The United States needs to abandon its longstanding “strategic ambiguity” regarding its likely response to a Chinese attack or invasion of Taiwan and replace it with “strategic clarity” in the form of a collective defensive East Asian-Pacific alliance with Japan, Australia, and Taiwan. This may be the only way to deter a likely Chinese attack and to defeat China in a regional war should deterrence fail.
Writing in Foreign Affairs, Richard Haas and David Sacks of the Council on Foreign Relations advocate a policy of strategic clarity, but they shrink from recommending the formation of a collective security pact with U.S. allies in the region, and instead urge the Biden administration to “explore trilateral cooperation” with Japan and Australia. Haas and Sacks note that leaders in both Japan and Australia have “moved toward their own versions of strategic clarity, likely in an effort to encourage Washington to do the same.” And they call for an increased U.S. military presence in the region while urging Japan, Australia, and Taiwan to do the same.
Haas and Sacks are rightly critical of the Biden administration’s continued ambiguity on this issue, with the president in some remarks appearing to commit the U.S. to Taiwan’s defense, only to be followed by White House spokespersons walking back the president’s remarks. The net effect, the authors claim, is to reinforce strategic ambiguity by “sowing confusion about the true nature of the administration’s policy.” That assumes against all evidence that the administration has a coherent policy.
Hitler in 1938 threatened war if the Czechs resisted the incorporation of the Sudetenland into the Reich, just as today Xi threatens to forcibly annex Taiwan should the Taiwanese attempt to resist being incorporated into CCP rule.
Haas and Sacks, however, undercut the very strategic clarity they claim to support by urging Washington to refrain from “symbolic steps” that Beijing may interpret as support for an independent Taiwan. “U.S. military vessels,” they write, “should refrain from visiting Taiwanese ports, and bilateral exercises should continue but be kept quiet.” And they urge members of Congress to “refrain from asserting a U.S interest in keeping Taiwan separate from China.” This may be our Munich moment.
Historical analogies are fraught with danger, especially when examining and acting on the “lessons” of past events. But sometimes such analogies can be fruitful in influencing policy provided that the policymakers understand that no two situations are exactly alike. In 1938, Europe’s democracies eschewed calls for the collective defense of Czechoslovakia which was under increasing diplomatic pressure from Nazi Germany. Hitler in 1938 insisted that the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia rightly belonged to Germany, just as today China’s President Xi Jinping insists that Taiwan belongs to China. Hitler in 1938 threatened war if the Czechs resisted the incorporation of the Sudetenland into the Reich, just as today Xi threatens to forcibly annex Taiwan should the Taiwanese attempt to resist being incorporated into CCP rule. When Hitler annexed Austria in early 1938, the European democracies did nothing, just as when Xi ended Hong Kong’s political and legal autonomy and the U.S. and its allies verbally protested but took no concrete retaliatory measures. Winston Churchill in The Gathering Storm wrote that “[t]he acceptance by the Western Democracies of the German subjugation of Austria encouraged Hitler to pursue his designs more sharply against Czechoslovakia.” Perhaps the acceptance by the U.S. and the Asia-Pacific democracies of China’s subjugation of Hong Kong likewise encouraged Xi to pursue his designs more sharply against Taiwan.
After Hitler’s “rape” of Austria, Churchill suggested the formation of a “Franco-British-Russian alliance” to protect Czechoslovakia, Hitler’s obvious next victim. No such alliance came about, and after Britain and France acceded to Hitler’s demands, Germany took the Sudetenland and later all of Czechoslovakia, just as Churchill had predicted. After Xi’s “rape” of Hong Kong, his aggressive moves in the South China Sea, and his massive military buildup, a collective security pact among America and its key allies in the region may be the best option for protecting Taiwan and averting war. Now that would be strategic clarity.