'Strategic Clarity' Is Just As Crazy As Ever

Making an explicit security commitment to Taiwan would not deter a Chinese attack. It would practically guarantee one.

Max Boot shows up late to the debate over Taiwan and repeats many of the same bad arguments that hawks were making almost a year ago:

President Biden should declare that, though we will not support a Taiwanese declaration of independence from China, we will defend the island if it is attacked. Japan, too, needs to be more explicit in its commitment to Taiwan’s defense.

The case for “strategic clarity” was not persuasive the first time, and it has not improved with repetition. Making an explicit security commitment to Taiwan would not deter a Chinese attack. It would practically guarantee one. Pledging to defend Taiwan would dramatically change the status quo that has kept the peace for more than forty years, and the Chinese government would likely feel compelled to respond to that pledge by putting it to the test. Advocates of “strategic clarity” would have the president make a major security commitment on his own, and that commitment would supposedly oblige the United States to go to war against a nuclear-armed state for the sake of a country that it isn’t treaty-bound to defend. Boot goes beyond that and urges Japan to make a similar commitment, which arguably makes even less sense than one from the U.S.

Strategic ambiguity has served the U.S. and Taiwan quite well for decades, and it would be foolhardy at best to make an ill-considered change to it now as a way of signaling resolve. In the end, a U.S. commitment to Taiwan, explicit or not, is hard to take seriously because Taiwan matters far more to China than it does to us. Making the commitment explicit ties our government’s hands and puts it in an awful position of having to honor the reckless commitment or back down. The U.S. wouldn’t be fighting for its vital interests in defending Taiwan, but Boot doesn’t even see fit to address this.

Boot cites alarmist claims from the military that a Chinese attack might soon be in the offing within the decade, but this ignores that the Pentagon has misunderstood Chinese statements about their military modernization and preparedness. It is not surprising that hawks rely on misinterpreting statements from other governments to justify more aggressive policies, but we should not let threat inflation and misunderstandings drive our policies in East Asia. Mike Mazarr and Pat Porter authored a study of the issue this spring that challenged this hawkish alarmism directly:

This Manichean view represents an incoherent mixture of alarmist pessimism about what is at stake with a striking overconfidence in the US ability to deter or win a conflict that would represent an existential challenge to the CCP.

Mazarr and Porter argue for what they call a “third way,” which is essentially a modified form of existing U.S. policy. They would have the U.S. focus on aiding Taiwan in defending itself, but not locking itself in with a security guarantee. They oppose an explicit guarantee to Taiwan because they correctly judge that Taiwan is not as strategically important as many hawks like to claim. Put simply, “it is not so important that the United States should rule out any option other than going to war.”

The near-term threat from China has also been overstated. Kathrin Hille put it succinctly in her article in The Financial Times earlier this year:

To start a war — which would likely draw in the US and its allies — Chinese leader Xi Jinping would have to be either pushed into a corner or know beyond doubt that there was no risk of losing that war, analysts say.

Declaring that the U.S. will definitely fight to defend Taiwan puts Xi in that corner and forces the issue when it isn’t necessary. Biden seems unwilling to do that, and administration officials have expressed their objections to “strategic clarity” in similar terms:

"I believe that there are some significant downsides to the kind of what is called strategic clarity that you lay out," Campbell added, when asked about calls from some prominent U.S. academics and others for Washington to give Taiwan a more explicit security guarantee.

One of those “significant downsides” would be that it increases the likelihood of an unnecessary and potentially disastrous war. Boot wrongly assumes that uncertainty about U.S. intentions makes war more likely, but in this case it is that uncertainty that has helped maintain peace and stability. “Strategic clarity” would amount to poking China in the eye over an issue that its government cares about deeply, and the consequences of that would most likely be calamitous.