Internally, assessments differ as to the actual imminence of the threat to Taiwan. The Pentagon’s Indo-Pacific Command has watched with growing concern the rapid modernization of its military and improved training for Taiwan, sources said. But State Department officials are reluctant to take a more aggressive approach, and intelligence officials have seen little evidence that China is preparing to invade.
However, tensions have risen sharply in the region recently, and administration officials were caught off guard when the Chinese Air Force dramatically stepped up its incursions into the Taiwan Air Defense Identification Zone. at the beginning of the month.
The stakes are high for President Joe Biden, who has made human rights and democracy a key part of his foreign policy agenda, but who has also been determined to keep the United States out of the way. foreign conflicts. For decades, Washington has embraced the concept of “strategic ambiguity” in its dealings with Taiwan, in which the United States remains deliberately vague as to whether it would defend the island in the event of an attack by the United States. China.
“The time for strategic ambiguity is long past,” said a senior Democratic Senate official. “In light of the clear and current danger that Beijing poses to Taiwan’s vibrant democracy, the United States must be clear in its intention – both with our words and with our actions. In our current context, ambiguity has invited miscalculations and risks, and effective deterrence can only come from clarity. ”
The aide added that the Senate was exploring further measures to provide Taiwan “the security, economic and diplomatic support essential to our new era of strategic competition.”
In response, a senior administration official said that “US support for Taiwan remains strong, principled and bipartisan and we will continue to engage with Congress on these important issues.”
Democratic Representative Tom Malinowski, who was the State Department’s top human rights official under the Obama administration, also favors a harsher approach and said it would be a mistake to think that Xi Jinping was bluffing in his menacing rhetoric. The Chinese leader pledged to “crush” any attempt by Taiwan to declare independence, and said in a speech this month that “the historic task of full homeland reunification must and will be accomplished. certainly “.
“It is a constant mistake of US foreign policy to project our own pragmatic reason onto others and assume that they don’t mean what they say,” said Malinowski.
Democratic Representative Elaine Luria, a retired Navy commander, went even further, asking Congress to give the president more leeway to launch military operations abroad to defend Taiwan if necessary.
“Legal limitations on a president’s ability to react quickly could anything but guarantee a Chinese fait accompli,” Luria wrote in an October 11 Washington Post op-ed, referring to the limits imposed by the war powers law. . “My fellow Republicans introduced the Taiwan Invasion Prevention Law in February to grant the president the power to act against an invasion of Taiwan and prevent a fait accompli. This law is a good starting point for resolving a legal dilemma.
“Nothing suggests” an invasion
Yet this political pressure has met with mistrust from the State Department and the intelligence community. Intelligence officials have yet to see anything to suggest that China is planning a military offensive, according to people familiar with intelligence assessments.
“It was certainly a dramatic escalation,” said one of the people, referring to the 56 Chinese planes that flew over the Taiwan defense zone on October 4, the largest incursion on record. “But there is nothing to suggest that China is preparing for an invasion of Taiwan. ”
Meanwhile, officials at the State Department’s Office of East Asia and Pacific Affairs are reluctant to take a much more aggressive stance toward China on the Taiwan issue than the strategically ambiguous status quo.
Former Assistant Secretary of State James Steinberg, who was sent by Biden to Taiwan in April as part of an unofficial delegation to show his support for the island, called the current situation “very dangerous” and said ending the policy of strategic ambiguity would only embolden Beijing further.
“All bets would be off,” he said, as China would see this change as a “fundamental violation” of agreements that have been in place for decades.
“It is important for us to reassure Taiwan, but there are ways to do it and to strengthen the deterrence without putting the finger in Beijing’s eye,” added Steinberg.
Biden himself has long opposed a public declaration of final U.S. support for island democracy in the event of a Chinese attack.
“The president should not cede to Taiwan, let alone China, the ability to automatically drag us into war across the Taiwan Strait,” Senator Biden wrote in a 2001 editorial. His National Security Strategy of 24 pages devotes a vague line to Taiwan: “We will support Taiwan, a leading democracy and an essential economic and security partner, in accordance with long-standing American commitments.”
The senior administration official stressed that the United States “has an ongoing interest in peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait” and “will continue to oppose any unilateral change in the status quo.”
“President Biden himself voted in favor of the Taiwan Relations Act and remains firmly committed to the principles set out therein,” the official said, “including that the United States will continue to assist Taiwan in maintain a sufficient self-defense capacity; and that the United States consider any effort to determine Taiwan’s future by means other than peaceful a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific and a grave concern to the United States. “
Eyes on 2027
U.S. defense officials have said they see 2027 – the 100th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army and the final year of Xi Jinping’s third presidential term – as a key year in which Beijing may attempt to take Taiwan. by force if peaceful unification has not yet been achieved. achieved. Taiwanese Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng predicted earlier this month that China would in fact have “full capacity” to invade even earlier, by 2025.
While Xi adopted a more conciliatory tone in a speech last week promising “peaceful reunification” with Taiwan, Taiwan is unlikely to ever voluntarily relinquish its relative autonomy; Taiwan’s foreign minister said last week that the island was ready to “fight to the end” in the event of war with China.
A defense official noted that for China, reunification with Taiwan “is a matter of national pride.” But Steinberg, the former deputy secretary of state, said he believed that “China would like to avoid the use of force because it would be counterproductive and risky for its interests.”
Danny Russel, who served as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs until 2017, echoed that assessment. “The Chinese foreign policy and propaganda community certainly wants to cast doubt on America’s resolve and convince Taiwan that America will not be there for them,” he said. “But it is very different whether Xi Jinping has the courage to fight with the United States, an immensely capable nuclear power, and its allies. ”
That’s not to say things can’t get out of hand, Steinberg warned. The region is currently a powder keg, as different parties try to capitalize on alliances and show off their military prowess. The British-led Carrier Strike Group 21, for example, participated in a multinational show of force in the Indo-Pacific, including across the South China Sea, which Beijing claims for the most part as its territorial waters.
“My personal view is that neither party wants a [armed] confrontation, but everyone is afraid that if one side shows weakness or lack of determination, then the other side will misinterpret it, ”said Steinberg. “It’s a spiral of security, and there is no stability in a situation like this. “