Taiwan blinked as an election issue but was quickly forgotten. It should have been bigger, as it could soon force us into difficult choices. True, foreign policy seldom figures much in U.S. elections, true again this year. We have no clear Taiwan policy. No one knows what to do. Few even talk about it. Are we sleepwalking?

Some commentators claim the U.S. Taiwan policy of “strategic ambiguity” is obsolete, that we need a new, clearer policy. Careful. Strategic ambiguity — remaining unclear over defending Taiwan — has worked pretty well for decades. Beijing could read an unambiguous U.S. commitment to Taiwan as the opening of hostilities and push back. Does ambiguity still work to preserve peace, or has it lost whatever utility it had?

Fear of nuclear war may self-limit escalation, as it did during the Cold War (Berlin, Cuban missiles), but would it still work in a U.S.-China showdown? If a U.S. carrier is sunk? (Wary of Chinese missiles, our carriers stay well away from China.)

Ambiguity accompanied Nixon’s 1972 recognition of Beijing as China’s sole capital, but a U.S. mission in Taipei continued as a “cultural institute.” In 1979, congressional Republicans feared a sellout of Taiwan and passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which supported Taiwan against forcible mainland takeover but specified no U.S. military response. Is now the time to clear up this ambiguity?

Things change. Taiwan, after ending martial law in 1987, evolved into a vibrant democracy. Most Taiwanese now desire separate Taiwan nationhood. Culturally, politically and economically, Taiwan — influenced by 50 years of Japanese rule (1895–1945) — really is a distinct country.

And this is a different China. Xi Jinping squelched signs of liberalizing in the first decade of this century after he became Party chief in 2012. Xi has built a semi-Mao one-man rule that silences pluralist notions. Trump supposed personal chats made Xi cooperative; they didn’t. Trump, who understands only transactional “deals” devoid of core principles, cannot comprehend Beijing’s unambiguous purposes.

One of them is recovery of Taiwan. China seethes with nationalism, part genuine, part whipped up. Xi claims, as did Mao, that China must reverse the “century of humiliation” by imperialists that started with the First Opium War of 1839–42. Xi’s brusque takeover of Hong Kong signals he means business.

So, Trump and Biden, what do you propose? (Okay, we can’t really expect a response from Trump.) Publish your analysis. Beware of pat or conventional answers; we may have to deliver on them.

U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and visits by U.S. officials anger Beijing, which makes “red line” threats. Taipei is nervous. Since the 2008 financial meltdown, Beijing evaluates U.S. power as weakening economically and politically, an image reinforced by Trump’s erratic COVID-19 behavior (on steroids, literally). China proudly builds nukes, warships, anti-ship missiles and fortified islets in the South China Sea.

Trouble is, ambiguity segues into bluffing. Trump is bluffing, Xi ain’t. To minimize this danger, Washington must make at least three decisions. First, what are U.S. national interests in the Western Pacific? They must be feasible and credible and more important than fishing, mineral and transit rights and soybean exports. Some academics advance broad geostrategic views that see Chinese power pushing outward, past the “first island chain” and even the second. But to my knowledge there is no official U.S. geostrategic policy for the Western Pacific. Is now the time to produce one?

Second, who are our allies in the region? Is a quadrangle of the U.S., Australia, Japan and India feasible? Trump scorns multilateral pacts. Are smaller powers prepared to wholeheartedly join one?

Third, what steps are we willing to take? A major U.S. naval presence? Then get out of the Persian Gulf. Share the Western Pacific with China? Great idea, if Beijing would cooperate.

Trump’s tariffs on Chinese imports have only harmed us. The U.S. could have built the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade bloc to offset China, but Trump, falsely claiming TPP would export U.S. jobs, immediately dropped out. Without something like TPP, we have only bilateral economic legs in the Pacific when we need multilateral.

Without these compass points, U.S. Pacific policy is dangerously vague. If we wish to end strategic ambiguity, then we must do patient spadework making a U.S. presence in the Western Pacific real and credible. If not, prepare to ride ambiguity into a trap we cannot bluff our way out of. Decide now and back it up.

One of my recent lockdown reads was Christopher Clark’s 2011 “Sleepwalkers,” how Europe stumbled into World War I. It was a complex, quarter-century mess. No one comprehended the traps they created by claiming peripheral interests were vital. Offering bogus deals, they demanded too much, figuring the other side would back down. Trouble was, both sides figured that. Please, no sleepwalking.