The senior White House official for Asia warned that any statement that the United States defended Taiwan from a Chinese attack would result in “significant inconvenience.”
Washington has maintained for decades a policy of “strategic ambiguity” towards Taiwan, designed to discourage Taipei from declaring its independence and China from taking military action to take over the country. Beijing claims democratic Taiwan as part of its sovereign territory.
Some experts have called for a shift to “strategic clarity” to make it clear to Beijing that the United States will defend Taiwan. But Kurt Campbell, the Asian White House tsar, said such a change came with risks.
“There are significant drawbacks to. . . strategic clarity, ”he told the Financial Times Global Boardroom on Tuesday.
“The best way to maintain peace and stability is to send a truly consolidated message involving diplomacy, defense innovation and our own capabilities to the Chinese leadership, so that they do not consider some kind of measures. challenging ambitious and dangerous in the future. . ”
China’s aggressive military activity and growing defense capabilities justify a stronger message from Washington, some analysts have argued. But others have argued that the response could trigger an unwanted outcome. China has warned the United States against crossing a “red line” over Taiwan.
Avril Haines, director of national intelligence, recently said that China would view a policy change as “profoundly” destabilizing. “This would solidify the Chinese perception that the United States is determined to curb China’s rise to power, including through military force, and likely lead Beijing to aggressively undermine American interests around the world,” he said. she declared.
But David Sacks, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations who supports a change, said there was “a significant downside to strategic ambiguity,” which was created at a time when China lacked the capacity. military to attack Taiwan.
“US policy must recognize that deterrence is eroding and must adapt to China’s growing capabilities,” he said. “China’s actions in Hong Kong show that Western criticism and sanctions are not enough to shape its behavior. Strategic clarity would show China how seriously we take the issue of Taiwan’s future. “
Concerns have grown as China has sent more fighter jets to Taiwan’s air defense identification zone over the past year, in what has become almost routine activity. Last month, the People’s Liberation Army sent a record 25 military planes to Taiwan’s southwest corner of ADIZ.
Analysts said the flights were aimed at intimidating Taipei and depleting its air force, which is forced to jam jets in response.
During his last congressional appearance in March before retiring as head of U.S. forces in the Indo-Pacific, Philip Davidson said he feared China could attack Taiwan within six years. He also said that while strategic ambiguity had helped preserve the status quo for decades, “these things should be reconsidered regularly.”
Days later, a senior US official told the FT that the administration believed China was flirting with the idea of taking military action.
Asked whether the world should prepare for a possible conflict over Taiwan, Campbell downplayed the risk, saying Chinese military activity was an effort to “turn the screws” on Taiwan.
But Elizabeth Economy of the Hoover Institution think tank, who spoke alongside Campbell, said she was increasingly concerned.
“One thing you can learn about Xi Jinping from reading all of his speeches and following his actions is that there is a pretty strong correlation between what he says and what he does,” Economy said.
“He spoke about the need to meet with Taiwan as soon as possible. He has not given up on the use of force. . . We have to take very seriously the threat that he may become overconfident, that his military will become overconfident. “
Ryan Hass, an expert on China in the Brookings Institution think tank, said Campbell’s statement was important because there were “few issues. . . on which the precision of the language has more consequences than Taiwan ”.
“Campbell’s reiteration of a long-standing policy indicates that consistency and steadfastness will remain the order of the day in dealing with Taiwan’s problems,” Hass said. “His comments should limit future freelance work on Taiwan politics by US officials.”
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @Dimi