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Taiwan, “Strategic Clarity” and the War Powers: A U.S. Commitment to Taiwan Requires Congressional Buy-In

Patrick Hulme
Friday, December 4, 2020, 10:18 AM

An ongoing foreign policy debate over whether the United States should clarify a security guarantee to Taiwan needs to consider Congress's role in such a policy. 

The streets of Taiwan (Javier,; CC BY-NC 2.0,

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Recent attention has been given to the United States’s policy toward Taiwan in the event of an attack by the People’s Republic of China. Richard Haass and David Sacks recently argued that the decades-long policy of “strategic ambiguity” has outlived its usefulness and that a policy of “strategic clarity” would be a better option. Strategic ambiguity consists of purposely not declaring “whether the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense if China mounted an armed attack” while strategic clarity, in contrast, would make “explicit that the United States would respond to any Chinese use of force against Taiwan.” The argument for the latter is that by committing itself to intervene, the United States can strengthen the deterrent effect of its policy and, therefore, lessen the chance of major war. Uncertainty is one of the most prominent causes of war in international relations, and a policy of strategic ambiguity can thus be seen as an unforced error on the part of the United States. A policy of strategic clarity, in contrast, would much more clearly commit the U.S. to a certain course and—somewhat counterintuitively—reduce the probability of conflict between the U.S. and China. Haass and Sacks summarize their argument as “To Keep the Peace, Make Clear to China That Force Won’t Stand.”

Others, however, disagree with this argument. Taiwan expert Bonnie Glaser, for example, argues that Haass and Sacks’s “proposed solution ... would not solve that problem and might even provoke a Chinese attack.” Glaser writes that “[a] clear statement of U.S. resolve to defend Taiwan ... could embolden pro-independence constituencies in Taiwan to promote their cause,” thus throwing fuel on the fire and perhaps igniting the very martial conflagration Haass and Sacks seek to avoid. But while much focus of this debate has been put on the international commitment a presidential administration might declare toward Taiwan, little focus has been placed on the credibility of any such declared commitment without clear congressional buy-in. While the president has a broad power to threaten military action, threats need to be perceived by adversaries as credible in order to achieve a deterrent effect. Given the enormous political exposure a president would be risking by engaging in a major conflict unilaterally, the threat to do so absent congressional support would lack significant credibility in the eyes of potential U.S. opponents. Therefore, in order to minimize the possibility of a war over Taiwan, pursuing a policy of strategic clarity requires that Congress make its own policy position clear and unambiguous as well.

Presidents have, of course, broad latitude in declaring U.S. foreign policy commitments and can essentially order the military into combat whenever they see fit, but the political reality is that a president is not likely to risk major combat absent substantial congressional support—most likely through a formal authorization for the use of military force (AUMF). While President Truman entered the Korean War absent formal congressional approval (there was, however, overwhelming congressional support for the intervention), subsequent presidents saw this as a major political mistake and have since entered major combat operations only with explicit authorizing legislation. Regardless of how broadly the Office of Legal Counsel might construe the commander-in-chief power in Article II of the Constitution, Congress would de facto play an enormously important part in any major use of military force decision by the United States. China understands this, and thus the perceived credibility of the U.S. commitment to Taiwan depends partially on Beijing’s perceptions of Congress’s commitment to the island.

Congress has generally been quite supportive of Taiwan—traditionally, even more so than U.S. presidents. Famously, when the executive branch in the 1970s moved toward recognizing the People’s Republic of China and breaking off official relations with Taiwan, Congress both resisted the abrogation of the U.S.-Republic of China mutual defense treaty and then passed the United States-Taiwan Relations Act in 1979, which declares that “peace and stability in the area are in the political, security, and economic interests of the United States, and are matters of international concern” and furthermore that “any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means ... [is] of grave concern to the United States.” More recently, Congress has passed a spate of legislation supportive of Taiwan, including the Taiwan Travel Act (encouraging high-level government exchanges between Taipei and Washington) in 2018 and the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act (directing the State Department to tell Congress about government moves aimed at strengthening Taiwan’s diplomatic relations in the Indo-Pacific) in 2019. Furthermore, the 2018 Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA) states U.S. policy toward Taiwan includes “counter[ing] efforts to change the status quo” and “support[ing] peaceful resolution” of Taiwan’s status.

While clearly supportive of Taiwan, each of these acts has nonetheless utilized vague and noncommittal language that does little to convey firmness in U.S. resolve to oppose an armed attack against the island—consistent with a policy of strategic ambiguity. Whatever support Congress has shown toward Taiwan, there is no guarantee that, when push comes to shove, members of Congress would be willing to assume the significant political risk of voting in favor of authorizing military force if a conflict were to break out. This creates a situation ripe for miscalculation and a major conflict that neither side desires. However, the history of crises in the Taiwan Strait—and Congress’s role therein—points to a few possible policy avenues that would decrease uncertainty about Congress’s own policy preferences in the event of a Chinese attack and, thus, help deter war from occurring.

The First Taiwan Strait Crisis: A Congressional AUMF Is Used to Deter China

After the victory of the Chinese Communist Party in the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the United States seemed at first to be willing to allow for the final defeat of Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang forces on Taiwan. The invasion of South Korea by North Korea in 1950, however, changed the calculus of the Truman administration and saw the president ordering the U.S. Seventh Fleet to block the Taiwan Strait for the duration of the Korean conflict.

When the Eisenhower administration came to power in 1953, the president brought with him a strong belief that the Korean conflict had occurred only because the relevant communist states had not fully understood the U.S. commitment to defend South Korea. Truman’s secretary of state, Dean Acheson, famously gave a speech at the National Press Club in early 1950, seeming to assert that the U.S. security perimeter in East Asia did not include Korea and Taiwan—thus giving the communist states reason to believe that the U.S. would not intervene if the North were to invade the South. In Ike’s mind, this wasteful, bloody conflict—the borders after the war were virtually identical to the prewar frontiers at the 38th parallel, at a cost of millions of human lives—had come to pass only due to a lack of understanding about U.S. resolve and interests.

One way to signal a U.S. commitment to defend a country is through the creation of a formal military alliance. To this end, the Eisenhower administration partook in a “pactomania” that saw alliances formed across Asia, including mutual defense treaties with South Korea, the Philippines, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization and the Republic of China—Taiwan. But while alliances can signal U.S. resolve, they were still seen as not sufficient per se to make clear the U.S. commitment. Thus, even after the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty was signed in December 1954, Eisenhower additionally sought what came to be known as the Formosa Resolution in January 1955. In a Jan. 24 message to Congress, Eisenhower asked “the Congress to participate now, by specific resolution, in measures designed to improve the prospects for peace.” The president laid out his reasoning by stating:

Authority for some of the actions which might be required would be inherent in the authority of the Commander-in-Chief …. However, a suitable Congressional resolution would clearly and publicly establish the authority of the President as Commander-in-Chief to employ the armed forces of this nation promptly and effectively for the purposes indicated if in his judgment it became necessary. It would make clear the unified and serious intentions of our Government, our Congress and our people. Thus it will reduce the possibility that the Chinese Communists, misjudging our firm purpose and national unity, might be disposed to challenge the position of the United States, and precipitate a major crisis which even they would neither anticipate nor desire. (Emphasis added.)

Ultimately, Congress would grant the president broad authority to employ the armed forces “as he deems necessary for the specific purpose of securing and protecting” Taiwan. As Matthew Waxman has persuasively shown, the Eisenhower administration was very deliberate in thinking about the relationship between congressional force authorizations and deterring war. And after seeing the seeming success of the Formosa Resolution in deterring Chinese aggression in the First Taiwan Strait Crisis, the administration additionally sought and received a similar force authorization to defend the Middle East from communist aggression in 1957. These resolutions were considered to be such successes that they served as models for a congressionally driven Cuba resolution weeks before the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 and for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964.

Following this example, Congress’s first option today would be to pass a formal AUMF—similar to the original Formosa Resolution in 1955—giving the president the authority to defend Taiwan against an attack by China’s People’s Liberation Army. But while this would undoubtedly send a strong message to Beijing, it would likely also be too aggressive a move at present. A resurrected Formosa Resolution in 2020 could have the unintended effect of escalating tensions across the strait if it were seen as an aggressive move by the United States—exactly the problem Glaser points out. Furthermore, given congressional reluctance to pass AUMFs in general, this option is unlikely to be politically realistic absent a clear and imminent threat in an acute crisis. Rep. Ted Yoho and Sen. Rick Scott of Florida have already introduced such a resolution, but this is unlikely to go anywhere anytime soon.

If any resolution were to be passed in the near future, it would need to thread the needle between signaling Congress’s resolve in protecting Taiwan against military aggression, on the one hand, and not unnecessarily antagonizing the People’s Republic of China, on the other hand. There are other legislative vehicles, however, that could substantially signal U.S. unity and resolve without simultaneously provoking Beijing. While a formal AUMF would likely be needed if the U.S. were to engage in major combat operations, Congress could cross that bridge when it came to it, and alternative signals of congressional resolve could be expressed in the meantime. If the U.S. sought to embrace a policy of strategic clarity, a sense of Congress resolution, for example, could be used to show the policy’s broad support in Congress without unnecessarily antagonizing Beijing.

The Third Taiwan Strait Crisis: A Concurrent Resolution Clarifies U.S. Resolve

The Third Taiwan Strait Crisis illustrates the problem of strategic ambiguity and the importance of congressional support. The 1996 crisis came to a head in the run-up to Taiwan’s first presidential election as China sought to intimidate Taiwanese voters by conducting missile tests close to the island and threatening war. As the Clinton administration sent two carrier battle groups to the Taiwan Strait in 1996 to convey U.S. resolve, Congress debated a concurrent resolution supporting the move. The resolution, which was eventually passed by both houses, declared that it was “the sense of the Congress that the United States is committed to military stability in the Taiwan Strait and the United States should assist in defending the Republic of China (also known as Taiwan) in the event of invasion, missile attack, or blockade by the People's Republic of China.”

One member of Congress opined that he supported the resolution because “[t]he United States needs to unambiguously articulate its national security interests in Asia and reinforce them to the point where the Chinese understand that there will be consequences for their actions.” Interestingly, the same speaker also asserted that ambiguity had caused the crisis in the first place, arguing that “the administration’s policy of strategic ambiguity may have been counterproductive.”

Another legislator likewise argued that “miscalculation and recklessness by either party could lead to catastrophe” and, therefore, that “the administration’s initial reaction of deliberate and calculated ambiguity did not convey an adequate expression of U.S. resolve.” The solution to this problem was thus “to send an unambiguous signal that the United States would not sit idly by were Taiwan to be attacked.” Hence, because ambiguity was seen as causing the crisis in the first place, members of Congress believed passing a sense of Congress resolution would more clearly convey the resolve of the nation, thereby reducing ambiguity and deterring aggression toward the island.

Thus, a second option for the present day would be to simply follow the precedent of the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis and wait for a crisis to develop and thereafter pass a concurrent resolution giving the sense of Congress. This would fully avoid unnecessary antagonism of China at the present time but would also arguably be too little too late. Given the exponentially stronger capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army now compared to the 1990s, waiting for a crisis to come to a head before acting would perhaps mean irreversible damage had already been done. While the U.S. could afford in its unipolar moment in the 1990s to act reactively in a threat to Taiwan, such a luxury is no longer possible three decades later. Even a short confrontation between Chinese and U.S. forces today would be dangerous, making it all the more important to deter a crisis before it breaks out. Therefore, if the U.S. truly wants to minimize the risk of war over Taiwan, it needs to be much more proactive and act before a crisis erupts—and thus deter a crisis from ever occurring. To that end, a resolution passed before a crisis emerges might be more appropriate.

Threading the Needle: Moving From Strategic Ambiguity to Strategic Clarity in 2020

If the U.S. were to move toward a policy of strategic clarity, congressional action would need to be part of this effort. A mere policy pronouncement by the executive branch alone not only would risk violating the separation of powers and the United States-Taiwan Relations Act (as Michael Glennon points out) but also would do relatively little to clarify a great source of uncertainty in the U.S. commitment to Taiwan: whether Congress would support the use of military force to defend the island. Decreasing this uncertainty is critical because uncertainty would be one of the greatest contributing factors to the likelihood of conflict in the strait.

Given the strong support Taiwan enjoys in Congress, congressional action likely could be taken to clarify its support for a policy of strategic clarity. A best-of-all-worlds approach might be an ex ante sense of Congress resolution, with the possibility of a formal AUMF in the event of an acute crisis. Like the resolution produced in the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1996, this would clarify Congress’s perspective without going so far as a joint resolution. Inevitable protest from Chinese diplomats could be countered more easily when American officials can point out that concurrent resolutions are not legally binding. If a crisis were to escalate nonetheless, a formal AUMF could then be passed when an immediate threat materialized—as in the First Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1955—thus avoiding the most provocative action until it became all but unavoidable. Essentially, with a proactive concurrent resolution, Congress would avoid a provocative war authorization at present, while still demonstrating the votes would be there should such an authorization ever become necessary.

There is no doubt that the debate over the U.S. commitment to Taiwan will continue in future months as the People’s Republic of China continues growing militarily. Congress’s role in such a policy, however, needs to be considered carefully because a change in policy without congressional action would do little to decrease the very uncertainty that proponents of strategic clarity seek to reduce. A resolution passed by Congress simultaneous to a declared policy change by the executive branch would, like many congressional resolutions in past crises, demonstrate American unity in its commitment to protect Taiwan against communist aggression. Such action would go far in reducing the risk of war by making the American commitment to Taiwan clear before any crisis emerged and simultaneously assuaging fears of an imperial presidency acting absent congressional input.

Patrick Hulme is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the International Security Program at the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, where he focuses on congressional-executive relations in U.S. foreign policy, deterrence theory, U.S.-China relations, and international security. He holds a J.D. from the UCLA School of Law and a Ph.D. in political science from UCSD.

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