Will deterrence be effective with China and Taiwan as it did with Russia and Ukraine? Do the U.S. need to use more of its military might in order to stop China from invading Taiwan? Should it abandon the policy of strategic uncertainty for one that is strategic clarity?
The most troubling lesson of the Ukraine war was how effective deterrence proved to be. Even with nuclear weapons and the U.S.’s deterrent, it failed to defeat Russia. The Russians calculated that an invasion of Ukraine would be possible at minimal cost. This is at the very least according to apocalyptic calculations. China may make the same calculations and invade Taiwan in the near future. They believe that deterrence in Ukraine worked well enough to stop the United States from intervening kinetically on a limited scale.
On the surface the dynamic looks very similar. A large country is looking to settle an old dispute with a smaller country, clean up its borders and solve long-standing cultural and strategic issues from the Cold War. The two scenarios could not have been more different. Let’s dive deep into the waters at the Taiwan Strait to see what we find.
The question is, going forward, should our model in Taiwan be the strategic clarity of NATO’s Article 5 or the strategic ambiguity of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act?
The principle of collective defence is the heartbeat of NATO. This principle is rooted in World War II when the Nazis won a huge advantage by playing European countries against one another in their early days. They were able to pick off territories while London and Paris debated what they should do.
NATO would be the answer. NATO was to be the solution. Article 5 states that an “armed attack against one [signers] shall constitute an attack against all of them and therefore they agree that each of them…will assist the Party(s) so attacked.” Article 5 is activated if Poland is attacked. Attacks on Ukraine and Taiwan do not.
Article 5’s cousin here is the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), which grew out of Mao’s threat to “liberate” Taiwan and Chiang Kai-shek’s demand for U.S. support to reclaim the Mainland by force. Washington was unable to accept the Korean War’s bloody cost, and he refused to be a part of a war that would have been as devastating as World War II. However, U.S. The Cold War policy was designed to ensure Taipei’s survival.
The United States established diplomatic relations with Taiwan and signed a mutual defense treaty in 1954. That lasted until 1979, when the U.S. switched its diplomatic recognition from the people of Taiwan to the people of the Mainland (China, but note the diplomatic wording) and Congress enacted the Taiwan Relations Act. Two obligations were listed in the TRA for Taiwan. They were to sell Taiwan arms and maintain America’s ability to “resist any resort to force, or other forms coercion against Taiwan.”
The TRA text is clear: “Peace, stability and the security of the Western Pacific region are issues of international concern…Any attempt to decide the future of Taiwan through peaceful means is considered to be a threat to peace and security in that area. It is of great concern to the United States .”
This represents diplomatic brilliance and came to be known colloquially as “strategic ambiguity,” a policy understood by all parties to mean the U.S. doesn’t have to defend Taiwan, but it can, and probably will. Unspoken are the circumstances and defense options. China responded with “strategic patience”, a strategy that China has adopted: China won’t wait forever but China understands that the time between now, and forever is very long.
The most important thing about the TRA is that it works. Taiwan has not been invaded by the Mainland. Despite leadership changes from Mao to Deng and Xi to Xi the Mainland never invaded Taiwan. Taiwan went from a military dictatorship into a democracy and the Mainland never invaded.
Despite fighting each other in direct combat during the Korean and Vietnam Wars and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Mainland still hasn’t invaded. China’s military is now more than a peasant army with guns. It has a navy with nuclear weapons and a fleet of blue water boats. The Mainland has never invaded. China is now an integral part of the global industrialized economy and has moved from agrarian isolation. The invasion of the Mainland by Ukraine was a failure.
It’s also crucial that the U.S. did not allow Taiwan to invade China. The idea seems silly in 2022, but that was indeed Chiang’s plan, with U.S. help, of course. Although we may not think about it, modern Taiwan is kept in check by the policy of strategic uncertainty. No one expects that the ambiguity will extend to Taiwan declaring its independence or launching a military force. Strategic clarity could encourage “troublemakers” on the island. Isn’t it possible for Taiwanese provocateurs to be more reckless if there is a guarantee of war against Taiwan?
The irony of deterrence working in Ukraine is that it worked, at least according to Putin’s perspective. The U.S. was prevented from participating in the shooting war. Putin was preparing to invade Ukraine. Biden dispelled any traces of strategic uncertainty by declaring often and early that NATO would not interfere and that the U.S. wouldn’t unilaterally join the fighting. Putin was given a green light. The other side of this world is Sino-Asia, which rests in peace knowing that everything is on the table should China invade the Mainland. However, nothing would be at risk if it did not. This is another example of how deterrence works.
Post Ukraine, some hawks are seeking clarity. They want a formal Article 5-like declaration for Asia. This would not only include Taiwan, but also Japan Korea, Australia and possibly other countries. There are many types of U.S. self-defense agreements with Asian countries. Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, also known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, is one candidate to create an Asian Article 5. It’s a semi-informal security dialogue that brings together the United States, India and Japan. Recent American submarine sales to Australia confirm the new four-way relationship.
The justifications to make such a move are absurd given the strategy’s success over the past decade. According to defense pundits, Beijing has increased its rhetorical and built more ships than ever before. The West should follow suit. There are those in Congress who want a more formal agreement (Taiwan, like Israel, has a powerful lobby that punches above its weight in Washington). The Council on Foreign Relations wants strategic unambiguity with a show of force, Eagle vs. Dragon.
The risk is that the crisis will be averted. As we continue to blatheer about inevitable, mutual demonization grows, and policy responses shift from war prevention towards war preparation.
Joe Biden will come under pressure to “do something”–the scariest words in Washington–following Ukraine. Biden may hear one voice whispering that enough strategic ambiguity is sufficient. Article 5 ties the hands of its signatories. All options are available to address the complicated realities of the Sino-Pacific. The history has shown which approach works well and which doesn’t. An aggressive approach to Taiwan Strait issues will not solve them. It can only lead to their worsening.
Strategic ambiguity serves two very important American goals. It keeps peace in the region and facilitates a quadrilateral, productive economic relationship between the U.S. and China. These two objectives work together, and not in conflict. All masters are served by peace.
But the true value of strategic uncertainty is revealed when you consider how much more dangerous and concrete forms deterrence are under consideration for Asia.
What looks like deterrence on one side–forward deployment of an aircraft carrier on our behalf, and overflights close to Taiwan on China’s part-–might seem like provocation on the other. There is a risk that military deterrence against Taiwan could lead to misinterpretations and accidents.
More importantly, military deterrence is not necessary, as many assert. The Chinese on both sides of the strait understand well there is much to be gained from economic ties amid political ambiguity and much greater risk in anything like an invasion that would accomplish little besides tidying up the leftover business from the creation of the PRC in 1949.
China maintains four military bases overseas: a logistics operation in Djibouti; a listening station on Great Coco Island (near Myanmar); a naval outpost at Gwadar in Pakistan (in Pakistan); and a military base in Gorno–Badakhshan (Tajikistan).
In contrast, the U.S. maintains 750 bases across the globe, or a few less now that the Afghan adventure is over. That includes formal facilities in eight Asian nations, with some 53,000 troops in Japan and 24,000 in South Korea. The U.S. maintained troops in Taiwan until 1979 and recently began sending Special Forces there again on training missions. The truth is that many of these American bases were constructed before the People’s Republic was founded. They all survived the Soviet invasion.
Take a look at Chinese intruders into Taiwan’s airspace. The Chinese aren’t overflying Taiwan with their aircraft. The aircraft are within Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone. The zone is large enough to extend thousands of miles across the Chinese mainland. A map shows that it’s also quite extensive. PLA aircrafts can be found sitting on their runways in violation.
Taiwan has its zone in Beijing’s Air Defense Zone. This overlaps with Japan’s, Korea’s. American planes conducting exercises of “freedom to navigate” are crisscrossing all zones. They’re also known in Beijing as “incursions.”
At different times in American history, bases had nuclear weapons and still do. Forward-deployed U.S. warships are believed to also contain nuclear weapons; the Ohio and soon Virginia-class submarines off China’s coasts, each with 20 Trident ballistic missiles, almost certainly do. Assume you are from Mars, and tell us who is provoking or deterring.
As diplomats, trust is always good, but understanding the goals and motivations of each side was better. You could either predict what their intentions and make decent guesses about their actions, and then probe them effectively. This is a far better option than hoping that they will do as they promise and not leave you hanging.
What do China and Taiwan really want? There may be someone electronically listening into bedrooms, boardrooms, and tea shops and hearing the answer from the principal players, but absent that, looking at the last 70 some years of history is pretty helpful.
Taiwan (and the U.S.A.) don’t want war. Absent some scrapes back in the 1950s, nobody has invaded or attacked anyone across the Strait. China and the United States only shot each other in that conflict when they approached China’s borders through North Korea, as well as later on when U.S. forces neared China via North Vietnam. These events, as well as others are highlighted at the People’s Army Museum (Beijing) to show how the nation defended its borders. The museum also features an American U-2 spy plane shot down over southern China and exhibits showing the U.S. bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, killing three and destroying the diplomatic sanctuary. Many things have been forgiven in order to prevent war over the years.
It is the same track record for Macau and Hong Kong, where China did not invade or attack over some 200 years of colonial rule even after they had the military means to make it a cakewalk. This is what scientists call a stable state. Is it possible to believe that a sloppy statement by the Taiwan legislature or a five-way dispute rock outcropping on the South China Sea would alter this steady state? Why not now, if not?
My own first brush with a “why now” event was in the 1980s, when I went to Taiwan as an American diplomat. Taiwan was emerging from four decades of dictatorial rule, and took its first hard democratic steps. Many people began to speak out about their independence after decades of suppression of speech. We called it “the D” Duli in Mandarin. The Taiwan Independence Party was one of the emerging parties and was expected to win a handful of seats in the legislature. This was feared by the U.S. mission as it could be used to trigger Beijing. Big China had already made it clear that the declaration of independence was not acceptable.
Beijing quickly reacted by allowing Taiwanese goods to be sold in its stores. A new market was opened after the fall of the dictatorship. Before the new market opened, it was possible to fly between Taipei and China. This is something many on both sides wanted to do in order to see their relatives. But the catch? The flight would have to land in British Hong Kong. In 2008, these flights were made direct, with no need for the Hong Kong stopover. Six China-based airlines, five from Taiwan and five from China operate direct flights today. Progress has been moving in one direction and is not compatible with war.
Following money–and there’s a lot to follow between Taiwan and China–shows clearly that China is being threatened in ways they aren’t threatening Russia. The problem with President Joe Biden’s sanctions against Russia is the way that Russia has become so inextricably linked to the global economy, after years of previous sanctions.
On the other hand, between 1991 and 2020, Taiwan’s investment in China totaled $188.5 billion. In 2019, the value of cross-strait trade was $149.2 billion. Total Chinese investment in the U.S. economy is over $145 billion. The $1 trillion U.S. investment China has reached is unprecedented. Everyone learned that the American economy was dependent upon Chinese manufacturing when Covid closed down global logistics. China holds the U.S.’s second largest amount of foreign debt. China is literally betting on America’s economic engagement.
China, unlike Russia, would be extremely vulnerable to disruptions and sanctions following an attack against Taiwan. It is more risky than any benefit Taiwan owning would provide. Imagine the consequences of U.S. ports being closed to Chinese cargo ships. China will need to figure out a way for unfinished iPhones to be used as food.
President Xi’s rhetoric regarding reunification sounds essentially identical to Mao’s. It is important to be attentive to details when you cite Chinese propaganda.
Xi frequently reiterates reunification’s goal but stresses that the process is historic (as it is both inevitable and evolutionary) as well as peaceful. These reunification proclamations are usually made on important holidays that are not celebrated in the West. One of Xi’s powerful invocations was in a speech marking the 110th anniversary of the Xinhai 1911 Revolution, aimed at the foreign Manchu dynasty. This is an important occasion, as Xinhai is the central point of modern China’s ideology. This idea is instilled into all schoolkids on both sides. It also forms the basis of a common language among diplomats.
In Sun’s spirit, Xi renewed his vow for peaceful reunification of Taiwan. He encouraged the Chinese to stand on the right side history and work together to bring about China’s total reunification. Xi spoke to Taiwanese and his people, and outlined a common vision that is far from the PLA amphibious attack the West fears.
Taiwan will be a “wanderer”, which means that he or she will return home eventually, according to a top Chinese diplomat. Chinese leaders believe in the historical cycle for thousands of years. They waited close to 300 years to crush the Qing dynasty. For the peaceful return to Hong Kong, they waited for Britain hundreds of years. These topics are often brought up by Chinese diplomats in casual conversations about weather and other subjects. Chinese diplomacy does not tend to be quick-sighted or reactive, but is patient. Reunification is not urgent. Sun Tzu says: It is better to wait than win.
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An invasion of Taiwan could leave China economically and politically marginalized. An unsuccessful attack might lead to Taiwanese independence declarations that China is unable to stop.
There is no reason to hostilities, and therefore no need for active military deterrence. Real fear is that neocon-like US elements have decided that a superpower battle is necessary to control the Pacific, or at the very least a new and lucrative arms race.
Unlike Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD), a Chinese invasion on Taiwan is not a justification for war. The war party of the United States will more often use deterrence as a cover to prepare for war. America’s China policy today is dangerous, unpractical and unnecessary.