “strategic clarity”, a change from its decades-old policy. “strategic ambiguity”.

By Zhou Bo / South China Morning Post

Will the United States come to militarily defend Taiwan in a war across the Taiwan Strait? This million-dollar question has so far received two answers from the same administration – yes, according to US President Joe Biden when asked the question in Tokyo in late May; not necessarily, according to White House aides who quickly backtracked on his comment and said the US “one China” policy had not changed.

This question becomes all the more interesting if we compare Biden’s attitudes towards Moscow and Beijing. Since the start of the war in Ukraine, Biden has always said that American troops will not directly engage in this conflict.

If Biden is determined to avoid a direct conflict with Russia, why is he so adamant about provoking a potential war with China? The People’s Liberation Army, the largest armed force in the world, would be no less formidable than the Russian army.

The PLA Navy has three aircraft carriers – compared to the only Russian aircraft carrier that has been undergoing repairs for years – and even more ships than the US Navy. On June 17, China unveiled its third aircraft carrier, Fujian, a locally-designed aircraft carrier equipped with an electromagnetic catapult for launching aircraft.

So if China is indeed a greater long-term threat than Russia, as the Biden administration has concluded, shouldn’t Washington try to avoid a conflict with China, especially since it would take place on a distant battlefield where the United States has fewer allies while Beijing has all the advantages of fighting at home?

The reason may be that, unlike Moscow which threatened NATO with nuclear attacks, Beijing swears that it would never be the first to use nuclear weapons under any circumstances.

If Russia’s nuclear stockpile – the largest in the world – had played a decisive role in deterring US involvement, Beijing might have had to reconsider its “small and efficient” nuclear arsenal. Theoretically, a no-first-use policy requires a large nuclear arsenal to allow for an effective second retaliatory strike after surviving the enemy’s first strike.

Despite Biden’s subsequent reiteration of US adherence to the “one China” policy, his apparent gaffe – the third in nine months – would seem to signal a nascent US policy of “strategic clarity”, a change from its decades-old policy. “strategic ambiguity”.

Proponents of strategic ambiguity believe such a policy would deter China while not emboldening those in Taiwan who favor independence. Proponents of strategic clarity, however, argue that such vagueness is already insufficient to deter a possible attack from mainland China.

Despite China’s determination for reunification and the PLA sending its planes flying near Taiwan as a warning, there is no indication that the mainland is accelerating its plan to take over Taiwan due to the war in Ukraine.

China’s defense budget for 2022, announced after the outbreak of the conflict, has been kept to less than 2% of GDP, as it has been in recent years. This speaks volumes about China’s assessment of the security environment and its confidence in eventual reunification with Taiwan.

According to China’s anti-secession law, China would only resort to non-peaceful means in its attempt to reunite with the island under three circumstances: Taiwan declared independence; a major incident occurred leading to Taiwan’s secession from China; or, if all possible avenues for peaceful reunification have been completely exhausted.

The likelihood of the Taiwanese authorities declaring independence is next to impossible, as that would most certainly invite a military response from across the strait. But, in Beijing’s eyes, Washington has repeatedly tried to create “incidents” to hamper the mainland’s efforts for peaceful reunification.

The Pentagon has sent more warships sailing through the Taiwan Strait in recent years – 30 since the start of 2020. Last year, the Wall Street Journal reported that a US special operations unit and a contingent of marines were secretly operating in Taiwan to train the military. forces there.

Beijing has good reason to suspect Washington of paying lip service to its “one China” promise. If the competition between China and the United States is going to be “extreme”, as Biden described it, and if indeed China is “the only country intent both on reshaping the international order and, more and more, the economy, the diplomacy, the military, and the technological might to do it,” as Secretary of State Antony Blinken asserted, won’t the United States use Taiwan as a a practical pawn on the great chessboard of the Indo-Pacific?

The conflict in Ukraine provides lessons for the PLA. The biggest mistake of the Russian army was to underestimate its enemy. This was clear in his attacks on multiple fronts without adequate troops, sufficient supplies and logistical support, and a clear line of command.

Soldiers wave flares as they attend the funeral on Saturday in Kyiv, Ukraine, of activist Roman Ratushnyi, who died fighting for the Ukrainian army against Russian intruders. The biggest mistake of the Russian army was to underestimate its enemy. Photo: AP

Such mistakes are unlikely to be made by the PLA. The Taiwan Relations Act does not explicitly oblige US forces to come to the defense of the island. But you can be sure that the PLA would be prepared for such a fight, involving not only US troops but all of its allies in the region.

In other words, neither America’s strategic ambiguity nor strategic clarity could hold back the military buildup of the PLA. During the recent Shangri-La Dialogue, Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe vowed to “fight to the end” to stop Taiwanese secession.

The Taiwan question is one of China’s main interests. This means that the PLA cannot afford to lose in a war fighting for China’s sovereignty. Once a war begins, a stalemate like the one we see in Ukraine is highly unlikely, and a ceasefire would be out of the question.

Biden likes to quote his father saying that the only conflict worse than intentional conflict is unintentional conflict. The problem is that in the Taiwan Strait there will be no involuntary conflicts.

Zhou Bo
Zhou Bo

Senior Colonel Zhou Bo (retired) is a senior researcher at the Center for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University and a China Forum expert. He was director of the Security Cooperation Center of the International Military Cooperation Bureau of the Ministry of National Defense of China.

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