Clarity and Ambiguity in the Taiwan Strait
Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan reflects the current view among U.S. policy makers that clarifying America’s military commitment to Taiwan will deter a PRC invasion of the island.
This perspective reveals the wildly divergent treatment of ambiguity in American and Chinese cultures. History suggests that Beijing may be surprisingly comfortable with ambiguity around Taiwan’s status, suggesting that preserving ambiguity – rather than establishing greater clarity – will prove most effective in averting PRC aggression. The assumption that clarity produces stability in the U.S.-China relationship drives much of the U.S. policy debate, but is deeply flawed and has the potential to yield disastrous consequences if misapplied to Taiwan.
The Power of Predictions
For several years, many U.S. leaders and experts have made predictions of a coming war over Taiwan. These predictions may unwittingly intensify Beijing’s belligerence and, as a result, risk becoming self-fulfilling. In other areas, China’s leadership has taken Western predictions seriously: for example, futurists such as Yuval Harari have been featured in Chinese state-run media.1 Beijing has been trying to “leapfrog” to the future by being first to perfect technologies conceptualized by Western experts, including in the environmental and transportation sectors. Regarding Taiwan, Beijing may interpret U.S. commentary as informed predictions, akin to technological futurism, that would necessarily become reality: logically, Beijing could seek to “leapfrog” to the future by preparing for anticipated war.
Clarity vs. Ambiguity
U.S. political leaders’ calls to establish red lines channel a cultural instinct for clear definitions – and the status of Taiwan is anything but clear. On the U.S. side, many leaders treat Taiwan as a de facto independent country, but under U.S. policy Taiwan does not enjoy diplomatic recognition as a sovereign nation. Meanwhile Beijing, despite its protestations that Taiwan is part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), treats Taiwan like an independent country in matters such as customs and trade. The ambiguous status of Taiwan, to many U.S. observers, puts it at risk of an invasion by the PRC. But these predictions insufficiently account for China’s comfort with leaving problems ambiguous and unresolved.
China’s Comfort with Ambiguity
China has a lengthy history of maintaining ambiguous situations. Most recently, China has yet to resolve its border dispute with India after well over half a century of conflict. Even the basic question of exactly where the China-India border lies remains unanswered: the Line of Actual Control serves as the conceptual boundary between the two nations, but has not been clearly demarcated. Beijing has shown little interest in more precisely defining the border.
Further back in history, the ambiguous position of Chinese power has been at the core of debates around Tibet’s claims to sovereignty. As the British officer Hamilton Bower wrote in the late 19th century about his interactions with Chinese officials in Tibet, “The position of the Chinese in these parts seems very peculiar. What the status of the Amban [Chinese official] is it is impossible to make out; he is treated with great respect so far as we saw, but possibly a good deal of the bowing and scraping that went on was for our benefit, in order that the Lamas, while twisting and turning him as it suited their purpose, might still keep up the farce that they were in every way subservient to the representative of a great power.”2
China’s comfort with ambiguity extends beyond geography. U.S. businesses seeking approval from Beijing to operate in China have confronted byzantine processes in which it was impossible to determine which officials held which responsibilities, and what was required to gain approval to operate legally. Chinese companies’ comfort with ambiguity has led to tremendous flexibility and creativity, providing the freedom of action to quickly adjust to new trends and opportunities.
The dispute over Taiwan is foreign to so many U.S. leaders because the United States does not confront similar sovereignty disputes. For the PRC, the sovereignty of Taiwan is an existential matter because it can affect the CCP’s legitimacy as the ruler of China.
As stated in the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué, a foundational piece of U.S. policy toward Taiwan: “The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China.”3 In other words, there is but one China encompassing the Mainland and Taiwan, but it is unclear whether the government in Beijing or the one in Taipei ought to rule over China. For the United States to recognize Taiwan as a sovereign could imply legitimizing Taiwan as sovereign over Mainland China.
Sovereignty over Taiwan is likely to remain unresolved regardless of the actions by the PRC, Taiwan, and the United States in the coming weeks and months. As has been the case in other areas of the world with disputed sovereignty, a combination of military, legal, demographic, cultural, and economic factors will determine actual sovereignty.
The status quo of Taiwan’s ambiguity likely is preferable for leaders of the PRC, whose military forces – although rapidly expanding and modernizing – are untested in large-scale combat. Yet should Speaker Pelosi’s trip inspire further U.S. efforts to create clarity around Taiwan, Beijing risks reaching the conclusion that it has lost even the fiction of sovereignty over Taiwan, with further aggression as the likely consequence.
- See Jin Dan and Sun Ruonan, “Israeli scholar and best-selling author makes China debut,” China Daily, July 7, 2017, https://www.chinadaily. com.cn/china/2017-07/07/content_30029244.htm; and Liu Xue, Hu Dandan, and Liu Qu, “Interview: AI may create massive ‘useless people,’ says bestselling historian,” Xinhuanet.com, January 24, 2017, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2017-01/24/c_136008879.htm.
- See Hamilton Bower, Diary of a Journey Across Tibet and Western China, New York: MacMillan, 1894, pages 187-193.
- “Joint Communiqué of the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China (Shanghai Communiqué),” People’s Republic of China and the United States of America, February 27, 1972, https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1969-76v17/d203