As a game theorist and former instructor of economics at the U.S. Naval Academy, with ample academic and real-life experience in deterrence as a fighter pilot, it is clear to me that strategic ambiguity will no longer dissuade China from attacking Taiwan. Instead, the United States should rally other countries to expand the West’s commitment to the island’s defense.
Losing Taiwan to Chinese Communist Party control would strike a devastating blow to American interests and those of every democratic nation. In addition to its status as an increasingly rare, though stressed, democracy in a fraught region, Taiwan is a monopoly supplier of leading-edge microchips critical to the American economy and its national security. But the indirect effect is of even greater concern. If America is seen as an unreliable ally to Taiwan, then every Indo-Pacific nation on the sidelines will flock to make bilateral deals with China. These bilateral deals have a first-mover advantage, meaning they could start a cascade of realignment potentially cementing a new, authoritarian world order. This is why America’s Taiwan strategy has outsized importance.
The United States’ mixed-strategy doctrine of strategic ambiguity with respect to the defense of Taiwan has been in place for more than 40 years. Its goal was to both dissuade China from invading Taiwan and discourage Taiwan from asserting its independence, while China was supposed to open and democratize, leading to a new “equilibrium” in international relations. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. What strategic ambiguity does now is deter Taiwan’s potential allies from committing to defend the thriving island democracy, and that’s a big problem.
Strategic ambiguity assumes that minimizing Taiwan’s assertiveness minimizes the probability of war; it does not. China continues to vow it will take Taiwan by force, if necessary, and that threat is becoming increasingly plausible. Even strategic ambiguity’s defenders argue that the approach does not deter China as much as it used to because China’s strength has outpaced American assumptions. For one thing, having essentially gutted Hong Kong’s democratic system, China may feel even more emboldened to go after Taiwan. And the new report from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights declaring that China’s abuses against Uyghurs in Xinjiang “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity” further illustrates China’s willingness to openly flout international norms.
RAND assesses that China might be able to successfully invade Taiwan within the decade. Therefore, the main motivating factor for war is likely to be China’s belief that it can invade with acceptable costs, rather than any assertiveness on the part of Taiwan.
The United States needs to move on from Soviet-era strategic ambiguity and recognize that the game and players have changed. Any military conflict over Taiwan will be multilateral, affecting every regional nation in some way. America should rally allies in the Indo-Pacific, and around the globe, to commit to defend Taiwan in case of invasion. That is the only strategy that will minimize the long-term probability of war while signaling commitment to democratic allies.
The challenge of multilaterally defending Taiwan is a commitment (or a public goods) game. If China invades, each third-party state faces a decision to commit to Taiwan’s defense or not. But this decision depends on the probability of winning, which is itself a function of how many third-party states choose to commit – chiefly among them, the United States. The solution to this game depends on what these third-party states credibly promise to each other beforehand. If America credibly commits to defend Taiwan, then the probability of winning dramatically increases and every other state is more likely to commit as well. Making a credible commitment is one of the reasons why the United States garrisons troops in South Korea; if the North were to invade, the United States is automatically involved. North Korea sees this beforehand, which makes the garrison a strong and credible deterrent. What strategic ambiguity says to other states is the opposite of this, and the effect is each state is less likely to commit to defend Taiwan, isolating the island and making a Chinese invasion of Taiwan more likely to succeed and, therefore, more likely to occur.
Strategic ambiguity fails because it raises the uncertainty of American commitment, deterring allies, and making an attack more likely and a successful defense less certain. Wars are painful, leading to a bystander effect in which each ally avoids the cost of defense, assuming others will bear that burden. Without prior coordination, the predictable result is that every state becomes a bystander, waiting on others to help Taiwan, and China knows this.
There is, however, a model solution to this kind of problem already in place in Europe. NATO is the most successful alliance in history. This is due largely to Article 5, which obligates each ally to come to the mutual defense of the others. This mechanism is specifically designed to avoid the bystander effect by solidifying commitments beforehand so all decisions after an invasion are simultaneous and stable.
There is no NATO umbrella for Taiwan, but rallying countries to defend it should be a U.S. strategic goal and it needs to be done quickly. The period of transition as a state moves from outside an alliance into one is when it is most vulnerable. Any aggressor state knows the probability of a successful attack dramatically drops in the future and so is incentivized to attack early. The answer is to make the transition quick. What the United States should not do is equivocate on its commitment to defend Taiwan.
The United States can deter China by credibly committing to the defense of Taiwan before a crisis, reassuring other allies to do so as well, making all better off. This is how to stop an invasion before it occurs. What is not effective is sitting on the fence, ambiguously thinking about being strategically intimidating.