Deterring China's Designs on Taiwan

February 27, 2023 Topic: Taiwan Region: East Asia Tags: United StatesU.S. NavyTaiwanChinaPRCWargames

Deterring China's Designs on Taiwan

No one wants a Sino-American war over Taiwan, but the best way to persuade Beijing not to start one is to convince it that an attack will be too costly.

Deterrence is the art of convincing the other side that starting a war would not be worth the cost. The United States wants to deter China from invading Taiwan, but it would desire to do so without starting a new Cold War. However, amazingly little thought seems to have been given to that problem by American military or civilian strategic thinkers. The generals and admirals seem more concerned with hyping the military threat from Beijing to increase their share of the budget, and many civilians seem intent on not appearing too belligerent. We need to ask ourselves if we want a Cold War approach to China or if we want to nudge Beijing into a less confrontational position regarding Taiwan and the West more broadly.

Some in the West believe that China's Xi Jinping wants to “reunify” Taiwan to cement his legacy as a leader who could do what Mao could not. If that is the case, only Xi knows for sure. If that is not the case, there are two reasons for Beijing to try to take Taiwan by force. 

A second motivation could be the emergence of a major economic or political crisis, which might encourage Xi or a potential successor to go to war to distract from domestic woes. The third would be a Taiwanese declaration of independence, which is a red flag that no mainland leader could ignore. It is American policy to discourage the Taiwanese from this course, as normal deterrence might not work in the heat of the moment. That is dangerous because sovereignty issues are particularly virulent in East Asia.

However, in the first two cases, American deterrence can be a strong disincentive for China to attack Taiwan. The challenge for the United States is to frame that deterrent to show that it doesn’t want war but will fight and win if one starts.

If China does decide to invade Taiwan, it will probably try to place an exclusion zone around it as the British did with the Falklands in 1982. This would limit the war to the immediate area around the island, allowing Beijing to conduct trade as usual elsewhere in the world. If the United States wants to create real deterrence, its leaders must make it clear that such a ploy will not work and that any war would be a major regional conflict with a total blockade of China assured. That would put the Chinese in a position where a conflict would exacerbate rather than alleviate any domestic crisis that might cause the Chinese Communist Party to contemplate a martial adventure.

The means of accomplishing such a blockade would be military, primarily naval, but the effects would be economically disastrous to China, which has an export-driven economy. A year-long blockade would cost China hundreds of billions of dollars in exports to the United States alone. Moreover, a blockade would put over $2 trillion in economic activity in jeopardy. Since most of that trade goes by sea, a blockade would be a catastrophe for China.

The temptation to keep wars limited and manageable is seductive for American political leaders, but the approach seldom works well politically or militarily. It doomed Harry Truman's hopes for a successful presidency during the Korean War. The tacit American bipartisan approach to keeping the war in Vietnam limited allowed the North Vietnamese to gauge American responses carefully. Through an adroit combination of escalation and negotiation, the Communist regime in the north was able to emasculate the overwhelming American military potential to a manageable degree, allowing Hanoi to wait out the will of the American people to continue what appeared to be a hopeless struggle. Hanoi recognized the self-imposed constraints that the Americans were operating under and deftly exploited them.

Similarly, in Afghanistan, the Taliban came to understand that the United States viewed the war against them as a sideshow in its "Global War on Terror". After several years, the Islamic fundamentalists realized that they could wait the Americans out. In addition, war paid. Poppies and help from the Pakistanis, who were opposed to any strong, U.S.-supported government in Kabul, helped the Taliban finance their long-term efforts. Again, limited goals and the lack of a full commitment doomed Washington's war efforts.

The United States has the capability to conduct a blockade with attack submarines and airpower. Such an economic war would certainly hurt the United States, but it would devastate China in the long run. That is the essence of deterrence.

The United States could start building a credible deterrent posture by re-starting the Naval War College Global War Game (GWG) series. There is good evidence that the GWG series got the attention of Soviet planners during the Cold War and convinced them that the United States was serious about its intention and ability to bring the Soviet Union economically and militarily to its knees through aggressive sea and land action. The games did not threaten the Soviet Union directly because they always postulated a Soviet-initiated conflict.

Such a series of games might convince the Chinese that we can make them pay an unacceptably heavy price for attacking Taiwan. They might also help debunk some ill-conceived American concepts regarding war with China, such as the Marine Corps' current Force Design 2030 approach. So far, this notion has only been tested in Marine Corps service-specific war games of dubious quality and rigor, but the Marines have made serious force structure decisions based on them. Such notions warrant a thorough joint and interagency examination.

No one wants a Sino-American war over Taiwan, but the best way to persuade Beijing not to start one is to convince it that an attack will be too costly.

Gary Anderson was the Director of Marine Corps Wargaming and Chief of Staff of the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab. He led the Red Teaming effort that predicted that there would be an insurgency in Iraq in 2003, and became a Special Advisor to the Deputy Secretary of Defense.

Image: Cpl. Djalma Vuong-De Ramos/U.S. Navy Flickr.