US Ambiguity about Taiwan

Updated On: Jul 27, 2007

The US military commander’s remarks about Taiwan once again reflect strategic ambiguity, a phrase that has long characterized US policy towards Taiwan these days.

On the one hand, the top US military commander in the Pacific, Admiral Timothy Keating reassured allies that the US is capable of defending Taiwan while, on the other hand, he criticized the Taiwanese president and his administration's latest bid to enter UN. What gives?

Keating criticized Taiwan’s President Chen for statements unhelpful to keeping peace in the Taiwanese Straits, especially his attempts to hold a referendum on Taiwan’s entry into the United Nations under its own name. It is also quite clear that President Chen is pushing the limits of Taiwanese independence movement in his last days of the presidency. Despite persistent pressure from Washington, Chen said he would press ahead with the referendum on whether the island should apply for UN membership under the name Taiwan.

In the UN application, President Chen had asked his staff to submit the claim that Taiwan was an independent sovereign state and had never been a part of China. Keating speaking in a forum organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), made it clear that Chen’s “rhetoric isn’t entirely helpful” and that his “statements for Taiwan independence could potentially increase Taiwan Straittensions.”  China has repeatedly threatened to attack should Taiwan formally declare its independence.

Washington is also wary of Chinese intentions for Taiwan. As such, Janus-faced, Washington often urges Taiwan to increase its defense spending to balance a growing Chinese military. Keating himself saidTaiwan’s defense capabilities “could get better, but we’re confident that they’re appropriate.” In 2002, the US President George W. Bush himself pledged to “help Taiwan defend itself if provoked.”

But the fact of the matter is that US would certainly not want to get caught in another conflict, hence the repeated warnings also to Taiwan not to push too far.  The US military is tied down in Iraq andAfghanistan.  However, Keating was quick to deny this and told the audience in CSIS that should a conflict erupt in the Taiwan Strait, the US military could move a large number of forces to the area fairly quickly.  He added,  “we have ways of watching developments and doing better analyses - much better than before. So in the Strait of Taiwan, in particular, we could get a large number of forces there in relatively short order. … The more unambiguous activity we notice and the earlier we make that analysis, obviously the more we can do."

Meanwhile, China was less ambiguous about their views of President Chen. The PRC government branded Taiwan leader Chen Shui-bian a "schemer" for his attempt to push Taiwan into the United Nations, saying that "Taiwan independence" activities are doomed to fail. China then issued an official statement in reaction to President Chen’s bid. "With 2008 Taiwan presidential election coming, Chen continues his secessionist provocation, regardless of the interests of 23 million Taiwan compatriots," the statement said. "Chen is a complete schemer and saboteur who would not hesitate to sacrifice peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and in the Asia-Pacific region."  The statement went on to hail the rejection of the bid as it reiterated that "the international community recognizes that there is only one China andTaiwan is part of China".  It added "The secessionist move of applying for UN membership under the name of Taiwan will not change the fact that Taiwan is part of China, nor will it change Taiwan's international status."   The statement ended with the usual rhetoric that “We remain committed to pushing cross-Strait relations toward peace and stability, but we are also prepared to curb all adventures aimed at 'Taiwan independence. …  The Taiwan authorities under Chen Shui-bian must shoulder serious consequences if they continued to turn a deaf ear to the warnings and denouncements of the international community and recklessly moved for "Taiwan independence". (26 July 2007)


US capable of defending Taiwan: top US commander (Channelnewsasia, 25 July 2007)

Hsieh: 'Taiwan is already an independent country' (China Post, 25 July 2007)

US can defend Taiwan, says admiral (AFP, 25 July 2007)

Taiwan regrets UN rejection of membership bid (AFP, 24 July 2007)

US capable of defending Taiwan: top US commander (AFP, 25 July 2007)

UN rejects Taiwan application for entry (AP, 24 July 2007)

Top US military commander in Pacific criticizes Taiwan's president (AP, 24 July 2007)

UN rejects Chen Shui-bian's letter in membership bid (People’s Daily, 24 July 2007)

China says "Taiwan independence" provocation doomed to fail (People’s Daily, 24 July 2007)