The US will declassify documents on Monday giving more detail on its security assurances to Taiwan, as Washington seeks to counter what it fears is a growing inclination by China to use military force against the island.
The move marks the latest step in an American campaign to hold Beijing to account over everything from the mass detention of Uighurs in Xinjiang province to China’s imposition of a draconian security law in Hong Kong.
The decision to make public the full details of the so-called Six Assurances made by Ronald Reagan to Taipei in 1982 follows calls from defence experts, former officials and Taiwan supporters in Congress that Washington make a clear commitment to come to Taiwan’s rescue if it were attacked by China.
“Taiwan is critical to American interests in Asia,” said Elbridge Colby, a former senior Pentagon official who was instrumental to the Trump administration’s 2017 national defence strategy that for the first time made China its number one priority.
“Greater clarity on Taiwan is highly valuable because it’s militarily important — our credibility is already on the line. It’s better for us to be quietly but resolutely clear that we would effectively defend Taiwan, and for China to understand that as well.”
Two US officials told the Financial Times that there were discussions within the administration on the future of “strategic ambiguity”, Washington’s traditional policy of not making clear how far it would go in helping Taiwan defend itself.
People briefed on the discussions said the US would emphasise more clearly its commitments to Taiwan and the country’s significance for US interests, but would steer clear of moves that could be construed by Beijing as a pretext for an attack on Taiwan.
One of the people briefed on the discussions said Washington would highlight its belief that Beijing, by stepping up military threats against Taiwan, was violating its pledges to seek a peaceful resolution of the issue.
An envoy from President Reagan made the Six Assurances orally to Taipei in 1982 after the US signed a communique with Beijing stating that it intended to gradually reduce arms sales to Taiwan, assuming that Beijing worked towards a peaceful settlement of its dispute with Taiwan.
The important points of the Six Assurances, as rendered by subsequent Congressional resolutions, include a statement that no date for ending arms sales was set, that the US did not seek a mediation role in the conflict and that it would not exert pressure on Taiwan to negotiate with Beijing.
They also state that the US does not take a position regarding sovereignty over Taiwan, that it has no plans to revise the domestic law containing a pledge to help Taiwan defend itself, and that it had not agreed to consult with Beijing on arms sales to Taiwan.
Bonnie Glaser, from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said declassifying the Six Assurances would “highlight the importance of the US bilateral relationship with Taiwan, and signal its role as a reliable partner in defending Taiwan’s security”.
Ms Glaser said the move “would certainly aggravate Beijing” but did not signal that the US was abandoning the “One China Policy”.
Other observers said China’s aggression in recent months, including a border clash with India, incursions across the median line of the Taiwan Strait and frequent exercises in the South China Sea, showed that the US was failing to deter Beijing from military coercion.
“If we are concerned that [China’s president] Xi [Jinping] is on an inexorable path towards what he calls ‘reunification’ of Taiwan, then we have to increase our level of clarity, and provide more concrete, solid security assurances to Taiwan,” said Drew Thompson, a visiting fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore and a former Pentagon official.
“We are looking at the inability to deter Xi Jinping in almost anything in the last six months to a year, no matter if it’s Xinjiang, industrial policy or Hong Kong. That creates a real challenge for the US. Strategic ambiguity is only successful as long as China is deterred,” he added.
In recent months, Washington has imposed sanctions on Chinese officials involved in setting Xinjiang policy. It has also put sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials over the security law and removed the special trade and economic privileges that Hong Kong enjoyed.
Washington has also imposed sanctions on Chinese companies that are helping Beijing militarise the South China Sea. Most recently, it followed up its actions against Huawei by taking aim at Chinese technology groups, such as ByteDance, which owns the short-video app TikTok, and WeChat, the Chinese messaging app.