In September 2021, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia established a trilateral security partnership called AUKUS, which aims to uphold the rule-based order and deepen diplomatic and defence cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region.
Recently, there have been several multilateral institutions emerging across Asia, such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), and the Five Eyes (FVEY), signalling a reconfiguration of the Asian security order.
This newly established security arrangement certainly carries strategic implications for Taiwan’s national security, U.S. foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific, and the prospects for Asian regional order. Within this context, this piece offers some thoughts on how the U.S. policy of strategic clarity toward Taiwan’s contingency enhances the resilience of AUKUS. Meanwhile, U.S. allies in Asia and Europe can maintain a collective attitude of strategic ambiguity that lessens internal tensions among the member states. Such an arrangement can help deter China’s dominance in Asia and secure Taiwan’s autonomy against Beijing’s pressure for forceful reunification.
Declaring Strategic Clarity in U.S.-Taiwan Relations
Taiwan is at the forefront of China’s military provocations and economic coercion. Upon establishing the security pact, Peter Dutton, Australia’s defence minister, claimed that the issue of Taiwan’s sovereignty was the most likely flashpoint that would lead to conflict with China. Over the last few decades, the U.S. government has adopted a policy of strategic ambiguity on Taiwan so that it can prevent Taiwan from declaring de jure independence. For example, the Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act only calls for reinforcing U.S-Taiwan relations in resisting military attacks by China. Still, it doesn’t explicitly indicate what measures or additional resources are needed to protect Taiwan against the PLA forces.
Taiwan certainly plays a crucial role for AUKUS in deterring China’s assertive behaviour. However, China’s expansionist ambitions, Taiwan’s quest for autonomy, and the emerging security partnership in Asia have created new challenges for alliance management in U.S. foreign policy. More specifically, the disconnect between the long-held U.S. policy of strategic ambiguity and China’s rapid military modernization has to be resolved. It should start with a re-calibration of U.S.-led security networks in Asia. The time has come for the United States to declare strategic clarity toward Taiwan, an official stance that the U.S. would respond firmly to China’s use of force against Taiwan. The shift from ambiguity to clarity would minimize the risk of conflicts in the U.S.-China-Taiwan triangle and foster stronger U.S. leadership in AUKUS.
Flexibility in AUKUS
A recent cross-national survey by the Pew Research Center indicates that 72% of respondents consider China’s military power a serious problem for their counties. Specifically, the concerns over China’s assertiveness are salient in Japan and Australia, and European countries like Spain and the Netherlands are also worried about China’s military posture.
While they consider China a growing security threat, they are still reluctant to be openly hostile to China as that might seriously jeopardize their diplomatic and economic interests. Specifically, the risks of alliance entanglement are inherent in AUKUS and the potential Quad-plus candidates, such as the Philippines, South Korea, and New Zealand. Therefore, a key challenge of U.S. foreign policy will be maintaining the collective benefits from the security partnership while minimizing the drawbacks among the member states.
To be clear, I do not call for U.S. allies and partners to declare strategic clarity against China’s threat and commit their troops to a China-Taiwan conflict, as such a joint announcement might irritate Beijing into conducting strategic moves to attack Taiwan. The internal pressure in AUKUS might increase if U.S.-China relations remain hostile over time. Expressly, the great power competition between China and the U.S. would limit maneuvers on balancing strategies and diplomatic engagement by both sides.
In this sense, maintaining ambiguity about specific commitments while deepening cooperation in this trilateral security partnership would be preferable to the middle powers in Asia and Europe. All the member states in AUKUS cannot overextend their security commitments across the Asia-Pacific. They must be centred on targeted defence cooperation in key areas such as Taiwan, the South China Sea, and the Senkaku Islands.
The Quad and AUKUS are two of the most critical regional pacts to form recently. They represent a different form of partnership from the previous hub-and-spoke arrangements held by the U.S. and other East Asian countries. The former focuses on providing public goods in the Indo-Pacific, such as infrastructure building, public health, and environmental protection. The latter emphasizes preserving regional stability and deepening military training. Even though they differ in purpose, they are complementary under U.S. initiatives. To uphold political leadership, the U.S. needs to adopt a proactive approach to alliance management, combing diplomacy and deterrence policies to engage China while maintaining leadership in AUKUS to defend Taiwan against China’s expansionist ambitions.