Engaging with Taiwan, otherwise known as the Republic of China or Chinese Taipei, is a difficult task for the United States to navigate. Differing historical stances over the most effective path for balancing the relationship between Taiwan and China make it difficult for “fair” engagement to occur with either country.

In 1972,[1] under President Nixon,[2] the United States clearly announced its One China Policy. Under this policy, the United States recognizes, very literally, one China, where Taiwan is seen as part of China instead of as an independent country.[3] Since the enactment of this policy, it has remained unchanged.

However, in 1979, under President Carter, the Taiwan Relations Act was passed. This act authorized the establishment of the American Institute in Taiwan as well as the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office. In addition, it requires the United States to sell arms to Taiwan. Interestingly, though, the act makes it clear that these weapons only have to meet a defensive threshold, lowering the extent of United States commitment to Taiwan[4].

Many argue that the One China Policy and Taiwan Relations Act are conflicting stances. Thus, the status quo policy that the United States has towards Taiwan can be classified as one of strategic ambiguity[5]. Simply, this means that the United States does not have one clear position towards engagement with Taiwan, leaving other countries guessing and attempting to calculate under which circumstances the United States would, or would not, support Taiwan[6]. This has multiple implications on relationships with other countries in the region.

First, this creates a dangerous relationship with China. Since China is an expansionist country, they may guess, or calculate, that the United States would not intervene if China were to invade Taiwan[7]. However, this is not the case: The United States would get involved. Given the “mismatched perceptions”, as well as the importance of Taiwan to China, the risk of miscalculation is extremely high, amplifying the likelihood of the use of nuclear weapons. But, if the United States were to clarify its policy of strategic ambiguity, it would disincentivize China from invading Taiwan by making it clear China would face extreme resistance from the United States[8].

Second, it complicates our relationship with Taiwan, since they do not have a clear understanding of when we will and will not defend them. As Taiwan begins to second guess the credibility of our defense commitment, Taiwan may proliferate in an unrestrained fashion in order to fend off the potential China threat. This is especially true in the context of the newly elected Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, a member of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The DPP believes in the importance of a strong Taiwanese identity, and the only way they feel they can access this is through independence from China[9].

Third, strategic ambiguity causes other regional allies, like Japan and South Korea, to worry about our commitment to them as allies. The United States’ credibility throughout the region is based on its perceived commitment to Taiwan. Therefore, weakening our commitment to Taiwan would send a dangerous single to other Asian allies about United States defense credibility. As countries begin to fear abandonment, they will turn to self-help and develop weapons of their own in order to protect themselves[10]. This will create a cascade effect throughout the region and threaten the overall stability of Asia. Growing threats like North Korea and their nuclear capabilities exacerbate the likelihood of the development of nuclear weapons by these allies since they view them as crucial to their safety and feel that they can no longer trust the United State nuclear umbrella[11].

The United States’ relationship with China and Taiwan has been even further complicated by Trump’s recent calls to the Taiwanese president. In sum, the United States needs to commit to defending Taiwan from aggressive actions by the People’s Republic of China in order to end the strategic ambiguity that exists in the status quo.

[1] Daniel Blumenthal, “Will the ‘One China’ Policy Survive the New Taiwan?,” Foreign Policy, last modified January 19, 2016, accessed November 21, 2016, http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/01/19/will-the-one-china-policy-survive-the-new-taiwan/.

[2] Elizabeth M. Lynch, “Jerome Cohen on the Importance of Ted Kennedy in US-China Relations,” China Law & Policy, last modified May 19, 2011, http://chinalawandpolicy.com/tag/richard-nixon/.

[3] Blumenthal, “Will the ‘One,” Foreign Policy.

[4] Richard C. Bush, “Thoughts on the Taiwan Relations Act,” Brookings, last modified April 21, 2009, accessed November 21, 2016, https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/thoughts-on-the-taiwan-relations-act/.

[5] J. Michael Cole, “Time to End U.S. ‘Ambiguity’ on Taiwan,” The Diplomat, last modified July 6, 2012, accessed November 21, 2016, http://thediplomat.com/2012/07/time-to-end-u-s-ambiguity-on-taiwan/.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Gregory Kulacki, “The Risk of Nuclear War with China: A Troubling Lack of Urgency,” Union of Concerned Scientists, May 2016, accessed November 22, 2016, http://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/attach/2016/05/Nuclear-War-with-China.pdf.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Cole, “Time to End U.S.,” The Diplomat.

[10] J. Michael Cole, “If the Unthinkable Occurred: America Should Stand Up to China over Taiwan,” The National Interest, last modified May 7, 2015, accessed January 5, 2017, http://nationalinterest.org/feature/if-the-unthinkable-occured-america-should-stand-china-over-12825?page=show.

[11] Chang Jae-soon, “U.S. experts call for ensuring U.S. security commitment amid calls in S. Korea for going nuclear,” Yonhap News Agency, accessed January 5, 2017, http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr/news/2016/09/15/0200000000AEN20160915000300315.html.



Taipei, Taiwan in 2014.. Photograph. Encyclopædia Britannica ImageQuest. Accessed Jan 6, 2017.