The past year has seen a significant escalation in tension between Washington and Beijing over Taiwan, with many strategists warning that China seems poised to invade the island. In order to preserve U.S. interests, they argue, Washington must rely primarily, if not entirely, on military deterrence.
But this strategy would almost certainly backfire. Rather than preventing a war with China over Taiwan, a policy centered on military deterrence could spark one.
Those who advocate an approach based almost exclusively on deterrence believe China aspires to replace the United States as the dominant regional power in Asia through largely military means. Seizing Taiwan by force or intimidation, they say, is a necessary first step toward subjugating other Asian nations, including U.S. allies like Japan. They believe that once it has gained broader military access to the Pacific by controlling Taiwan and dominating other nearby powers, China could then go on to threaten Hawaii and the continental United States.
According to this analysis, the only option for the United States is to double down on its military presence in the region, push its allies to greatly increase their defense spending and support for the U.S. stance, and move closer to Taiwan both politically and militarily, making it a de facto security ally in Asia. The clear implication is that Taiwan, as a critical strategic location, must never be unified with China.
But this approach to the Taiwan situation is based on a very dubious analysis of both Taiwan’s purported strategic value and China’s regional intentions.
In fact, despite the views of some American and Chinese defense analysts today, historically, neither Washington nor Beijing have ever regarded Taiwan as a key strategic linchpin in the region. For China, reunification with Taiwan is above all else an issue of territorial integrity and national pride; as such, it is critical to the legitimacy of the Communist Party regime in the eyes of its people. For the United States, Taiwan is linked to Washington’s credibility as a loyal supporter of a democratic friend and an ally to others such as Japan and South Korea.
From a purely military perspective, it is highly problematic to assert that control over Taiwan would give Beijing decisive leverage over Japan, South Korea, or other Asian countries, much less the United States. And there is no clear evidence to show that China believes its security depends on militarily defeating or intimidating its Asian neighbors.
Moreover, while some Asian countries are certainly hedging against China’s growing military power and the danger of a Sino-American conflict by increasing their defense spending, the region as a whole is more worried about economic issues such as recovering from the pandemic, overcoming recession, and promoting sustainable growth through continued close economic ties with both the United States and China.
For the United States, a deterrence policy predicated on keeping Taiwan separate from China for strategic reasons is totally incompatible with its one China policy, whereby Washington opposes any unilateral move toward Taiwan independence, maintains strategic ambiguity regarding its defense of Taiwan, and remains open to the possibility of peaceful, uncoerced unification. This position remains the core of the understanding reached in 1972, which formed the basis of the normalization of Sino-American relations, in which the U.S. acknowledged the Chinese position that Taiwan is part of China while Beijing stressed that peaceful unification would be a top priority of its cross-strait policy.
If the United States were to abrogate that critical understanding by, for example, extending diplomatic recognition to Taiwan, or making the island into a full–fledged security ally (as the deterrence-only approach advocates), China would without doubt respond by dropping its part of the understanding and proceed to reverse any such U.S. actions by all means necessary, including military force. The PRC government’s legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens would simply not survive if Beijing failed to respond to such a basic challenge to its nationalist credentials.
Equally significant, China’s leaders would almost certainly resort to force even if the U.S. enjoyed superior military deterrence capabilities, a point that is apparently not fully grasped by proponents of the deterrence-only approach. Given the incredibly high political stakes involved, even a failed effort to forcibly prevent the loss of Taiwan would be viewed in Beijing as favorable to doing nothing. The latter would almost certainly result in a severe domestic crisis, putting at risk not only the personal positions of China’s leaders but the stability of the entire PRC regime. The former, however, would leave open the possibility of future rounds of conflict over the island, since any U.S. “victory” in a conventional Taiwan conflict would by necessity remain limited due to the danger of nuclear escalation.
The Biden administration seems to be inviting such desperate Chinese calculations with its erosion of the one China policy and its growing reliance on aspects of the deterrence-only approach to Taiwan.
President Joe Biden has said repeatedly that the United States will intervene militarily if China attacks Taiwan, thereby treating the island as a sovereign security ally. He has also asserted that Taiwan alone must decide whether it should be independent, which denies the long-standing U.S. stance of opposition to any unilateral move toward Taiwan independence.
The government has also designated Taiwan as a non-NATO U.S. ally, giving it a status similar to sovereign nations with which it has formal security ties. It has sent senior U.S. officials to Taiwan under quasi-official conditions and sought to pressure countries against shifting their diplomatic representation from Taiwan to China, despite Washington having taken exactly the same action in 1979. And one senior U.S. defense official recently indicated in congressional testimony that Taiwan is indeed a critical U.S. strategic node central to its entire defense position in the Western Pacific, implying that the United States would be opposed to Taiwan uniting with China under any circumstances.
China’s leaders have concluded from these and other actions that U.S. statements in support of the one China policy are no longer entirely credible. Beijing has responded by increasing military pressure on Taiwan, while acquiring capabilities to deter U.S. military intervention. The United States has in turn interpreted China’s military exercises in the Taiwan Strait as evidence of Beijing’s bad faith intentions and possible rejection of peaceful unification. The two countries are thus increasingly locked in an escalating, interactive process, while each denies responsibility and accuses the other.
This confrontational action-reaction cycle greatly raises the risk of a miscalculation that could spark a military conflict.
If the United States and China are sincere in their desire to avoid going to war over Taiwan, they must take meaningful actions to end the existing vicious cycle. They can start by rejecting the military-centered, worst-case assessments of their hawkish strategists and defuse the Taiwan issue as an escalating object of Sino-American strategic competition. This can only be done by Washington reviving the credibility of the one China policy through actions, not just words, in return for credible Chinese actions that convey Beijing’s clear, continued preference for peaceful unification.
Washington should place clear limits on Taiwan-U.S. interactions to emphasize that they are unofficial and do not involve contacts between senior officials. The administration should also reject in unambiguous terms any strategic rationale for keeping Taiwan separate from China and reassert its acceptance of any peaceful, uncoerced resolution of the Taiwan issue. It should also clarify that it expects Taipei to do far more to defend itself and will actively oppose any efforts to establish unilaterally its de jure status as a sovereign, independent state.
Beijing should affirm unambiguously that it has no timeline for unification, while reducing its military exercises and presence near Taiwan. Washington and Beijing should then agree upon reciprocal reductions in military plans and activities relevant to Taiwan, such as nearby surveillance and reconnaissance operations, the development of a large-scale Chinese amphibious capability, and the U.S. sale of offensive weapons such as ballistic missiles to Taiwan.
None of this can occur in the context of continually escalating Sino-American rivalry centered in intense competition and ever greater levels of deterrence. Washington and Beijing have the means of neutralizing Taiwan as a source of strategic competition and establishing a durable floor under their relationship, based on resolving problems and building incentives for real cooperation, not endless push-back. Let us hope they also have the will.
They will need it, if they are to stop their destructive interaction over Taiwan and avoid a war.