Can the US Deter a Taiwan Invasion?
Rethinking “strategic ambiguity” is important, but in the meantime Washington must compensate for its dwindling military advantage over China with more costly signals of political resolve.
By David Gitter
As the world comes to grips with Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, the questions surrounding why Western deterrence has seemingly failed to prevent such a situation will be hotly debated. But beyond the implications for the United States and Europe, perhaps the most common analysis being made, rightly or not, compares Russia President Vladimir Putin’s designs on Ukraine with Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s machinations regarding Taiwan (formally the Republic of China, or ROC), a de facto independent state that Beijing claims to be part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Some observers have opined that a weak response by the United States and its allies in Europe will embolden Xi to undertake a military takeover of the island. U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield addressed this line of thinking in an interview with CNN when she stated, “As it relates to Taiwan and China, we are committed to protecting the security and supporting the security of the people of Taiwan… if China is making efforts toward Taiwan because of what they see happening in Ukraine, these are two different types of situations.”
The Biden administration’s repeated invocations of a possible “World War III” to deflect calls for greater U.S. material support for Ukraine’s defense are probably not helping the relevant optics in Asia. Yet the United States should be much more concerned with its day-to-day deterrence signaling toward China over Taiwan, which is woefully inadequate and prepositioned on dated calculations that make it ineffective.
For the United States, Taiwan Is Not Ukraine
As Thomas-Greenfield feebly implied, unlike the Ukraine crisis, the United States might very well decide to fight a costly and lengthy conflict to prevent Taiwan’s forceful absorption into the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) domain if such a war was launched by Beijing. The reasons for doing so are manifold and beyond the scope of this article, but revolve around the prognosis that U.S. economic and national security interests would be irreparably (if not fatally) harmed by the advent of PRC hegemony in East Asia. Taiwan’s geostrategic value as a check on Chinese expansion and its status as a democratic, friendly regional power make its perpetual independence from CCP rule desirable to Washington. Conversely, Taiwan would become a springboard for PRC power projection across the Indo-Pacific if Beijing were to subjugate it.
Thus, for more than 70 years, the United States has successfully deterred Beijing from fulfilling its unification goal through force by credibly raising the prospect of a successful U.S. military intervention on Taiwan’s behalf, the threat of which was repeatedly bolstered from 1950 to 1996 through events such as the Korean War and the three Taiwan Strait Crises. Time after time, ominous U.S. rhetoric coupled with awe-provoking displays of military might (such as through the arrival of imposing U.S. naval armadas in 1950, 1958, and 1996) made Beijing feel impotent, and caused CCP leaders to conclude throughout this period that a military adventure to “reunify” Taiwan would very likely end in humiliating defeat. That predicted outcome always made invasion a non-option because a humiliating defeat over Taiwan – one of the most consistent subjects of Chinese communist propaganda – would have such a high political cost that it would threaten to topple the CCP regime itself.
From 1954 to 1979, Washington’s intervention was an obligation in the event of Chinese aggression, as the U.S.-ROC mutual defense treaty called for the United States to come to Taiwan’s defense. This severe constraint on Beijing’s cross-strait ambition ensured that the CCP leadership chose to focus on other priorities deemed more pressing and attainable, whether through socialist construction, limited war, ideological campaigns, or Cold War diplomacy.
But Beijing’s Taiwan agenda became more feasible after its normalization of relations with Washington in 1979, which coincided with the latter’s ending of official relations with Taipei. The Carter administration ended Washington’s defense treaty with Taiwan in order to enable this transition. Since then, the United States has relied not on the formal guarantees of its military alliance to deter cross-strait aggression, but instead on a careful coalescence of rhetoric and military demonstrations. The policy framework underwriting this deterrence paradigm was, and remains, “strategic ambiguity.”
Briefly explained, the roots of strategic ambiguity are found in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), which states that the United States will maintain the capacity to defend Taiwan but does not state whether or not the United States would actually militarily intervene if the PRC attacked – ultimately this remains a U.S. presidential decision. Strategic ambiguity has allowed the United States to protect its normalized relations with China from being completely derailed by a Taiwan-U.S. alliance while still threatening to quash a Chinese cross-strait attack. It has also helped prevent Taiwan’s more independence-leaning leaders from assuming they had a blank check from Washington to declare de-jure independence, which would risk provoking a China-U.S. war in the process.
As alluded to above, this framework worked well for American interests in a time when U.S. military power so overmatched China’s that the mere possibility of U.S. intervention was enough to outweigh the benefits of war in Chinese regime calculations, and along with it the benefits of China’s dedicated preparations for a cross-strait attack. Even as Beijing’s military power grew alongside its economy – and although Beijing probably judged that U.S. resolve to undertake military intervention was capricious and vulnerable to its diplomatic pressures (especially during periods of obvious U.S. frustration with Taiwan, such as during the Chen Shui-bian administration) – PRC inaction was in strong part decided by the danger of facing the United States’ superior military might.
Why American Deterrence Is Failing
Unfortunately, however, it is now more likely than not that this CCP leadership calculation has changed, and not only as a function of China’s gradually rising strength. China’s military power is certainly the first factor: Militarily the PRC can now finally hope to defeat a U.S. intervention in a Taiwan Strait conflict. Just as importantly, though, the second key factor is paramount leader Xi Jinping’s apparent willingness to take the political risks inherent to a cross-strait invasion scenario.
The first of these is easier to explain: Beijing has spent the past 20-plus years building, training, and fielding a force capable of taking Taiwan, an operation that would entail an amphibious assault comparable in audacity only to the Normandy landings of 1944. If China’s own deterrence toward the United States fails to prevent a U.S. military intervention, this same force was also specifically built to defeat it. Military capabilities necessary for Beijing to defeat U.S. forces are currently most robust where the fighting would be fiercest – within the so-called First Island Chain (centered on Taiwan itself) – but are becoming increasingly strong within the Second Island Chain, within which Washington maintains a defensive posture in part to support potential joint operations around the Taiwan Strait.
As a reflection of the shifting balance of power in China’s favor, it was widely reported last year that the U.S. military was utterly beaten in its own classified Taiwan-centric wargame because the mock enemy (obviously China) knew precisely what the U.S. war plan was and was thus prepared. “Without overstating the issue, it failed miserably. An aggressive red team that had been studying the United States for the last 20 years just ran rings around us. They knew exactly what we’re going to do before we did it,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. John E. Hyten openly admitted at a July 2021 think tank event.
This is significant because China’s growing warfighting capabilities provide CCP decisionmakers with a credible near- to medium-term option to task the Chinese military with a Taiwan takeover. In war, Chinese military strategy calls for shifting China’s struggle from the military domain to the political as soon as it achieves its objectives, thereby neutralizing the chances of a determined counterattack. If in the near future Beijing calculates it can quickly defeat a U.S. force dispatched toward Taiwan and use diplomacy to push Washington to settle on terms that preserve China’s domination of Taiwan, then U.S. deterrence will probably not hold for much longer. Additionally, if an initial Chinese landing is defeated by the United States, these same capabilities would also provide China the realistic option of waging and feasibly winning a protracted war against both the United States and ROC, such as through a long-term air, naval, and information blockage against the island.
The latter wherewithal should be a startling development for U.S. strategists, because a war of attrition has long been an effective deterrent against those seeking a swift and cheap victory. Given the likely fatal political costs that formal Taiwan independence would incur on the CCP in the event of a Chinese military defeat, Beijing would almost certainly choose to continue the fight. In summary, China’s military development now allows Beijing to take the sort of historic gamble that reckless regimes have taken before, risking much or all in the process.
The second driver is less obvious, but ties directly into the first. Some have argued that Beijing has too much at stake to try an attack on Taiwan, pointing to the likely economic and military losses innate in a cross-strait contingency and concluding that therefore war is unlikely. Such a sanguine assessment is misled. It ignores many examples of ruling regimes having accepted such material risks in the name of nationalist motives and/or correcting unacceptable status quos. Indeed, China’s use of military force from 1950 onward has consistently demonstrated Beijing’s willingness to risk tremendous economic and military costs in order to achieve such ends.
We should recall that the CCP’s purposeful nurturing of a narrative of “national humiliation” through decades of patriotic education campaigns ensures that both the party and the Chinese citizenry seek redress over Taiwan’s separation from China, by vividly and personally relating the Taiwan Strait status quo with China’s historical traumas of the 19th and 20th centuries. We should remember too that costly wars that bankrupt and bleed dry previously enthusiastic participants are a prominent feature of modern history (and current events as well, the way Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is going). Perhaps the PRC has not yet made such a fatal military decision in its short 72 years, but the over-centralized CCP leadership of Mao Zedong did make other decisions that destroyed the PRC economy and killed many millions of its citizens. Today, the over-centralized leadership of Xi Jinping – who frequently fashions himself after Mao – has amassed enough political power to pull the trigger on Taiwan, whether the risks of doing so are catastrophic or not.
Would Xi consider such a potentially costly decision? It is impossible for us to know for sure, but he certainly is choosing to raise the year-by-year political price to himself of not invading Taiwan. My group of professional China-watchers has marked a striking shift in Beijing’s rhetoric in 2021 – the so-called “first centenary” deadline marking the CCP’s 100th anniversary and the related achievements Xi has promised to deliver by then – on the significance of Taiwan’s “reunification” to national prestige. Alarmingly, this emphasis only picked up further following Xi’s speech on the 110th anniversary of China’s Xinhai Revolution, which directly linked Xi’s patented overarching goal of “national rejuvenation” (national wealth and power) with “national reunification” (absorption of Taiwan). This emphasis has been a consistent feature in authoritative propaganda commentary and official remarks since. Premier Li Keqiang’s recent assertion at the fifth session of the 13th National People’s Congress that the CCP would seek to “resolve the Taiwan issue in the New Era” (read “new era” as “Xi era”) only built off of this trend.
Such a development and other related ones (such as Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits Vice President Sun Yafu’s recent remarks hinting that the upcoming CCP 20th Party Congress will advance new policies pursuant to Taiwan’s reunification) strongly suggest that Xi is tying his personal legacy and his regime’s credibility to resolving the “Taiwan issue” for good. Such a feat is also the only realistic option for Xi to achieve the Mao-like historical stature he so craves. And he has given himself some years to do so, having removed all term limits on his leadership tenure. Xi is only 68 years old – still young considering Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping led China into their 80s (the former until his death at 82).
The timing of Xi’s renewed Taiwan focus, coming as it does ahead of the CCP’s all-important 20th Party Congress in fall 2022 – where he will officially buck the more recent practice of leaders stepping down after two five-year terms – seems an awful lot like Xi is justifying his third term in part by placing Taiwan back on the menu. After Xi begins his third term, he is likely to transmit this additional political pressure to his generals, pushing them even harder to create a military solution for Taiwan sooner rather than later, perhaps whether preparations are full-wrought or not. Similar to recent speculation regarding Russia’s poor military performance in Ukraine and the reliability of Putin’s inner circle, it is difficult to know if Xi gets the intelligence he needs on crucial matters regarding China’s capabilities, the enemy’s strength, and the enemy’s will to persevere in a fight, or if he is now merely surrounded by yes-men who support his ambitions.
In any case, the Xi regime is already preparing the CCP rank and file for tough times ahead, warning them to be ready to “struggle” to achieve national rejuvenation and not expect smooth sailing until its attainment. The toughest of such times, of course, would likely be a brutal war over Taiwan. This should not be easily dismissed as abstract or empty talk. Instead, when taken into account alongside the now-ubiquitous party-state propagation of Taiwan-related military exercises and saber rattling in state media coverage and state-controlled social media, it should be seen as potential evidence that Xi is preparing his country for the troubles of a hot war.
And what of China’s own deterrence against the United States under Xi? It is obvious that Beijing’s diplomatic posture toward the United States and the West in general has sharpened dramatically, popularly described as “wolf warrior” diplomacy. This style bristles with bravado and at times outright contempt for the United States, but PRC rhetoric over Taiwan has been the most honed of all. Beijing may have tactically pulled some punches on tertiary issues during the Trump administration’s many broadsides against China, but it persisted to issue its most serious warnings over that administration’s senior exchanges with their counterparts in Taiwan. Beginning in late 2020, Beijing regularly matched its threats with both large scale military maneuvers and near-daily aerial incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ), moves meant to prove its willingness and means to defeat “‘Taiwan independence’ forces” and their U.S. backers.
This PRC signaling pattern has continued during the Biden administration. Beijing’s belligerent display at Anchorage in March 2021 during its first senior meeting with the administration made plain that China would keep its hard posture on issues such as Taiwan, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong, to name a few. Since then, it is most notable that Beijing’s spokespersons and authoritative commentary have increasingly used the CCP’s special lexicon of serious deterrence threats in an attempt to ward off Washington’s ongoing campaign of support for Taiwan. Indeed, it should have been alarming when, during their virtual meeting in November 2021, Xi issued an unprecedentedly stiff public threat to a U.S. president by telling Biden that China’s U.S. opponents on the Taiwan issue were “playing with fire” and would burn themselves if they continued. Alas, the above pattern of belligerence carries on in 2022, evidenced in the propagation of military drills, aerial incursions, and strident warnings over Taiwan.
All of this is to say: Beijing’s deterrence messaging is actually in line with Xi’s politically risky decision to put Taiwan back on the agenda before he boldly starts his third leadership term. As such, the onus is on the skeptics to prove that Xi does not intend to solve the Taiwan dispute once and for all during his reign over the next one-to-two leadership terms, which translates into five to 10 years.
The Biden Administration’s Mediocre Messaging
In response to China’s posturing, the Biden administration has overseen its own repertoire of rhetoric and military messaging meant to signal the United States’ enduring option to intervene in a cross-strait fight. Biden officials have generally expressed varying degrees of “concern” over PRC actions and occasionally reiterate that the U.S. commitment to Taiwan is “rock-solid,” language that feels tough but is drowned out by the daily cacophony of PRC intimidations on the same subject.
To be fair, larger gestures have been made. The administration has now twice dispatched unofficial delegations of former senior U.S. officials to Taipei, where they have met with Taiwan’s president offering messages of U.S. solidarity and support. Additionally, President Joe Biden himself has twice made remarks appearing to confirm that the United States would indeed come to Taiwan’s defense if it was attacked by China. However, these comments were walked back when his officials essentially clarified that there was no change to U.S. policy ambiguity. In terms of the administration’s military signaling, the U.S. Navy has conducted monthly Taiwan Strait transits, one of which was publicly acknowledged as having been accompanied by an allied (Canadian) warship. Meanwhile, the major Taiwan-relevant U.S. military exercises visible in the public domain (both those done unilaterally and with allies) have mostly taken place in regional waters like the South China Sea and Philippine Sea, but avoided the immediate area around the Taiwan Strait. These certainly demonstrate U.S. capabilities, but do so from a distance (physically and politically) that fails to proclaim U.S. willingness to risk a fight with China if need be.
Unfortunately, these “same old” patterns of signaling are clearly doing little to surprise Beijing, throw off Chinese calculations of U.S. resolve, or disturb the Xi leadership’s growing confidence that it might win a quick victory against the United States in a cross-strait war. They certainly do not dismay Beijing as much as Washington’s show of force during the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, when two U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups – boasting more than 100 strike aircraft and hundreds of cruise missiles – were sent to waters near Taiwan in response to nine months of Chinese military exercises and missile tests targeting the island ahead of its fateful presidential elections (much to Beijing’s chagrin, its coercion failed to prevent the reelection of Taiwan independence-oriented President Lee Teng-hui).
Importantly, this March 1996 dispatch of force was immediately preceded by a collective dinner message to China’s vice foreign minister in the U.S. State Department’s own Madison State Dining Room for maximum effect. It was there that the U.S. secretary of state, secretary of defense, and national security advisor all warned that if China attacked Taiwan, there would be “grave consequences,” a phrase from the United States’ own threat thesaurus that implies military counteractions and which had not been used against Beijing since before the normalization of bilateral relations. It was repeated by National Security Advisor Anthony Lake to the media shortly afterward, publicly committing the United States to Taiwan’s aid if China attacked through the imposition of global audience costs to the U.S. reputation were it not to follow through.
The CCP leadership ran their algorithms and then backed down, choosing not to attack Taiwan proper or its outlying islands in any way, shape, or form, and ending their campaign of coercion following Taiwan’s election. Instead of further posturing, they went back to the drawing board.
Of course, some would say that such a concerted U.S. message should only be used if China does something even more provocative than its current coercive routine. But at what point do the regular military exercises and thousands of air sorties into Taiwan’s ADIZ amount to Beijing’s actions in 1995 and 1996? This coercive trend is only worsening over time.
Skeptics might also suggest that today such a singular display of force would not cow Beijing into restraint. They are probably right. Deterrence is a function of boasting one’s capabilities and resolve. Now that rough parity in Taiwan-specific military capabilities exists between the United States and China, Washington needs to compensate by emphasizing greater political resolve to fight – and to keep fighting – if China pulls the trigger. This is something China does very well, and the United States should, too.
There are many ways to do this without officially abandoning strategic ambiguity at this time. If Washington still desires to preserve the dwindling benefits of ambiguity, the United States can bolster its threat without totally tying its own hands: the fostering of greater potential U.S. reputational costs with more frequent and tougher rhetoric (public and private); the stationing of ever-larger contingents of U.S. military personnel to Taiwan that resemble an unofficial trip-wire; or the purposeful instigation of Beijing’s wrath and dismay through high-profile and semi-regular U.S. Navy port calls in furtherance of the goals of the TRA, to name but a few non-exclusive options. Biden might again and again imply that the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense, and U.S. officials need not expound much further – it was a good sign when widespread debate and questioning followed those presidential comments, which was surely a mirror of the internal debates Beijing also had on them. Such doubts advance Washington’s goal of deterrence, and along with it, the prospects of cross-strait peace.
The above options and many others will entail accepting considerable and persistent costs today in the hopes of deterring an emboldened Xi tomorrow – a reality perhaps made even more true by Beijing’s observations of U.S. caution against direct Ukraine war involvement. But this is the price to pay if Washington hopes to dissuade Xi’s “new era” China from war over the next decade. After all, for the United States, Taiwan is not Ukraine, and Beijing must be made to know it.
In March 2021 testimony to Congress, then-U.S. Indo-Pacific Commander Admiral Phil Davidson noted that Beijing’s military advancements suggest it may attempt to take Taiwan in “the next six years.” It should be noted that Davidson also said “more than 40 years of the strategic ambiguity has helped keep Taiwan in its current status… But you know, these things should be reconsidered routinely.” Absolutely, Washington should continue to debate the merits of maintaining or ending strategic ambiguity. In the meantime, though, Washington should dig deep and demonstrate its resolve to weather the threats of war imposed by Beijing with consistently bolder and more ominous moves of its own.
- David Gitter is the founder and president of the Center for Advanced China Research