The Stability of Deterrence in the Taiwan Strait

September 1, 2001 Topic: DefenseMilitary StrategySecurity Regions: Asia Tags: Cold WarIslamismWar In Afghanistan

The Stability of Deterrence in the Taiwan Strait

Mini Teaser: The Bush Administration should take to heart the lesson learned by its predecessors: leave well enough alone in the Taiwan Strait.

by Author(s): Robert S. Ross

China will not forsake its demand for unification, but because its
foremost strategic and nationalistic objectives are met, this is no
more than a demand for face. Thus, in the absence of Taiwan's
declaration of independence China can be deterred from using force.
Taiwan's purchase of 150 F-16s and 60 Mirage 2000 jets and its
domestic production of the Chingkuo fighter nearly guarantee it air
superiority over the Taiwan Strait, denying the mainland the ability
to sustain offensive operations against it. The mainland still lacks
the amphibious capabilities required to occupy Taiwan against the
island's coastal defenses. Taiwan's assets alone could enable it to
frustrate a mainland effort to occupy the island. But deterrence of a
more limited but nonetheless punishing and coercive mainland use of
force depends on Taiwan's longstanding strategic relationship with
the United States.

The United States can inflict a rapid and punishing attack against
Chinese forces while emerging from war with minimal casualties.
Despite recent acquisitions of Russian military aircraft, destroyers
and submarines, China's air force and navy are dominated by 1960s
generation hardware. Although China has already received
approximately 75 Russian Su-27 fighter jets and has agreed to
purchase Su-30 ground attack aircraft, the PLA's difficulty in
operating and maintaining Russian jets diminishes their role in the
cross-strait balance of power. The Russian Sovremmny-class destroyer
is a highly capable vessel, especially when equipped with Russian
Sunburn missiles, but China cannot defend the Sovremmny, and its
limited stand-off range poses only a minimal threat to U.S. forces.
The Russian Kilo-class attack submarine is a very capable submarine,
but it is also very complex and difficult to operate.

China's military also lacks sophisticated information technologies.
It possesses minimal beyond-visual-range targeting. In December 1995
China did not discover that the U.S. aircraft carrier Nimitz was
transiting the Taiwan Strait, and in March 1996 it could not locate
the U.S. carrier Independence when it deployed 200 miles from China's
coast. China's theater missiles lack terminal guidance systems and
thus cannot hit moving targets beyond visual range, including U.S.
warships. Although China has been modernizing its information
technologies, in the eight years between the Gulf War and the war in
Kosovo the technology gap between China and the United States
widened, thus increasing China's vulnerability to U.S. forces.

Chinese officers are mindful of their military deficiencies. Their
studies of the Gulf War and the war in Yugoslavia underscore the U.S.
ability to use naval superiority and conventional high-technology,
precision-guided weapons to deter coastal adversaries and inflict
devastating damage from off-shore platforms. PLA researchers and the
high command understand that in decisive information technologies
China is woefully backward and that its inferiority will persist well
into the 21st century. There is no false optimism in the PLA that it
could survive a war with the United States.

Military defeat by the United States would not only weaken China
vis-Ã -vis the United States but would also dramatically reverse
China's position in the regional balance of power. China would lose
its current advantages with regard to Russia, with implications for
border security in Central Asia and Northeast Asia. Similarly,
Japanese and Indian power would pose greater challenges to Chinese
security in the aftermath of a U.S.-China conflict. A weakened China
might also face security challenges from foreign-supported
disaffected minorities on its borders and Tibetan independence
activists. Indeed, Chinese territorial integrity depends on its
avoiding war with the United States.

The strategic costs to China of a war with the United States are only
part of the deterrence equation. China also possesses vital economic
interests in stable relations with the United States. War would end
China's quest for modernization by severely constraining its access
to U.S. markets, capital and technology, and by requiring China to
place its economy on permanent war-time footing. The resultant
economic reversal would derail China's quest for "comprehensive
national power" and great power status. Serious economic instability
would also destabilize China's political system on account of the
resulting unemployment in key sectors of the economy and the
breakdown of social order. Both would probably impose insurmountable
challenges to party leadership. Moreover, defeat in a war with the
United States over Taiwan would impose devastating nationalist
humiliation on the Chinese Communist Party. In all, the survival of
the party depends on preventing a Sino-American war.

But sure knowledge of defeat in war will not deter Chinese leaders
from attacking Taiwan unless they are convinced that the United
States will in fact intervene. Is the United States credible? The
short answer is "yes." Chinese government analysts understand that
domestic politics contributes to the likelihood of U.S. intervention,
and domestic political opposition toward China and political support
for Taiwan in the United States have not been higher since the late
1960s. Moreover, the post-Cold War increases in U.S. arms sales to
Taiwan have strengthened the U.S. commitment to defend the island.
Chinese leaders also acknowledge that the March 1996 deployment of
two U.S. aircraft carriers near Taiwan strongly coupled the U.S.
commitment to Taiwan with its commitment to its allies in East Asia.
Since then, Chinese leaders have assumed that a war with Taiwan means
a war with the United States.

PLA assessments of U.S. military capabilities also contribute to the
credibility of U.S. deterrence. Some blustering Chinese PLA authors
take heart in the reputed U.S. inability to suffer casualties and
argue that China can risk the use of force against Taiwan because it
can abort U.S. intervention by sinking a destroyer, for example. Such
bluster sells many books in China, but it does not reflect mainstream
PLA analysis. Chinese military leaders have criticized these
ultra-nationalistic authors and their unrealistic analyses. Faced
with the prospect of war with a superior power, professional PLA
analysts do study asymmetric warfare. But their writings suggest that
the potential value of such strategies is in enhancing China's
ability to cope with war against a superior force once fighting
begins, not in giving China a deterrent capability against the United
States and thus the confidence to risk war with Taiwan.

Moreover, PLA analysts emphasize the critical importance of superior
warfighting capabilities in making deterrence threats credible.
Indeed, they do not discuss asymmetric warfare against an adversary
possessing vastly superior C4I technologies, wartime implementation
of asymmetric strategies, and the risk of eliciting overwhelming
retaliatory strikes and rapid defeat should deterrence fail. In order
to deter, it is necessary to be able to win, not merely to sink a
single ship. In this context, the PLA also understands that the
United States possesses overwhelming "escalation dominance", so that
China lacks the capability to deter U.S. escalation at any level of

At the highest level, too, China's limited strategic nuclear
capability provides little comfort to Chinese planners. U.S.
escalation dominance puts the onus of initiating a nuclear war on
China, which would subject it to devastating U.S. nuclear
retaliation. But Chinese military leaders have little confidence that
China can even launch a nuclear first strike against the United
States. China's military literature dwells on the vulnerability of
the PLA's few long-range missiles, reflecting concern that the long
and overt preparation time prior to launch would elicit a preemptive
U.S. attack. China thus lacks confidence that it can use the threat
of a nuclear attack to deter U.S. intervention. Also, because U.S.
deterrence of China relies on conventional weapons rather than on
nuclear forces, the PLA's strategic analysts argue that it is far
more credible than U.S. Cold War deterrence of the Soviet Union.

There can never be total confidence that deterrence will work. Yet
U.S. deterrence of any actual Chinese use of force against
Taiwan--outside of a Taiwan declaration of independence--is highly
stable. Overwhelming U.S. superiority means that the strategic,
economic and political costs to China of U.S. military intervention
would be astronomical. U.S. conventional superiority and its strong
political commitment to Taiwan mean that the credibility of the U.S.
threat to intervene is very high. In an insecure world, the U.S.
deterrent posture in the Taiwan Strait is an unusually secure one.

Why Taiwan Will Not Declare Independence

While the United States deters China from using force so long as
Taiwan does not declare independence, China deters Taiwan from
declaring independence. Thus, following Lee Teng-hui's 1995 visit to
the United States and the simultaneous increased momentum of Taiwan's
independence movement, the mainland increased the deployment of
M-9/DF-15 surface-to-surface missiles in Fujian province. The M-9
lacks terminal guidance capabilities and, thus, precision targeting,
as well as significant destructive capability. Nonetheless, it can
create havoc in Taiwan's economic and political systems. Mainland
military writings emphasize the deterrent role of random missile
attacks against a shifting selection of targets on Taiwan. And there
is no defense against Chinese missiles, for an effective missile
defense capability is many years off. Moreover, even should such
technology be deployed, Chinese deployment of additional missiles
could saturate and overwhelm it.

China plans a similar deterrent role for its conventional military
forces. The mainland does not need to be able to carry out a
strategically effective air assault or a tight naval blockade against
Taiwan for the threat of such actions to deter Taiwanese political
ambition. Chinese leaders understand that such actions can have a
devastating psychological effect on Taiwan's economy and undermine
the island's relations with its major trading partners. The mere
threat to use them against a declaration of independence, bolstered
by large-scale military exercises and deployment, is therefore a
powerful deterrent, and low-level wartime implementation could coerce
Taiwan to accept early defeat.

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