During his maiden Asian visit to Japan and South Korea, President Joe Biden reiterated in Tokyo on May 23 that the United States would intervene militarily if China attempted to invade Taiwan by force. His repeated warning appeared to depart from the long-lasting “policy of ambiguity” employed by Washington. In Japan, the U.S. president added that the United States had made a commitment to “support the One China policy” in the past, but Beijing does not have the “jurisdiction to go in and use force to take over Taiwan.” He then compared the Russian invasion of Ukraine to a potential invasion of Taiwan by China and warned “it will dislocate the entire region” and emphasized that China—like Russia—would pay a long-term price for its actions. In essence, Biden’s message is crystal clear: the United States would engage in stronger military action to defend Taiwan against China than it has in Ukraine in its fight against Russia.
The emergence of Biden’s policy of “strategic clarity” from the policy of strategic ambiguity is embedded in a deterrence strategy, which has apparently taken a view of Elbridge Colby’s book, The Strategy of Denial: American Defense of an Age of Great Power Conflict. The former defense official in the Trump administration argued that the United States must defend Taiwan—together with its allies like Japan and South Korea—and Washington could win and prevent a war. In her critique of the book in Foreign Affairs, Jessica Matthews concluded that Colby’s assumptions and “other wobbly conjectures fatally undermine the argument.”
An even more popular article, “Broken Nest: Deterring China from Invading Taiwan” published by the U.S. Army War College’s Parameters, Jared McKinney and Peter Harris proposed a Taiwan deterrence strategy to render the island so “unwantable” so that it would make no logical sense for Beijing to seize the “breakaway province” by force. Among their four key recommendations, McKinney and Harris have especially argued for the United States and Taiwan to deter China’s invasion “by threatening to destroy facilities belonging to the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company [TSMC]—the critically important global chipmaker and China’s most important supplier. When TSMC is destroyed, “China’s high-tech industries would be immobilized at precisely the same time the nation was embroiled in a massive war effort, the authors argued. The article furthermore noted that “even when the formal war ended, the economic costs would persist for years,” suggesting the situation could hurt the legitimacy of the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC).
In their narratives and analyses of a potential Chinese invasion, these scholars and military strategists made their own assumptions, which are hardly applicable to the changing dynamics of the geopolitical and geo-economic calculus of the stakeholders. The important lesson from the Russian invasion of Ukraine is that the repeated threats of economic sanctions, embargoes, economic blockades, and the U.S. indirect military engagements did not deter Vladimir Putin from prosecuting a war. The significant costs to the nations imposing the financial and other restrictions and unpredictable global market aside, the challenges of enforcing these measures offer a warning for Taiwan, the United States, and their Asian allies as threats from China become increasingly imminent.
The Cost of Deterrence by Denial
The argument propounded by McKinney and Harris started with a discussion of the growing military power of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Asia and the challenges of American ability to implement deterrence by denial via military force in a Taiwan contingency. These authors primarily argued that China’s advancement would reduce the cost of military action against Taiwan, while the cost of restraint would increase due to the recent domestic politics in Taiwan. In such a situation, the U.S. military no longer has clear supremacy in the region; a future Taiwan scenario would either be a fait accompli for China or an escalation of a Sino-American great power war.
As the high risks and costs involved in the deterrence by denial, McKinney and Harris offered recommendations from two perspectives. On the one side, both Taiwan and the United States should increase the cost of China’s military action by shifting to an alternative strategy of the “deterrence by punishment” strategy. This objective could be achieved by convincing China that the invasion of Taiwan would be inimical to its national interests and domestic development strategy. On the other side, the authors seem to suggest the U.S. reassurance of continuing its “strategic ambiguity” to reduce the cost of restraint by assuring China that “forgo[ing] an invasion of Taiwan would not be tantamount to losing Taiwan,” while convincing Taiwan and China that the United States is committed to maintaining peace across the Taiwan Strait. The authors maintained a position that a strategy of deterrence-by-punishment is more feasible by concluding “if war, a Broken Nest; if peace, a tolerable status quo.” Although their arguments presented a provocative intellectual stimulation, our analysis of the issue diverges from their conclusions.
Since 1949, the combination of the U.S. strategic ambiguity along with the American military supremacy did not deter a then militarily and economically inferior China’s continuous effort in eroding the status quo over the Taiwan Strait or cause it to give up its ambition of invading Taiwan. For some reason, however, McKinney and Harris continued to argue the United States’ sustainment of strategic ambiguity along with the new formula of a strategy of deterrence by punishment would help better to deter China, which is both politically, economically, and militarily stronger than ever before. They summarized their “Broken Nest” strategy to include four elements: first, a robust Taiwanese defense; second, Taiwan’s preplanned resistance campaign; third, the self-destruction of TSMC; and fourth, a regional response from the U.S. allies in its subsequent engagement.
McKinney and Harris spent a significant portion of their analysis on the third controversial independent variable related to destroying TSMC. But would this prescription of dismantling TSMC actually deter China from its aggression against Taiwan? Would this recommendation help Taiwan in its own defense? Is this remedy in the interest of the United States?
Dismantling TSMC to Deter China
Unlike the claim made by McKinney and Harris, we argue that making Taiwan unattractive to China is extremely challenging. In fact, these two authors agreed with the past assessment of Andrew Scobell who maintained that for the Taiwan issue to be resolved once and for all, “the outcome must be satisfactory to Beijing.” In Scobell’s words, it will be a scenario in “which there is [military] conflict with resolution of the Taiwan issue.” This statement seems to suggest that China is undeterrable in its own ambition over Taiwan. Yet, interestingly, both authors believed that China could be deterred as long as there was enough penalty imposed. Regarding this disputed point, the authors’ defense is that for America to base its policy upon “the belief that China’s leaders are irrational … would be catastrophic.”
However, constructivism theory in international relations has already identified that abstract factors like strategic culture, religion, ideology, and education could influence one’s rationality. Before World War II, for example, the European powers rationally believed that appeasement could maintain peace for Europe. Still, Adolf Hitler was determined to initiate a conflict right from the beginning of the negotiations for the Munich Agreement. Likewise, before 2022, very few military strategists predicted that Putin would start an invasion of Ukraine regardless of the economic and social costs predicted. As such, it could be entirely rational for China to invade Taiwan due to the need to maintain its political legitimacy. During the first (1954-55) and second (1958) Taiwan Strait crises, Taiwan had no TSMC and tech industry, but somehow China made the costly attempts to invade. Hitler’s threat to Sweden during WWII was for the military need for iron ore mines, but China’s ambition for Taiwan is not only economical but also ideological and historical.
For example, the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) intervened in Hong Kong’s internal affairs not because of economic interests or response to external military threats, but simply because of a rational decision following its “revenge of the past” and nationalist ideology. Not to mention that the National Constitution of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) clearly states that “Taiwan is part of the sacred territory of the People’s Republic of China. It is the inviolable duty ... to accomplish the great task of reunifying the motherland.” Other than the potential technological boon Taiwan’s tech sector presents to China, as McKinney and Harris suggested, we maintain that Taiwan is attractive practically, politically, and legally in the eyes of the CPC leadership in Beijing.
While McKinney and Harris’ rationale could still be contested about Chinese rationality, there would also be practical difficulties in implementing such a “Broken Nest” strategy. In his book, Deterrence Now, Patrick Morgan explained that a successful deterrence relies on communicating a “credible threat” capability to your adversary. Even a “Broken Nest” prescription could be possible as McKinney and Harris stated that “while [hopefully, it might be] successful in the short term,” there is still a credibility challenge for this strategy. The question is, would Beijing remain passive in facing such a strategy, and for how long? In fact, China has vowed to boost its semiconductor industry in its Fourteenth Five-Year Plan and launched the Made in China 2025 initiative to enhance its self-sufficiency capability. On top of these developments, there are already TSMC facilities in China. Does this mean that Taiwan would need to destroy these civilian facilities via military means?