U.S. defense leaders lean more toward ‘clarity’ on Taiwan policy (Harry Harris, 15th Co.)

Ex-commander says https://asia.nikkei.com/Editor-s-Picks/Interview/U.S.-defense-leaders-lean-more-toward-clarity-on-Taiwan-policy

Retired Adm. Harry Harris says China has changed the status quo and the U.S. should change its Taiwan policy from “amigbuity” to “clarity.” (Photo by Ken Moriyasu)

KEN MORIYASU, Nikkei Asia diplomatic correspondentJune 7, 2024 00:57 JST

WASHINGTON — More U.S. military leaders, active and retired, are using the term “clarity” when talking about Washington’s response to a Chinese attempt to unify Taiwan by force, in a departure from the long-held foreign policy of strategic ambiguity.

“Strategic ambiguity has had its day and it’s time to move to strategic clarity,” retired Adm. Harry Harris, former commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, recently told Nikkei Asia on the sidelines of the Global Energy Security Talks in Tokyo.

The Taiwan Relations Act, enacted after the U.S. terminated diplomatic relations with the island and switched to official ties with the Beijing government, is being cited as a basis for the shift.

“The Taiwan Relations Act calls for a peaceful resolution and calls for the status quo. China has changed the status quo and is acting belligerently with regard to Taiwan, so that obligates us to do certain things to help Taiwan,” Harris said.

He pointed to clauses in the act that state peace and stability in the region are in the “political, security, and economic interests of the United States,” and that if those interests are endangered, the president and Congress will determine “appropriate action” in response.

U.S. President Joe Biden, on four occasions, has already said he would defend Taiwan, Harris emphasized. “We should take him at his word. He’s our commander in chief.”

Harris’ two successors, retired admirals Philip Davidson and John Aquilino, both testified in Congress that strategic ambiguity has served the U.S. well, signaling that there is no need to change positions.

But at his confirmation hearing in February, new Indo-Pacific Commander Adm. Samuel Paparo used different language and did not defend strategic ambiguity in ways his two predecessors did.

“There is no ambiguity for the joint force,” Paparo said. Instead, there is “mission clarity for the joint force” under the Taiwan Relations Act.

“Clarity and mission focus,” he repeated.

In an interview with Nikkei last month, Paparo said the U.S. military carefully observed China’s military drills that followed the inauguration of Taiwanese President Lai Ching-te.

“We watched it. We took note. We learned from it. And they helped us prepare for the future,” Paparo said.

The four-star admiral said he is confident that the U.S. and its allies will prevail in a conflict.

“The U.S. government charges me with being ready today, tomorrow, next month and next year, in accordance with the Taiwan Relations Act,” he said.

Adm. Samuel Paparo, head of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, has said he is confident that the U.S. and its allies will prevail in a Taiwan conflict. (Photo by Yukinori Okamura)

For over four decades, the U.S. has maintained a policy of strategic ambiguity that avoids commitment to whether the U.S. would intervene in a war between Beijing and Taipei.

Washington is not obligated by a security treaty to defend Taiwan.

The U.S., under the three communiques signed with Beijing in 1972, 1979 and 1982, considers the government of People’s Republic of China as the sole legal authority of China.

Harris said the Taiwan Relations Act is law, while the three communiques are not. “We’re guided by the three communiques. But we follow the Taiwan Relations Act,” he said, distinguishing between the two.

Richard Fontaine, CEO of the Washington think tank Center for a New American Security, said he has also noticed the trend.

“I’ve heard exactly the same thing. Defense officials and military officials are invoking TRA here, against the communiques there,” he said, referring to the Taiwan Relations Act.

These statements stand in contrast to Daniel Kritenbrink, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, who in recent congressional testimonies said he opposes calls to switch to strategic clarity.

The long-standing “One China” policy “has stood the test of time for the last 45 years,” and has helped ensure peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, he told the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Indo-Pacific on May 1.

Jeremy Furchtgott, who leads the China practice at Washington consultancy Baron Public Affairs, said U.S. strategic clarity will force China into taking a position that could accidentally bring about the very crisis that the military wants to deter.

“There is cultural comfort with ambiguity in China,” he said. “If the goal is conflict, the U.S. should signal clarity. If the goal is to freeze the current situation, there should be ambiguity and mixed messages.”

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