Can America Prevent a Chinese Invasion of Taiwan?

Can America Prevent a Chinese Invasion of Taiwan?

Destroying Taiwan’s semiconductor industries could do more damage to Taiwan than China by undermining Taiwan’s political and economic survival.

While Samsung is another alternative for China, as McKinney and Harris rightly pointed out, to what extent could the destruction of TSMC even impose so-called “unacceptable economic, political, and strategic costs upon China” when there are alternative sources globally? With the evolving global corporate strategies, the United States currently maintains dominance over semiconductor technology and manufacturing equipment at the upstream segment of the semiconductor supply chain. In this case, would Washington’s decision to impose sanctions and embargo on the critical semiconductor technology and equipment be more effective and seamless as non-military deterrents for China?

There is also the problem of communication. On deterrence, Thomas Schelling noted that: “…to persuade enemies or allies … it requires projecting intentions. It requires having those intentions, even deliberately acquiring them, and communicating [italics added] them persuasively to make other countries behave.” Hence, to what extent should Taiwan move on to demonstrate credibility to China on how this “Broken Nest” strategy could be achieved? It would also make Taiwan ponder how far it should go by using cruise missiles to attack semiconductor foundries, such as the China-owned Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation (SMIC) in Shanghai. Eventually, Taiwan would certainly need to justify why it violated the “Law of Armed Conflicts” by targeting civilian facilities.

Helping Taiwan in its Own Defense

Deterrence is about preventing an “incoming conflict.” The use of (military) defense only becomes necessary when deterrence fails. From this perspective, Russia has tried to deter NATO’s involvement in the current Russia-Ukraine War, but Ukraine was unable to deter Russia and is using its defense to protect itself. By this logic, Taiwan’s use of “Broken Nest” should be prior to the conflict—not during wartime. It should be noted that China is always looking for a Blitzkrieg-style offensive invasion designed to strike a swift and focused blow at Taiwan by using mobile, maneuverable forces, including armored tanks and air support. Once a war occurs, since the train has already left the station, a “Broken Nest” strategy has a questionable effect in stopping China’s already formed mass invasion. Would a “Broken Nest” prescription during wartime be able to stop an invasion already underway?

In addition, there are two types of targeting policy for any deterrence strategy. One is counterforce strategy, which targets an opponent’s military, and the other one is countervalue strategy, which targets an enemy’s cities and civilian facilities. But, according to Dieter Lutz, both of them are about holding the enemy’s assets—not your own assets—hostage. Destroying semiconductor facilities could likely be a countervalue strategy that is internationally controversial and may weaken international support and goodwill for Taiwan. Even if Taiwan decided to pursue such a questionable strategy, destroying TSMC would also undermine Taiwan’s defense capability during wartime as the island’s military certainly needs advanced computer chips to produce its various types of missiles in order to impose more “unacceptable economic, political, and strategic costs” upon China. In this scenario, a “Broken Nest” remedy favors China—not Taiwan.

In addition, Taiwan’s importance also relies on its position in the semiconductor industry; this is very much described as the “Silicon Shield.” Thus, we maintain that a simple placement of a chip embargo on China is a more effective way to achieve the argument advanced by McKinney and Harris that China could “be made to fear being denied access to these technologies.” However, destroying Taiwan’s semiconductor industries could do more damage to Taiwan than China by undermining Taiwan’s political and economic survival. Hence, strategically, China would very much appreciate the destruction of TSMC if Taiwan has to bite the hand that feeds itself.

What America Wants

McKinney and Harris seemed to support the U.S. continuation of strategic ambiguity as they argued the American increase of military presence in the region will reduce the possibility of finding “a diplomatic solution to the dispute.” Empirically, however, while there was no U.S. “all-out arms race” with Beijing during the late twentieth century, according to them, there was still no “diplomatic solution to the dispute.” Therefore, we all should be careful in drawing a quick conclusion about the causation claim.

In fact, one of the problems is that the past U.S. strategic ambiguity failed to constrain China due to the equivocality of “communication.” Washington’s vague words of deterring Taiwan’s independence could be interpreted as encouraging China’s unification agenda, and ambiguous deterrence toward China’s unification could also be likely seen as encouraging Taiwan’s independence. Before the Korean War, for example, Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s ambiguity contributed to the misperception by North Korea of the U.S. abandonment of South Korea. Likewise, when the United States continues to take an ambiguous posture regarding the Indo-Pacific region while China is expanding its influence, it could be perceived by its allies and China that “the United States would not fight,” according to McKinney and Harris.

The other problem of strategic ambiguity is based on the single assumption that Taiwan is the sole major cause of the Sino-American conflict. If scholars and strategists could agree that the CPC’s legitimacy in China comes from its self-imposed nationalist narrative, the Chinese dogma will naturally lead the country to engage with territorial issues not only with Taiwan but also in the East China Sea, South China Sea, and Sino-Indian border. This will mean that the United States needs to design a comprehensive strategy toward China—instead of just being based on the single assumption of the Taiwan question. American security policy needs to be aligned with the latest dynamics of regional development. Hence, the future adjustment of strategic ambiguity—be it “strategic clarity” or not—is not in Taipei’s favor; it should be Washington’s response to the changing dynamics in the regional security infrastructure.

The rationale for the CPC to use force to resolve the Taiwan issue by military means is more than a reaction to American support in the region. Since the 1990s the cross-Strait exchange has achieved limited results for China and allowed Taiwan to maintain the political status quo in the Taiwan Strait—not the eventual unification by China. Therefore, for Beijing to complete China’s rejuvenation of the “great nation, [from the CPC’s] rational perspective, military means seems to become the only solution left.” From that perspective, a scenario of invading Taiwan as one of China’s biggest “importing” nations would cause a huge disruption to China’s economic development. Thus, China’s future invasion of Taiwan would indicate that its political interest supersedes the economic logic as proposed by McKinney and Harris. They assumed that deterrence is about increasing the “cost” for your adversary to take specific actions. In that case, the only action that both the United States and Taiwan should do to increase the cost to deter an incoming war with China is to respond with their better-equipped military capability. Hence, the U.S. reduction of military support is reducing military costs for China, and Taiwan’s destruction of TSMC would have no significant contribution to economic costs for China; however, it will substantially reduce Taiwan’s military due to the lack of required computer chips. What is more alarming is that if the economic argument of the importance of TSMC works upon China, destroying Taiwan’s TSMC would certainly affect the economic survival of the United States.

Preventing War and Triphibious Invasion

McKinney and Harris believe that deterrence by denial will fail, but deterrence by punishment will succeed. It seems that at a certain point in time, any of the U.S. deterrence strategies in stopping the occurrence of a war over the Taiwan Strait may very likely be destined to fail. This assessment is predicated on not only China promoting a nationalist dogma, but also the structural development in China’s growing ambitions and modernization of its military strength. It is not about whether China would want to use its force against Taiwan, but when China—under CPC rule—will feel that the conditions are conducive to doing so. However, it would be a misconception to quickly equate U.S. “strategic clarity” to a great power war as McKinney and Harris maintained.

As exemplified by the Russia-Ukraine war, while the United States and NATO are undecided to confront Russia directly, there are indirect ways that the international community could provide continuous support to Ukraine without creating an escalated conflict. The objective of traditional deterrence is to prevent a war—not to win a war. Nevertheless, deterrence across the Taiwan Strait may be less about stopping the CPC’s ambitions, but more about prolonging the war and deterring the People’s Liberation Army’s triphibious invasion.

In that situation, China now has two aircraft carriers and five new theater commands. Since its 2016 military reforms, it could be expected that an invasion of Taiwan would certainly be a conflict involving military assets beyond the Taiwan Strait, but including assets from the Bohai Sea, Yellow Sea, East China Sea, and the South China Sea. Henceforth, a robust Taiwanese defense (i.e., a “porcupine strategy”) would be better to complement, but not to replace Taiwan’s offensive fighting capability. A strategy of sustaining Taiwan’s fighting capability and enlarging the conflict area—with U.S. support—would allow Taiwan to create more political leverage and cost against China while the economic activities in southeast China would likely be depressed due to concerns about the ongoing war. It would place immediate economic and political pressure on China’s invasion. This improved design follows McKinney and Harris’ strategy in principle, but uses different tactics in a new security context over the Taiwan Strait.