The ambiguous state of ‘Strategic ambiguity’

Alessandro Ponzetto | May 24th, 2022

As of late, a lot of attention has once again being given to Taiwan and to the US ‘strategic ambiguity’ over the island. This is because the current administration is apparently unable to deal with this particular topic with the necessary nuance and subtlety, instead opting for public announcement followed soon after by public retractions.

In order to limit confusion to a minimum, I will attempt to pick apart the issue from multiple point of views, starting from the mainland.

The Mainland point of view

In order to understand the current situation, we need to go back in history and understand why there are technically two Chinas. In an oversimplified way, the current situation now is the result of the civil wars between the CCP and the KMT, which saw the former ultimately prevail over the latter in 1949. This resulted in the CCP taking over the mainland, with the KMT and its army fleeing to Formosa (the earlier name of the island), which was taken over from the Japanese only three years prior.

For a long time, both sides of the Strait craved to take over the other, especially during the time of the two main players in both camps (Mao for the CCP and Chang Kai Shek for the KMT). While we have not reached the same level of tension as a proper Strait Crisis, the potential of one has been lurking beneath the surface for some time. We wrote on this back on February 1st, before the war in Ukraine even started (see ‘Fourth Strait Crisis?’ for more).

Since then, nothing has particularly changed when it comes to Beijing: various officials have rebuked Biden over his comments, but the activity has been muted. For example, a single PLA aircraft entered the Taiwanese ADIZ yesterday, marking the 17th incursion in the month. To put into perspective: in October 2021, the most active month in recent history, the incursions were just shy of 200.

This shows that the PLA has been relatively calm compared to the more overtly aggressive comrades in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and in order to understand why, we need to explore a stark dichotomy between the US military and US diplomacy.

The military (tacit) understanding

Going back to October 2021, there was a particular event that arguably caused a rethink in the PLA: a naval exercise, which involved four aircraft carriers (USS Ronald Reagan, USS Carl Vinson, HMS Queen Elisabeth and JS Ise).

Since then, the US and Japanese navies have paid very close attention to the island, with another large exercise in January (as mentioned in the previously cited article about the Strait Crises).

Since then, the activity has been fairly minimal, with occasional flare ups. The latest has been the naval exercise carried out by the Chinese navy, which deployed the Liaoning (their first aircraft carrier). In response, as mentioned in ‘The key to the Pacific – Part 2’, the JSDF deployed their de facto equivalent, JS Izumo, which sends quite a message.

This is because of a particular detail: Japan has included Taiwan in its defence posture overtly, and such a display hints at how serious the intent is. This of course has implications for the US as well, because it is impossible for such a development to take place without the go ahead of CINCPAC, as the US and Japanese militaries are overtly increasing cooperation and integration (to the point of being a requirement for future procurement, as in the case of the next gen fighter).

So, it seems that the militaries involved have a tacit understanding with regards to Taiwan while keeping a pretence: on the one hand, the PLA is continuing its incursions and occasional crossing of the Strait, while on the other hand the US and Japan are making sure the invisible line in the sand is not crossed (hence the occasional crossing of the Strait of their own and all the other activities).

Given this, how come that the diplomatic side fell from the tree?

Diplomacy: a lost art

While the military side seems more interested in keeping things (mostly) quiet, bar the occasional flare up, the diplomatic side is much more overt. The recent remarks from Biden are the perfect example: he said nothing that is not happening already, but the issue is actually stating it.

Assuming there is actually a (delicate) balance between the militaries, the last thing any politician should do is bring attention to it. Of course this is speculative, but it would also explain why time and again Biden (or others) said something similar, to be soon after corrected.

At the end of the day, it seems more of a convenient way to distract the attention elsewhere, albeit a dangerous one: the more blunders are made and the more likely it is for Xi (who is also head of the PLA) to call the bluff.

On this front, it is actually a shame that General Mattis is not in the Pentagon anymore, as he would have been able to talk to the dear leader personally and minimise the risk of an actual escalation. This also shows how far astray US diplomacy has gone: to this day, the State Department has not been able to match what Mattis was able to achieve, his direct access to Xi, and this is problematic when you need to deal with increasing tensions.

Conclusion

The dichotomy helps see how ‘strategic ambiguity’ has turned into something that was not intended to be. Now, it is unclear what the actual US policy is, which is a dangerous precedent to set. Without a clear understanding between sides, especially when at odds, one can blindly stumble one’s way into a conflict, as Ukraine sadly reminds us. Given the reminder, it is impossible to discount entirely a repeat, at least not without course corrections from the US.

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