Why a U.S-China War over Taiwan Won't Be Anything Like the Syria Strikes

Why a U.S-China War over Taiwan Won't Be Anything Like the Syria Strikes

And what Washington--and Taipei--can do to ensure China won't win before America can come across the Pacific to save the day. 


Devising forces, doctrine, and tactics to stall a cross-strait blitz should be the constant aim for Taiwan’s defenders. They may yet prevail if they take an active hand in protecting their island.

So much for the differences between Taiwan and Syria. As it ponders strategy for the Far East, the U.S. military might take a page from the Russian playbook in Syria. Moscow’s deterrent threats carried considerable weight during the run-up to the Western strikes, in large measure because U.S., British, and French commanders and officials feared harming Russian soldiers or airmen as a byproduct of the action. They feared triggering a larger war through the collateral damage that is part of all martial undertakings.


As Nassim Nicholas Taleb might put it, Moscow made it known it had skin in the game in the Eastern Mediterranean. President Vladimir Putin and his lieutenants talked big about the dire repercussions of an assault on the Syrian regime, to be sure. But they also stationed Russians on the scene, serving notice that Moscow cared enough about Assad’s survival to put Russian lives in harm’s way. They were committed to the cause—and prepared to share in its dangers and costs as well as its geopolitical benefits.

Or think back to the Cold War. Washington kept a military garrison in West Berlin throughout that twilight struggle. Few deluded themselves that Berlin could ride out an assault, encircled as it was by communist East Germany. The U.S. Army’s Berlin Brigade was a tripwire force, deterring the foe by showing the United States had skin in the game in West Berlin. In other words, Washington used force deployments to convey that it regarded an assault on Berlin as an assault on NATO as a whole—and would reply accordingly.

The city would fall should Soviet or East German forces attack it. But at the same time communist bloc leaders knew they would embroil themselves in a much larger war. Thankfully, that was a war Moscow proved loath to fight.

Geography, political resolve, and the military balance will line up on Beijing’s side during a cross-strait war. Taipei must deploy artful strategy to balk China’s advantages—and Washington must broadcast that it has skin in the game.

Tripwires, anyone?

James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and coauthor of Red Star over the Pacific (second edition forthcoming this October). The views voiced here are his alone.

Image: Reuters