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From Strategic Uncertainty to Strategic Openness, Changing Taiwan Policy of the US

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The Taiwan visit of the Speaker of the United States (US) House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, caused a serious crisis in the China-US-Taiwan triangle in particular and in the Asia-Pacific Region in general. After the visit, China started military exercises throughout the island; however, this has not had a deterrent effect for either Taiwan or the West. Because after the exercises, US politicians continued to visit the island. In addition, Western states, encouraged by the moves of the US and the inability of China to respond, started their visits to the island.

Moreover, these visits led to the implementation of some economic and military agreements between the US, Western states and Taiwan. For instance, on September 8, 2022, a delegation of US officials led by Florida’s Democratic Senator Stephanie Murphy visited Taiwan. During this visit, Murphy said that the US Congress should advocate Taiwan’s greater participation in international organizations,[1] and the American delegation met with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen to establish closer commercial and economic relations.[2] Despite China’s exercises and harsh statements, it has been observed that the US and its allies did not take a step back in their Taiwan policy.

The exercises held by China have also been described by the international community as a rehearsal for a major invasion. However, the question that comes to the fore here is why so many US politicians visited Taiwan and why the US and the West do not step back in the Taiwan Issue and show their support for the island in a clear, direct and concrete way.

At this point, it can be said that the US policy on Taiwan has changed, evolving from “strategic uncertainty” to “strategic openness.” In the process that started with Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, the US-China rivalry, the Russia-Ukraine War, the US domestic politics and the reactions of China were influential in the change in the Washington administration’s policy towards the island.

The US-China Rivalry

The US accepts China as its biggest global competitor. This is not just the perception of the US. Due to its economic power and its role in global supply chains, China is the only state that can compete with the US on a global scale and balance the power of US in the eyes of both the international public and its own politicians.

In order to increase this growth and its global competitiveness, China is trying to show its presence in many regions and to consolidate its power in the regions where it is already present. For this reason, Beijing is taking more and more ambitious actions in the Asia-Pacific region, especially in the East Asian region. As China increased its actions in this region, the US began to support Taiwan more militarily and economically, with which China has historically problematic relations and is considering forcibly connecting it to the mainland if necessary.[3]

At the same time, the US has tended to both surround China and increase its pressure on China by making the said support in a way that will attract the attention of the international public and by increasing its relations with the region.

The most important indicator of the mentioned pressure and containment policy, apart from the visits and trade agreements, is the tripartite security alliance (AUKUS), which was established in 2021 under the leadership of the US and with the participation of the United Kingdom (UK) and Australia in order to counter the growth of China in the Asia-Pacific region.

Beijing is also trying to give assertive answers to these actions taken by the US to compete with China in the international arena and strengthen its presence in the region. The fact that China held military exercises in areas close to the island after Pelosi’s visit reveals that Beijing has begun to oppose the US and is capable of escalating the current competition to a hot conflict if necessary or sees itself at this level.

After the exercises ended, it was announced that the exercises of the Chinese Army would continue in the future.[4] Therefore, Beijing’s increasingly assertive stance towards Taiwan indicates that many crises may occur through there.

On the other hand, although military tensions escalated with Pelosi’s visit, China had accelerated its military activities around the island; for instance, after Tsai Ing-wen was elected President of Taiwan in 2016.

In this period, there was a “strategic uncertainty” due to the fact that the US did not give concrete guarantees to the Taipei Government that it would intervene if China attacked Taiwan. However, with the recent events, Washington’s state of uncertainty is shifting towards “strategic openness.” In short, the US realized that this situation further emboldened Beijing as it continued to be strategically uncertain in its policy on the region.

Strategic Openness

The most obvious proof that the US has moved away from strategic uncertainty is that in August 2022, President of the US Joe Biden said that if China attacked Taiwan, Washington would intervene directly, and that the US military support commitment to the island was much stronger after the Ukraine War.[5] In his latest statement, Biden also stated that his policy towards Taiwan has not changed, and that Washington wants Taiwan’s status issue to be resolved peacefully in line with this policy; however, he stated that the US would defend Taiwan if China tried to occupy the autonomous island that it claimed as part of its own territory.[6]

Another proof of the Washington administration’s shift from strategic uncertainty to strategic openness in the Taiwan Issue is the US approval of 1.1 billion dollars of arms sales to Taiwan.[7] Moreover, Biden has statements that the US recognizes the “One China Policy” yet there are also statements that this does not mean that Taiwan can be invaded or forcibly be joined the mainland. Within the framework of the “One China Policy”, the US recognizes the Beijing administration as the “single” and “legal” government of China. However, this policy does not mean that Washington recognizes “China’s sovereignty over Taiwan.”

The signal given by Biden to Taiwan is very important for the White House in terms of both the US’s “liberal democracy” narrative to find a response in the states in the region and the increase in pressure on China. Only regional developments have not been effective in the strategic change of direction by the USA in the Taiwan Issue. Global developments, and especially the Russia-Ukraine War, played a decisive role in the transition of the US from strategic uncertainty to the point of strategic openness in the Taiwan Issue.

Russia-Ukraine War

The Russia-Ukraine War brought China’s annexation of Taiwan and the threat of force on the island to the agenda of the international community and especially the West. With the start of the war, Taiwan increased its level of alert. There was also concern that Russia’s intervention in Ukraine might inspire China regarding Taiwan.

In addition to all these, sanctions also have an effect on the process. Because the US and the West are considering using sanctions to further increase the pressure on China, to make Beijing an unstable actor in the region and to prevent the invasion of Taiwan.

At the same time, the Taipei Government is putting pressure on the EU and the US to impose sanctions on China.[8] However, the threats of sanctions against Russia before the start of the Ukrainian War were not enough to deter Moscow from starting the Ukraine War. The fact that sanctions threats do not have a deterrent effect on Russia is an issue that causes discussion here.

Moreover, Russia is an actor that the West can apply the sanctions in question more easily than China. Because the West, and especially the US, has very intricate economic relations with China. For this reason, sanctions targeting Beijing will have a very negative impact on the West. It is thought that Washington will not be able to go too far, since both the sanctions did not have a deterrent effect on the Moscow administration before the Russia-Ukraine War, and the Chinese sanctions will affect the West much more than the sanctions applied to Russia. Despite this, the US openly threatening sanctions against China is an indication that its strategy has shifted from uncertainty to openness.

US Domestic Politics

As it is known, the US is heading towards midterm elections. One of the reasons for the US’s shift towards strategic openness is the upcoming midterm elections. Because the US policy towards China has always been criticized by Republicans as being weak and soft. For this reason, Biden is trying to stay away from a policy understanding that Republicans would describe as “weakness against China” by making hard moves against China. In other words, it cares about not losing votes in the elections. Therefore, the US has found its new global enemy in order to consolidate its people in order to create legitimacy for both domestic and foreign policy moves in accordance with its own political traditions.

The reason why the situation in question is in accordance with the US political traditions is that the same strategy was used in the historical process that started with the Cold War. During the Cold War, the rival of the US was the Soviet Union. The US, which experienced an enemy vacuum in this sense after the end of the Cold War, determined its new global enemy as terrorism on the occasion of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

All of this has been implemented by “creating a perception of external threat” in order to legitimize both the cross-border operations carried out by the US kilometers away from its territory and its domestic policy actions, and to consolidate its Western allies and its own people. China, on the other hand, has been implementing a more proactive foreign policy since the 2010s. Undoubtedly, this situation has made the Beijing administration the new global enemy of the US and has enabled Washington to create a new threat perception.

By continuing to follow its historical policies and strategies, the US has succeeded in creating negative views towards China in its own people. To the American public, China is a threat and an enemy. For this reason, the harsh rhetoric and actions taken against China by the Washington administration find a positive response in domestic politics. The need for the “other” has a great role in the evolution of its strategy from uncertainty to openness and the hardening of its attitude towards China, in this process in which the US is heading towards the midterm elections.

China’s Responses

As Washington hardened its stance against Beijing and implemented its policy of suppressing and containing China through Taiwan, it saw that Beijing was unable to respond effectively. China cannot respond effectively to the actions of the US on the ground, and cannot raise the tense global and geopolitical competition to the level of hot conflict.

As the Washington administration realizes this, it increases its actions even more. Undoubtedly, China, which has not experienced such a large-scale global competition, is afraid of the US, an actor that has experienced the greatest global competition in history such as the Cold War, and moreover, left this competition with a victory. The Beijing administration, which does not have the political experience of Washington, cannot respond to the moves of the US with the same rigor.

The developments, on the other hand, force Beijing to take a decision that will be negative for both results. If China advances to the point of hot conflict; this situation will both make China an actor that threatens stability and security in the region, and will cause the US’s narrative of liberal democracy and the threat of China perception find a much more effective response in the regional states and cause neutral states to turn to the West. However, even if China avoids an effective response, the developments will make China an unstable actor, reduce confidence in itself, and cause the US pressure on Taiwan to gain other perspectives and be reflected in other problematic areas.

The fact that the US saw that China could not respond effectively is one of the reasons why it changed the situation of strategic uncertainty with the policy of strategic openness. As the US saw that it was able to suppress and intimidate China through Taiwan, it continued these actions and intensified its activities and rhetoric.

As a result, the Taiwan policy of the US has reached a much tougher level compared to the previous years due to the escalation of the competition on the Washington-Beijing line, the global effects of the Russia-Ukraine War, the developments in the US domestic politics and the responses that China gave or had difficulty in giving. Thus, the US has moved from strategic uncertainty to a policy that can be called strategic openness.


[1]“Amid the Tension, Another US Congressional Delegation Visited Taiwan”, Apnews, https://apnews.com/article/taiwan-china-nancy-pelosi-tsai-ing-wen-4a5fa7c1d01b8abc3e30eca13e8ec2de, (Date of Accession: 09.09.2022).

[2]“Taiwan Confident It Can Sign ‘High Standard’ US Trade Deal”, Channel News Asia, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/asia/taiwan-confident-it-can-sign-high-standard-us-trade-deal-2926706, (Date of Accession: 08.09.2022).

[3] “China Says Taiwan Military Drills Are Over After Pelosi Visit”, BBC, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-62492350, (Date of Accession: 12.08.2022).

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Biden: US Would Intervene with Militarily to Defend Taiwan”, AP News, https://apnews.com/article/russia-ukraine-biden-taiwan-china-4fb0ad0567ed5bbe46c01dd758e6c62b, (Date of Accession: 12.08.2022).

[6] “Biden: Us Would Defend Taiwan Against Chinese Invasion”, Apnews, https://apnews.com/article/taiwan-biden-china-nancy-pelosi-government-and-politics-abe8b7b0c6600e5fa869effae0d76ef2, (Date of Accession: 19.09.2022).

[7] “US Approves Potential 1.1bn Dollar Weapons Sale to Taiwan”, Aljazeera, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/9/2/us-approves-potential-1-1bn-weapons-sale-to-taiwan-pentagon, (Date of Accession: 02.09.2022).

[8] “US Considers China Sanctions to Deter Taiwan Action”, Aljazeera, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/9/14/us-considers-china-sanctions-to-deter-taiwan-action, (Date of Accession: 14.09.2022).

Zeki Talustan GÜLTEN
Zeki Talustan Gülten, 2021 yılında Yalova Üniversitesi İktisadi ve İdari Bilimler Fakültesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümü’nden “Amerikan Dış Politikası” başlıklı bitirme teziyle mezun olmuştur. Halihazırda Marmara Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü Uluslararası İlişkiler Anabilim Dalı’nda Tezli Yüksek Lisans öğrenimine devam eden Gülten, lisans eğitimi esnasında Erasmus+ programı çerçevesinde Lodz Üniversitesi Uluslararası ve Politik Çalışmalar Fakültesi’nde bir dönem boyunca öğrenci olarak bulunmuştur. ANKASAM’ın çalışmalarına katkıda bulunan Gülten’in başlıca ilgi alanları; Amerikan Dış Politikası, Asya-Pasifik ve Uluslararası Hukuk’tur. Gülten, iyi derecede İngilizce bilmektedir.