It looks like a country, walks like a country and talks like a country, but what exactly is Taiwan?

To avoid death and mayhem across the Taiwan Strait, the answer to that question is supposed to remain steeped in so-called “strategic ambiguity,” a concept Hongkongers understand all too well. 

Taiwan flag
Photo: Taiwan Office of the President, via Flickr.

For 23 years after the 1997 handover from British to Chinese rule, the people of Hong Kong lived with this clouded question hanging over their heads: how long would the powers that be in Beijing keep their hands off the “one country, two systems” experiment that was Hong Kong?

The answer came, and the ambiguity ended, on June 30, 2020, with the promulgation of a draconian national security law that transformed the city’s government into an authoritarian arm of the central government. 

President Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s independence-leaning leader, had been keenly watching as anti-government protests engulfed Hong Kong in the last six months of 2019. The more than 23 million people who live on the island were also keen observers, choosing to re-elect the woman regarded as a red rag to Beijing’s bull in a landslide victory in January of 2020. 

The Taiwanese people live with a question similar to, if even more harrowing than, the one Hongkongers fretted over for so many years: how long will the Chinese leadership, which regards Taiwan as a rogue province, allow the self-ruled, democratically governed island to exist before taking it by military force?

Taiwan-National Day Tsai Ing-wen president
Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-Wen seen delivering a speech during the celebrations of the National Day in front of the Presidential Office in Taipei, Taiwan on October 10, 2021. Photo: Walid Berrazeg/HKFP.

“Strategic ambiguity” is supposed to keep that question perpetually dangling as Beijing calculates the weighty consequences of such a move. 

Since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, which followed the victory of Mao Zedong’s communist army in the Chinese Civil War and the defeated nationalists’ escape to Taiwan, the United States has been Taiwan’s protector, preventing a mainland assault on the island. But we live in a very different world today, with a very different and more powerful China taking its place on the world stage. 

Would the United States still go to war to save little Taiwan? Dodge, duck, sidestep. That’s what US presidents and diplomats are supposed to do when confronted with that particular query. 

The aim is to keep both Beijing and Taipei guessing so that neither side does anything tragically stupid and the peaceful, albeit fraught, status quo is maintained. 

Joe Biden
Joe Biden. Photo: White House/Erin Scott, via Flickr.

Except US President Joe Biden didn’t do that when recently asked whether the US military would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack. His answer was not at all ambiguous. 

“Yes, we have a commitment to do that,” the president said. 

The Chinese foreign ministry immediately went apoplectic, and suddenly the Taiwan Strait, not to mention the world, seemed a more dangerous place. 

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken followed up on Biden’s remark with a pitch to member states of the United Nations to allow Taiwan to take an active role in the UN system—another rhetorical in-your-face to Beijing, which makes a point of blocking Taipei’s participation in international bodies. 

Remember Yvonne Tong, the RTHK reporter who created such a furore last year when she asked a senior World Heath Organisation official, Bruce Aylward, if the WHO would reconsider membership for Taiwan. Tong was denounced by Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau Tang-wah for “violating the one-China principle,” and the station was bombarded with complaints and calls for her resignation from the pro-Beijing camp. The embattled Tong has since left the station. 

Bruce Aylward
Yvonne Tong and The World Health Organization’s assistant director-general Bruce Aylward (right). Photo: RTHK screenshot.

Let’s also remember that Taiwan held a seat at the UN as the Republic of China until October 25, 1971, when it was finally booted out and replaced by the PRC. It would be eight more years before the US would recognise the PRC as the sole legitimate government of China, and this remains the case today.

But Chinese officials cannot forget that the Americans supported the nationalists in the civil war and have had a soft spot for Taipei ever since. Indeed, prior to US diplomatic recognition of Beijing, a defence pact between Washington and Taipei compelled the US military to come to Taiwan’s defence if the island was attacked by China. 

But that pact expired in 1980, and thenceforth “strategic ambiguity” has been the catch phrase preventing war.  Or so we thought. 

The previous US administration under former president Donald Trump was also very Taiwan friendly, with Trump, in a blatant breach of diplomatic protocol, even accepting a congratulatory phone call from Tsai after his victory over Hilary Clinton in 2016.

Taiwan military air force
Taiwan’s military. Photo: Taiwan Presidential Office, via Flickr.

So far, Biden, while repudiating Trump’s policies in most areas, has continued his hard line with Beijing, attacking the Chinese leadership for alleged human rights violations in Hong Kong and claiming “genocide” against the Muslim Uyghur minority in the semiautonomous region of Xinjiang; meanwhile, gestures of recognition and support for Taiwan also continue. 

Emboldened by the latest American statements from Biden and Blinken, Tsai has broken yet another taboo, acknowledging in an interview with CNN the presence of US troops in Taiwan. No doubt alluding to the record number of Chinese warplanes that entered Taiwan’s air defence zone last month, she added that the threat from China is “increasing every day.”

The last official US garrison departed Taiwan in 1979, but it is well known that US troops have been stationed on the island for the past four decades to train the Taiwanese military. Until now, however,  as part of the delicate diplomatic dance that has kept the peace in the Taiwan Strait, no leader—in Beijing, Washington or Taipei—has ever confirmed their presence. 

Tsai clearly relishes being a flash point in Sino-US relations and has benefitted greatly from the increasingly hostile state of affairs between the two giants. She has also profited no end from Hong Kong’s ongoing troubles, which have convinced many Taiwanese that the city’s “one country, two systems” governance model would be a disaster for them. 

And now, as the people of Taiwan keep a wary eye on Hong Kong, they see another kind of strategic ambiguity emerging here in the enforcement of the national security law.

In the new, nation-loving Hong Kong, where exactly are the red lines outlawing secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces? They just keep moving—we’ll never really know. 

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Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.