[Correspondent’s column] US’ “strategic ambiguity” on Taiwan is nearing its expiration date

Posted on : 2021-11-05 17:14 KST Modified on : 2021-11-05 17:14 KST
As tensions along the Taiwan Strait intensify, China also seems to be asking the US just how willing it is to involve itself
Jung In-hwan
Jung In-hwan

By Jung In-hwan, Beijing correspondent

Residents of Jinan, the capital city of China’s Shandong Province, recently received a special gift from the authorities.

Ten thousand households selected through a lottery of applicants received “disaster and wartime emergency bags.” On Tuesday, the online newspaper The Paper quoted responses from users opening their packages.

“The bags were made of waterproof cloth patterned after the People’s Liberation Army uniform and included an emergency toolkit, fire blanket, candles, waterproof matches, slip-proof gloves, a rescue whistle, and other items,” it said.

There is a reason Jinan’s emergency bags have drawn such attention. In a Monday announcement by the Chinese Ministry of Commerce on demand for daily essentials as winter approaches, it instructed households to acquire a certain amount of daily essentials to prepare for “unexpected situations.”

This announcement, combined with rumors about reserves forces being ordered on standby, led to speculation that a mainland invasion of Taiwan was imminent. It’s a development that offered a clear glimpse at the mood in China as people observe the tensions along the Taiwan Strait.

As friction intensifies between the US and China, Chinese military aircraft have been making periodic incursions since September 2020 into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) to the island’s southwest, which falls in the South China Sea. The numbers reached historic levels at one point with a total of 149 fighter planes, bombers, and early warning aircraft entering the Taiwanese ADIZ over a four-day period beginning on Oct. 1, which marked a major holiday period in China.

China’s aims appear to be threefold. In military terms, it is looking to boost its forces’ combat preparedness, while wearing the Taiwanese military down as it repeatedly mobilizes in response. It also has the political aim of pressuring the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen by fomenting tensions and anxiety within Taiwan.

There’s also a diplomatic side that shouldn’t be overlooked — namely the element of “testing” the US. The Chinese military aircraft entering the Taiwan Strait may be asking the question, “What are you going to do about it?”

Amid the waves of Chinese incursions, the South China Morning Post published a report on Oct. 8 quoting one Taiwanese university student as saying, “I don’t actually think China is going to invade Taiwan. If they really wanted to, they would have done it by now. They’re just trying to scare us. I’m not worried at all.”

The anticipation is that once the storm passes, the effects will start wearing off. It’s an experience South Korea can certainly relate to.

In September, the think tank Intelligentsia Taipei released findings from a survey that showed 60% of Taiwanese respondents predicting there was “no possibility that war will break out in the next 10 years.” Only 10% of respondents said they were worried about the possibility of war.

Recently, US President Joe Biden has been stressing his commitment to defending Taiwan. The White House has sought to calm frayed nerves by emphasizing that “nothing has changed” — but the situation is undoubtedly a turbulent one.

Ever since it established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic in 1979, the US has maintained an attitude of “strategic ambiguity” when it comes to Taiwan. It centers around a kind of double deterrent: an unwillingness to sit by and watch either China attempt unification by force or Taiwan attempt to declare independence.

On Tuesday, the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation announced survey findings that showed 65% of respondents answering in the affirmative when asked if they thought the US would come to Taiwan’s defense in the event of a Chinese invasion. Only 17.1% predicted the US would not.

When asked the same question on the US network CNN on Oct. 27, Tsai said she was confident that the US would defend Taiwan, given the relationship between the two sides as well as public opinion in the US and the support of US Congress.

Indeed, opinion in the US has been visibly shifting. Survey findings shared in August by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs showed an all-time high of 52% of respondents saying they supported the deployment of US troops to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion.

This contrasts with just 19% of respondents expressing support when the same council administered the survey in 1982.

What is the expiration date for “strategic ambiguity”? The fuzziness in the political situation is coming increasingly into focus.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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