China’s red lines on Taiwan are clear, whatever the US says about its policy of strategic ambiguity
- Debate is raging about whether the US is shifting away from its long-standing policy on Taiwan, sparked by Biden’s apparent gaffes
- Beijing, meanwhile, will prepare itself for the worst-case scenario of a military conflict, and it won’t make the same mistakes Russia is making in Ukraine
This question becomes all the more interesting if one compares Biden’s attitudes towards Moscow and Beijing. Ever since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Biden has consistently said US troops would not directly engage in this conflict.
So, if China is indeed a greater long-term threat than Russia, as the Biden administration has concluded, shouldn’t Washington try to avoid a conflict with China, especially as it would be fought in a faraway battlefield where the US has fewer allies while Beijing has all the advantages of fighting on home turf?
If Russia’s nuclear stockpile – the world’s largest – had played a decisive role in deterring US involvement, Beijing might have to reconsider its “small and effective” nuclear arsenal. Theoretically, a no-first-use policy requires a large nuclear arsenal to enable an effective retaliatory second strike after surviving the enemy’s first strike.
Supporters of strategic ambiguity believe such a policy would deter China while not emboldening those in Taiwan who favour independence. Supporters of strategic clarity, however, argue that such vagueness is already inadequate to deter a possible attack by mainland China.
According to China’s Anti-Secession Law, China would only resort to non-peaceful means in its attempt to reunify with the island under three circumstances: Taiwan has declared independence; a major incident has occurred leading to Taiwan’s secession from China; or, if all the possible avenues for a peaceful reunification have been completely exhausted.
The probability of the Taiwanese authorities declaring independence is next to impossible, since it would most certainly invite a military response from across the strait. But, in Beijing’s eyes, Washington has tried repeatedly to create “incidents” to impede mainland efforts for peaceful reunification.
The conflict in Ukraine provides lessons for the PLA. The Russian military’s biggest error has been underestimating its enemy. This was clear in its attacks on multiple fronts without adequate troops, sufficient supplies and logistics support, and a clear line of command.
The Taiwan issue is one of China’s core interests. That means the PLA cannot afford to lose in a war fighting for China’s sovereignty. Once a war starts, a stalemate as we are seeing in Ukraine is highly unlikely, and a ceasefire would be out of the question.
Biden likes to quote his father in saying the only conflict worse than an intended one is an unintended one. The problem is, in the Taiwan Strait, there won’t be any unintended conflicts.
Senior Colonel Zhou Bo (ret) is a senior fellow of the Centre for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University and a China Forum expert