WASHINGTON — If anything can tip the global power struggle between China and the United States into an actual military conflict, many experts and administration officials say, it is the fate of Taiwan.
Beijing has increased its military harassment of what it considers a rogue territory, including menacing flights by 15 Chinese warplanes near its shores over recent days. In response, Biden administration officials are trying to calibrate a policy that protects the democratic, technology-rich island without inciting an armed conflict that would be disastrous for all.
Under a longstanding — and famously convoluted — policy derived from America’s “one China” stance that supports Taiwan without recognizing it as independent, the United States provides political and military support for Taiwan, but does not explicitly promise to defend it from a Chinese attack.
As China’s power and ambition grow, however, and Beijing assesses Washington to be weakened and distracted, a debate is underway whether the United States should make a clearer commitment to the island’s defense, in part to reduce the risk of a miscalculation by China that could lead to unwanted war.
The debate reflects a core foreign policy challenge seizing the Biden administration as it devises its wider Asia strategy. At the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon, which is reviewing its military posture in Asia, officials are re-evaluating core tenets of American strategy for a new and more dangerous phase of competition with China.
American officials warn that China is growing more capable of invading the island democracy of nearly 24 million people, situated about 100 miles off the coast of mainland China, whose status has obsessed Beijing since Chinese nationalists retreated and formed a government there after the country’s 1949 Communist revolution.
Last month, the military commander for the Indo-Pacific region, Adm. Philip S. Davidson, described what he sees as a risk that China could try to reclaim Taiwan by force within the next six years.
The United States has long avoided saying how it would respond to such an attack. While Washington supports Taiwan with diplomatic contacts, arms sales, firm language and even occasional military maneuvers, there are no guarantees. No statement, doctrine or security agreement compels the United States to come to Taiwan’s rescue. A 1979 congressional law states only that “any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means” would be of “grave concern to the United States.”
The result is known as “strategic ambiguity,” a careful balance intended both to avoid provoking Beijing or emboldening Taiwan into a formal declaration of independence that could lead to a Chinese invasion.
Biden administration officials, who are formulating their China policies, are giving special attention to Taiwan, and trying to determine whether strategic ambiguity is sufficient to protect the increasingly vulnerable island from Beijing’s designs. But they also realize that Americans may look unfavorably at new, faraway military commitments after two decades of bloody and costly conflict in the Middle East.
That is why Admiral Davidson raised eyebrows last month when he acknowledged under questioning, in a departure from standard government messaging, that the policy “should be reconsidered,” adding, “I would look forward to the conversation.”
“I think there’s been a shift in peoples’ thinking,” said Richard N. Haass, a former director of policy planning at the State Department under President George W. Bush and now the president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “What you’ve seen over the last year is an acceleration of concern in the United States about Taiwan.” He described a sense that “this delicate situation that appeared to have been successfully managed or finessed for decades, suddenly people woke up to the possibility that that era has come to an end.”