On 7 July White House Asia tsar Kurt Campbell stated ‘we support a strong unofficial relationship with Taiwan; we do not support Taiwan independence’, drawing an even clearer line on the US position regarding Taiwan. This came after he affirmed in June that the Biden administration is confident in the current framework that governs relations between mainland China, Taiwan and the United States.
At the event in June, Campbell said that the administration ‘still believes the frameworks that have been developed over the last several decades between the United States, Taiwan, and China give us the best framework forward’. He further noted that the administration ‘has [already] emphasised the downsides of adjusting that framework’.
Avril Haines, the US Director of National Intelligence, also viewed Taiwan’s move towards de jure independence as a potential challenge. She argued that ‘already Taiwan is hardening, to some extent, toward independence as they’re watching, essentially, what happened in Hong Kong’. Haines said that such developments would ‘solidify Chinese perceptions that the US is bent on constraining China’s rise if Washington moves towards strategic clarity’.
The concerns described by Haines resonate with critics of US strategic clarity. There are fears that an ‘unconditional promise of US support’ will embolden pro-independence factions in Taiwan, many of whom want to unilaterally change the status quo. Independence fundamentalists are often dismissive of the threat posed by China and overly confident in US support. So the adoption of strategic clarity may limit Washington’s choices in the event of emboldened Taiwanese actions relating to China.
Strategic clarity in the form of unconditional support for Taiwan could tempt radicals towards de jure independence, risking full scale confrontation between the United States and China. Beijing could use the situation to rally the Chinese population against both Taipei and Washington under the banner of Chinese nationalism and increase risks of Chinese challenges to the regional status quo. For Washington, strategic clarity would forces it to be reactive — leaving US policymakers guessing where and when a confrontation might occur in the Taiwan Strait.
Aside from affirming the benefits of maintaining ambiguity, Campbell noted the fact that the United States is entering uncharted territories regarding a ‘new complex coexisting paradigm’ with China where competition and cooperation go hand in hand. Despite Biden’s characterisation of US–China relations as a battle between democracy and autocracy, high-level dialogues have continued.
Former US secretary of state John Kerry still made his trip to China, and Biden still virtually met Chinese President Xi Jinping at the recent US-led climate conference. To foster stability in this unprecedented ‘frenemy’ relationship, Washington figured some existing conflicts, like Afghanistan, must be settled, and some controversies, like Taiwan, should be stabilised.
From a Taiwanese perspective, it’s easy to interpret Washington’s China policy shifts as signs of support for Taiwan. Biden has maintained a tough stance on China, and Biden officials describe relations with Taiwan as ‘rock-solid’. But high ranking officials from China and the United States have started to communicate more frequently than during the Trump era.
On the one hand, Washington’s competitive posture against China has resulted in more hardline statements. But on the other hand, increasing Chinese aggression and the deteriorating power balance between Taiwan and China in the context of a shrinking US military budget also requires US leadership to restore interactions with Beijing and minimise miscommunications.
As the US–China relationship remains unpredictable, Washington’s attention will increasingly turn to Taiwan. But such focus does not necessarily imply unconditional support for Taipei. Such attention might instead be a way of compensating for a lack of confidence in US military deterrence without significantly provoking the Chinese, a policy which calls for a more cautious approach to the island deemed ‘the most dangerous place on earth’.
US support might be another part of managing the tilting power balance between Beijing and Washington — not as a political gesture or blind pass for Taiwanese actions. Washington supports Taiwan insofar as failing to do so threatens US interests — not just because it is a proud democratic partner.
Closer Taiwanese and US alignment, particularly that which is geared towards enhancing Taiwan’s capability for self-defence, is most effective when done ambiguously. Indeed, comments made by White House officials advocating cautiousness make it hard to imagine that calls for strategic clarity are growing.
The Taiwanese leadership must not mistakenly perceive itself to be the one calling the shots by assuming it plays a pivotal role in a new US China policy. It would also be unwise to set higher expectations on US commitments on every current administration’s political aspiration. Instead, they should perceive some of those expectations as being difficult for the United States to meet. Taiwan is merely one US calculation among many aimed at curbing Chinese influence. It is a means to a strategic end, but not a strategic end in itself.
US strategy is not designed to facilitate gradual Taiwanese efforts towards independence, a factor which to some extent determines the aggressiveness of China. Biden’s officials have made that point numerous times — and Campbell just did so again.