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In Taiwan, an activist's release from prison has sparked debate on how to deter China

EMILY FENG, HOST:

I recently made a reporting trip to Taiwan, where I was struck by how attitudes there are hardening towards the island's much larger neighbor, China. That's led to a public debate over some basic assumptions underpinning Taiwan's relationship with China and the U.S. I tried to understand this shift and its potentially life-or-death implications. One of the people I spoke to about this was Taiwanese activist and social worker Li Ming-che. He survived five years in a Chinese prison, he says through resistance by rallying support from the outside and from his wife.

LI MING-CHE: (Through interpreter) She decided to carve a message of support on her own arms so that all she had to do was raise her hands for me to see it at my trial.

FENG: She had tattooed, I am proud of you on her forearms.

LI: (Through interpreter) This was the one thing the Chinese Communist Party could not take away.

FENG: In April, Lee was released, a free man. And his story has resonated across Taiwan, sparking a fierce discussion on what Taiwan can do to deter China.

WANG TING-YU: Allies like this need to provide clear signal to the decision maker, the only one, Xi Jinping.

FENG: This is Taiwanese lawmaker Wang Ting-yu. He's on the island's Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee and is a member of the ruling party. He's also been sanctioned by China.

WANG: If you launch a military action toward Taiwan or India or South China Sea or Japan, we will fight. That red line maybe can postpone or deter the war itself.

FENG: In other words, Wang wants to deter China. But historically, analysts feared an explicit U.S. defense commitment would provoke China into invading Taiwan. That's why the U.S. has an official policy of strategic ambiguity. The U.S. will help Taiwan with defense, but it won't commit to sending soldiers itself. It's an idea that has kept the peace in the region for more than 40 years. But support for this deliberate lack of clarity is wavering. President Biden has repeatedly made comments this year hinting that the U.S. might actually defend the island.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: You are?

BIDEN: That's the commitment we made.

FENG: The White House quickly clarified its policy of strategic ambiguity has not changed. But Biden's comment set off a debate in Taiwan about whether ditching ambiguity is helpful or reckless.

LEV NACHMAN: And there is unending disagreement about which is correct.

FENG: This is Lev Nachman. He's a political scientist at National Chengchi University in Taipei. He notes it's not just Li Ming-che's experience but China's broader autocratic behavior that's driving the Taiwanese further away.

NACHMAN: And collectively, these things have kind of, I would say, led civil society to feel much more strongly about the idea of defending Taiwanese sovereignty.

FENG: But taking a more aggressive stance is a huge gamble. And the survival of Taiwan may hang in the balance.

NACHMAN: I think for some people, they see it as high risk, high reward, where if they do declare strategic clarity and there is no conflict, then that is an equivalent of calling part of China's bluff. The other side says, yes, it's high risk, meaning that if you do declare strategic clarity and it leads to conflict, then that is in part our doing.

FENG: The problem is the U.S. and China don't really know what the other country is planning, and that means two superpowers are facing each other down in a game of deterrence with Taiwan's fate at stake and with only assumptions about the other's intentions.

(SOUNDBITE OF TORTOISE'S "TEN-DAY INTERVAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.