Former Senior US Officials Call for Greater Clarity to Defend Taiwan
A growing number of former senior US officials are calling for the United States to shift away from its longstanding approach of strategic ambiguity on the question of whether to publicly commit to come to Taiwan’s defense in the event of a Chinese invasion of the island-democracy. The policy of strategic ambiguity was valuable and even necessary for dual deterrence in the Asia-Pacific theatre, especially in the decades immediately following World War II, with fledgling alliances and major power conflict knocking on many fronts.  The more recent calls for greater clarity—which were clearly vocalized at the Global Taiwan Institute’s annual symposium this year—have noticeably grown louder as great power competition again looms on the horizon. This sentiment is shared even among experts who have traditionally been more concerned about Beijing’s sensitivities, as increased tensions in the Taiwan Strait—reflected by the recent surge in People’s Liberation Army (PLA) exercises in and around the Strait—are destabilizing the delicate status quo that has preserved the peace since 1979. Indeed, at GTI’s annual symposium on September 15-16, several former senior US defense officials stated that they favored greater clarity regarding the US’ commitment to defend Taiwan.
Most notably at the symposium, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Randall Schriver made a strong statement on the need for a shift in the US approach to the Taiwan Strait. Schriver, who currently serves as chairman of the Project 2049 Institute and recently participated in a US delegation led by Under Secretary of State Keith Krach to attend former President Lee Teng-hui’s (李登輝) memorial service on September 19, stated:
We need to think about moving toward strategic clarity and tactical ambiguity. […] What I mean by that and what we can continue to build out, the strategic clarity part, it is in our strategic interest for Taiwan’s continued existence, survival, and success. […] It is against our interest for Taiwan to be absorbed into the “One-China” system as long as the CCP is in power and well beyond that. The tactical ambiguity would have to be preserved because we don’t want to forecast what we would do in a particular contingency.
Lt. Gen. (ret.) Wallace Gregson, who served as the assistant secretary of defense during the Obama administration and is a member of GTI’s Advisory Board, supported Schriver’s views at the symposium, adding: “As we clarify what we stand for and what our position is [on Taiwan], we should be able to get other countries to come on board.”
Building on these statements, Elbridge Colby, the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development who played an instrumental role in drafting the latest National Defense Strategy, added during the symposium’s “Defense & Non-Military Coercion” panel:
In terms of what to do about this [threat from China], this is one of the reasons I talk about Taiwan ad nauseum. Most people are tired of hearing me talk about it, but I think it is definitely one of the weak links in the chain, and because of the ambiguity issues, there is real question. When you’re in a situation where it’s going to be costly and there are questions about resolve we should be as strong as humanly possible. So I spend a lot of my time trying to persuade people that we should be clearer, if nothing else, to ourselves that we would defend Taiwan, because I think the worst situation, actually, is continuing ambiguity when the Chinese can actually do something about it.
What is perhaps even more noteworthy than these public calls for greater clarity from longstanding supporters of a more robust US-Taiwan relationship is that they are being buttressed by prominent voices which have in the past sounded more conciliatory notes toward Beijing’s concerns. Indeed, in a Foreign Affairs piece written by Richard Haass and David Sacks of the Council on Foreign Relations, the two argued that: “The policy known as strategic ambiguity has […] run its course. Ambiguity is unlikely to deter an increasingly assertive China with growing military capabilities. The time has come for the United States to introduce a policy of strategic clarity: one that makes explicit that the United States would respond to any Chinese use of force against Taiwan.” This represents a remarkably bold position for Haass, who served as the director of policy planning at the State Department during the first George W. Bush administration.
While the voices calling for greater clarity are indeed getting louder, the necessity of a clean and clear break from strategic ambiguity towards Taiwan is not shared by all experts and practitioners, even among supporters of a stronger US-Taiwan relationship. According to Abraham Denmark, who also served under the Obama administration as the deputy assistant secretary of defense, speaking at a recent Global Taiwan Institute virtual seminar:
I can see the argument [for strategic clarity], but I don’t agree with it. I think that, broadly speaking, the decision to retain some degree of ambiguity about American commitments to the defense of Taiwan […] is ultimately in our interest and actually in the interest of Taiwan. […] I think it’s [strategic ambiguity] worked fairly well, in that use of force has not occurred, at least so far as we know China has to date been deterred, and the cross-Strait dynamic, although it’s certainly concerning, has been relatively stable.
Sounding a reassuring note on US steadfast commitment to Taiwan’s defense while not explicitly affirming an unambiguous US pledge to come to Taiwan’s defense in the event of a Chinese attack, the Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense David Helvey reaffirmed his predecessor’s comments. However, he insisted that:
We’ve been absolutely clear at the strategic level for quite some time. I think that clarity is manifested across [our] laws and policies. […] The Taiwan Relations Act makes it absolutely clear our commitment to support Taiwan’s self-defense. […] Having some degree of tactical ambiguity, whether it’s in terms of our operations and timings and our response, I think that ensures that we’re able to provide that type of decision space to the senior levels of our command. […] It’s also important to maintain tactical ambiguity to preserve the prerogatives of our Congress, the prerogatives are laid out not only in the Taiwan Relations Act but also in our Constitution.
As noted by Shirley Kan, who served as an analyst at the Congressional Research Service for over two decades and is also a member of GTI’s Advisory Board:
The Taiwan Relations Act itself stipulates ambiguity so that we have clarity and flexibility as needed. But policy should adjust as conditions change. Nonetheless, a significant shift in our commitment to Taiwan’s self-defense should not be an isolated decision but should be part of a strategic policy review. […] How will this story end? Whether it’s strategic ambiguity or strategic clarity, a strategy still needs an objective. What outcome do we seek with unity of effort within the US and with our allies? Do we have an objective for Taiwan?
In 2000, then-President George W. Bush unequivocally stated that the United States would do “whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself” in the event of attack by China. That remains the closest the United States has ever come to explicitly declaring that it would defend Taiwan in the event of an attack. At the time, an immediate crisis appeared to be on the horizon, as Beijing threatened Taiwan to prevent it from moving farther from its grasp following the island-nation’s first peaceful transfer of political power by a democratic election. As the PLA once again ratchets up the tensions to a troubling octave and concerns simmer over the possibility of a limited conflict in the Taiwan Strait, the calls for strategic clarity are once again getting louder and finding more receptive ears in Washington.
While provocatively crossing the unofficial median line in the Taiwan Strait during a recent exercise, a PLA pilot boasted when responding to calls from the Taiwanese authorities to leave that “there is no median line in the Taiwan Strait” (沒海峽中線). With Chinese warplanes having crossed the sensitive median line almost 40 times over the past weekend—it is worth remembering that before 2019 it was back in 1999 that Beijing deliberately intruded on the tacitly adhered to median line. Beijing’s threat of force is clearly increasing so it is no surprise then that these developments have led to the growing calls for another declaratory statement that, at the very least, reinforces the longstanding presidential position that the United States would help Taiwan defend herself.
As Beijing intensifies its pressure campaign, there will be greater pressure and incentives for Washington to push back and rebalance the equilibrium in the Taiwan Strait. And as China appear to inch ever closer to the use the force to settle the Taiwan issue, the demand for greater clarity will grow ever stronger. As noted by Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI) at the GTI symposium: “My opinion is that strategic ambiguity no longer makes sense when you look at how the US has pursued extended deterrence across the globe. […] I would say strategic certainty is the bedrock foundation built into Article 5 of our entire alliance system.”
(The author would like to thank Emilie Hu, Annabel Uhlman, and Marshall Reid for their research assistance.)
The main point: As China continues to ratchet up tensions in the Taiwan Strait, a growing number of former senior US officials are calling for the United States to shift away from its longstanding approach of strategic ambiguity on the question of whether to publicly commit to come to Taiwan’s defense in the event of a Chinese invasion of the island-democracy.
 Cha, V. D. (2018). Powerplay: The Origins of the American Alliance System in Asia. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
New Japanese Prime Minister’s Senior Defense Officials Are Taiwan-Friendly
Yoshihide Suga’s (菅義偉) rapid ascension as the successor to Shinzo Abe (安倍晋三), the longest-serving Japanese prime minister since WWII, sparked a media flurry about the low-profile politician who had quietly hovered around the center of political power for decades. Despite Suga’s position close to the center of power, not much is known about the views of the new prime minister, especially on foreign and defense policy, which were handled closely by Prime Minister Abe. Yet, several newly appointed members of the new prime minister’s Cabinet reveal an interesting bent in the new prime minister’s preferences on foreign policy—especially on defense matters. Indeed, in addition to multiple holdovers from Abe’s administration, a couple of new faces in senior positions at the Ministry of Defense are known to be vocal supporters of stronger Japan-Taiwan relations. Indeed, it was announced on September 16 that Nobuo Kishi (岸信夫), a member of the House of Representatives in the Diet and the brother of former Prime Minister Abe, will be the defense minister in Suga’s Cabinet.
Following Abe’s unexpected announcement that he was resigning (again) due to health issues, questions were immediately raised about how a new prime minister would handle defense and foreign affairs. These inquiries intensified after Suga became the favorite, as he has had relatively few experiences in these matters. The selection of the new defense minister, a familiar face among Taiwan watchers who is outspoken in his support for strengthening security ties between Japan and Taiwan, may be intended to reassure those who were concerned about the continuation of the overall deepening of cooperation between the two countries that has taken place during the Abe administration over the last eight years.
Kishi, who had previously served as a senior vice foreign minister, is well-known for his support of stronger Japan-Taiwan ties. As a Diet member, he visited Taiwan numerous times as the unofficial but de facto envoy of the Abe administration. As noted earlier, Kishi, the younger brother of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as well as the grandson and grandnephew of two other prime ministers, is no ordinary politician. According to some analysts, he is considered a candidate for the prime minister’s office himself at some future point.
Additionally, Kishi serves as the head of the governing Liberal Democratic Party’s Japan-Taiwan Young Parliamentary Association on Economic Exchange. He has also reportedly been involved in advocating for the formulation of a domestic law that would serve as the basis for strengthening economic relations and personal exchanges with Taiwan, such as a “Japanese version of the United States’ Taiwan Relations Act (TRA)—a domestic law governing unofficial relations with Taiwan.
While Kishi’s advocacy for strengthening Japan-Taiwan ties have been extensive, the ties between Kishi with President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) are also quite deep. More recently, Kishi met with President Tsai on January 12 as one of the first delegations to meet the president following her landslide election victory on January 11, 2020. During Tsai’s tour of “Taiwan-Japan friendship” in 2015—before she was elected as president—Kishi, who was then still a member of Japan’s House of Councillors, hosted Tsai in Abe’s hometown in Yamaguchi prefecture. More relevant to his new role as defense minister, in an op-ed published in a Japanese political magazine in December 2019, Kishi called for a security dialogue between Taiwan, Japan, and the United States. Indeed, this statement echoes growing calls in the United States and Taiwan for such a dialogue among like-minded partners. Similarly, in 2005, Tokyo and Washington announced that stability across the Taiwan Strait was one of their “common strategic objectives” in a bilateral security consultative committee joint statement.
Notably, Kishi’s interest in stronger Japan-Taiwan relations has been reciprocated by Taiwan. In an interview with Sankei Shimbun back in March 2019, President Tsai indicated her administration’s desire to hold security dialogues with Japan. In the interview, she emphasized that “Taiwan and Japan are confronted with the same threats in the East Asian region […] [i]t is vital that talks be raised to the level of security cooperation.” “Prime Minister [Shinzo] Abe has been extremely friendly with Taiwan, and, after his inauguration, has made dramatic decisions [for Japan-Taiwan relations]. For the next step, it is necessary to strengthen our security discussions,” she added.
In May 2019, a group of former officials from the United States, Japan, and Taiwan gathered in Tokyo and issued a joint declaration calling for an enhancement of US-Japan-Taiwan ties. The joint statement called for the enactment of six specific measures to help enhance the security of Taiwan and address regional security concerns. These measures were: 1) approve the participation of Taiwan in US-Japan co-hosted regional humanitarian maritime security exercises; 2) commence an official security dialogue between Japan and Taiwan; 3) initiate an official security dialogue between Japan, the United States, and Taiwan; 4) for Japan to enact a “Basic Act on Exchange between Japan and Taiwan”; 5) for Japan to enact legislation for agreements and memoranda of understanding (MOUs) with Japan and the United States in Taiwan; and 6) establish policies, mechanisms, and resources to counter malign influence operations initiated by the PRC designed to undermine the Japan-US security alliance and the democracy and freedom of Taiwan.
Notwithstanding the significance, if only symbolic, of Kishi’s appointment as the new defense minister, his selection is buoyed by the fact that the new vice minister—reportedly Yasuhide Nakayama (中山 泰秀)—is also known to be a Taiwan-friendly pick. Nakayama accompanied former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori during the latter’s first visit last month to pay respects to former President Lee Teng-hui. Nakayama previously served as State Minister for Foreign Affairs in the Japanese cabinet and was appointed to be the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee after the snap elections in October 2017.
It is perhaps important to point out that cabinet ministers are relatively weak in the Japanese political system, so it remains to be seen to what extent Kishi—as well as Nakayama—will be able to put his long-held beliefs into practice and cut through the entrenched bureaucracy to truly deepen Japan-Taiwan ties that he has advocated strongly for in his roles outside of the executive branch. Former Prime Minister Abe has indicated that he hoped to help the new prime minister, especially in areas of foreign policy. Abe’s involvement may help to bolster Kishi’s standing and push back against the pro-China LDP powerbroker Toshihiro Nikai (二階俊博), who may seek to curtail improvements in Japan-Taiwan ties for concerns over angering China.
Interestingly, Nikai recently revealed that had Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping (習近平) been able to visit Japan as originally scheduled this April, the two sides would have signed a major “fifth political document,” according to the Asahi Shimbun. “We were supposed to establish our intention for ‘co-creation’ to achieve world peace and prosperity led by Japan and China together,” Nikai reportedly stated.
For now, those plans seem to be on hold. Abe is known to be a strong supporter of Taiwan and seen as a bulwark against any bureaucratic tendency to lean towards China and his sudden departure is a concern for those hoping to see further improvements in Japan-Taiwan ties. Yet, any hopes for an immediate realignment of Japan’s foreign policy closer to China’s in Abe’s absence would seemingly, at least on the surface, be met with internal opposition in the new Cabinet to Beijing’s ultimate conditions that Tokyo forsake its friends in Taipei.
The main point: The recent appointments in Japanese Prime Minister Suga’s cabinet for defense bode well for Taiwan. However, cabinet ministers are relatively weak in the Japanese political system and it remains to be seen how much effect this would have on Japan’s policy towards Taiwan.