Former US military leaders cast doubt on ‘strategic ambiguity’ Taiwan policy

·5-min read

The United States should end its long-standing policy of “strategic ambiguity”, which leaves unclear whether it will defend Taiwan in the event of an attack by China, in order to make US intentions clear and deter Beijing from acting precipitously, former military and diplomatic officials who were based in the Indo-Pacific region said on Wednesday.

The calls for a more hardline stance come as tensions mount over Taiwan. In recent weeks, a delegation of Republican US congressmen have visited Taipei, and the People’s Republic of China has dispatched scores of fighter jets and nuclear-capable bombers into the island’s air defence zone numbering, at its peak, 148 in a four-day period.

“While it has served us well for the last 50 years or so, it is no longer the best policy,” Harry Harris, a former ambassador to South Korea, said at an event sponsored by the Korea Society in New York. “I believe we need to be clear on what would happen if the PRC invaded Taiwan.”

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Said retired admiral Scott Swift, who served as commander of the US Pacific Fleet from 2015 to 2018: “If you’re talking about a strategic competition, it’s dangerous to be ambiguous because someone will miscalculate somewhere.”

Analysts say East Asia’s major hotspots – led by Taiwan and North Korea – are interrelated, with any major conflict at risk of pulling in some combination of China, South Korea, Japan and the United States, given deep regional distrust and a web of close alliances.

“There is growing instability and tension in Northeast Asia that directly affects the [Korean] peninsula,” said Robert Abrams, a retired four-star general and commander of US Forces Korea from 2015 to 2018. “The chief competitor is China, and China is the principal driver of instability in the region as it attempts to revive the international rules-based order into something else.”

Taiwan was a topic of discussion when US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping held a virtual summit on Monday evening. China considers the self-governing island a renegade province, to be reunited by force if necessary. “They have to decide on Taiwan, not us. We are not encouraging independence,” Biden said Tuesday after the summit. “Let them make up their mind.”

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The panellists on Wednesday said that while North Korea was relatively quiet at present, Pyongyang had a history of elevating tensions quickly, even as China has been more steady and consistent in stepping up pressure.

Beijing, once satisfied with flexing its muscles largely over Taiwan, has been extending its reach well beyond its shores, they said. It does so by coercing other nations economically and militarily, engaging in grey-zone operations – provocations that fall short of war – and exercising “might is right” logic.

“China has the Republic of Korea in an economic chokehold and applies pressure whenever it suits their needs,” said Abrams. “China’s ambition to be a regional hegemon is not limited, and anyone who thinks that Korea is somehow immune to Chinese subterfuge needs to pay closer attention.”

Panel members said the US needed to maintain a strong military presence on the Korean peninsula as part of its alliance with South Korea, and remain vigilant throughout the Indo-Pacific region. But they added that they continued to support the one-China policy, and that the State Department should take the lead in any conflict, backed up by the Pentagon.

Robert Abrams was commander of US Forces Korea from 2015 to 2018. Photo: Mark Magnier
Robert Abrams was commander of US Forces Korea from 2015 to 2018. Photo: Mark Magnier

“North Korea and the PRC, People’s Republic of China, will continually test the resolve of the alliance and will seek ways to weaken our strong ties in order to sow doubts and divide us,” said Harris, also a former four-star admiral and commander of the US Pacific Fleet. “It’s never one or the other. You must have diplomacy backed by military strength.”

The former officials said North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had four objectives: to gain relief from international sanctions, keep his country’s nuclear arsenal, split the US-South Korean alliance and dominate the Korean peninsula.

Past and future efforts to ease economic pressure, reduce sanctions and offer a road map to peace as a precursor to North Korean denuclearisation are doomed to fail, they said. This follows from Pyongyang’s belief that its nuclear weapons are the regime’s best insurance policy against losing power.

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“North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons and solid fuel ballistic missiles capable of ranging all of Korea, most of Japan and potentially the US homeland casts a dark cloud over the entire region,” said Abrams.

“While we don’t need to have our sword out continuously, due to the current reduction in tensions, that does not mean that we should not pull our sword out periodically and keep it sharp.”

Abrams said he opposed the idea that South Korea should develop its own nuclear weapons to defend itself, arguing that this would be expensive, that it could lead to unintended consequences and that the US nuclear umbrella remained more than sufficient.

“It’s unnecessary,” he added. “And it could potentially lead to misunderstanding and miscalculation by, not just North Korea, but other people in the region.”

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