Deterrence & Dialogue: How Washington Can Prevent a US-China War Over Taiwan

Written by Bas van Beurden.

Image credit: 190227-N-FC670-928 by U.S. Pacific Fleet/Flickr, license CC BY-NC 2.0

Can the United States and China escape Thucydides Trap? While international relations experts grapple with the question whether the two powers are destined for war, a storm seems to be gathering in the Asia-Pacific, and it seems increasingly clear where lightning might strike. Considering recent developments, the Taiwan Straits seems to be the most likely battleground for Sino-American conflict. The prospect of conflict appears to be looming as Beijing closes in on Hong Kong and ratchets up its rhetoric on a forceful reunification with Taiwan.

China has backed its statements on “the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation” with a substantial increase in military activity surrounding Taiwan. It has conducted an unprecedented amount of more than ten military and transit exercises in close proximity to Taiwan in 2020. Additionally, China’s air force made an incursion into Taiwanese airspace for the first time in 20 years. Since then, it has done so an accumulative number of times. A former top military official of Taiwan commented that Beijing might be looking to provoke a military reaction by Taipei, which could give them a casus belli for an invasion.

Weakness is Provocative

These developments come as Taiwan’s defence and resolve have withered, which has been exacerbated by the Sino-American military balance of power having shifted in favour of China. Taiwan has grown complacent under the security umbrella. It scrapped its mandatory conscription in 2018, and its overall defence strategy of late makes little military sense. Instead of focussing its limited defence budget on creating an effective defence force tailored towards Chinese offensive capabilities, it has concentrated on trying to match China in more traditional and expensive weapon systems; such as tanks, fighter jets, and submarines. At the same time, Washington does not seem to be capable of ensuring Taiwan’s defence. Senior US Defence officials have revealed that the US would no longer win in a war against China; especially not one over the defence of Taiwan.

Such a development is particularly concerning due to the centralisation of Chinese decision-making. China, under Xi Jinping, has noticeably become more assertive and less risk-averse. Xi reportedly seems to be making important decisions himself. An erosion of checks and balances is worrying since it could easier lead to undaunted actions regarding a forceful reunification with Taiwan. This concern is compounded by Beijing possibly being encouraged by an increasingly isolationist US. After all, Russia met relatively little resistance when it invaded Georgia and Ukraine. A Beijing insider informed reporter Evan Osnos that Xi had told people that he was impressed by Putin’s annexation of Crimea. Meanwhile, Xi might also be emboldened by his own endeavours, as a result of the marginal resistance China met in regards to its tightening control over Hong Kong. China’s ambitious and unconstrained leader might figure that today’s strategic conditions are as ripe as will probably ever be for the remainder of his leadership. Thus, he might seize the opportunity to personally restore China’s former glory by forcefully reuniting with Taiwan sooner rather than later.

If You Want Peace, Prepare for War

Washington must prevent a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, as it could become the 21st-century version of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, leading to a conflict of a far more extensive and unintended scale, which should be averted at all costs in today’s age of nuclear proliferation. Current discussions amongst US policymakers seem to be focussed on whether Washington should abandon its “strategic ambiguity” towards the defence of Taiwan. However, opting for strategic clarity is not the answer. Strategic ambiguity has helped preserve stability in the Taiwan Straits for decades, and it can continue to do so. A security guarantee also does not mean much if you cannot back it up. Instead, the focus should be on increasing Taiwanese and US deterrence capacity.

Asymmetric Proliferation

Washington should encourage Taipei to strengthen its defence in accordance with the threat at hand. The US should therefore cease lucrative conventional arms sales to Taiwan that do not meet the island’s actual security needs. For instance, Washington encouraged Taipei’s flawed defence strategy by selling it $11 billion worth of advanced fighter jets and main battle tanks in 2019, which was equivalent to Taiwan’s entire military budget of that year. The US should reverse this trend and stimulate Taipei to adopt an asymmetric defence posture, which aims to deter the main that ensures Beijing’s political objective of a forceful reunification: Chinese soldiers entering Taiwan, and physically seizing control of the island. Taiwan’s defence strategy should have this as its central purpose.

The US can encourage Taipei to embrace a more asymmetric defence posture by having future weapons sales focus on asymmetric and “anti-access” capabilities. These tend to be relatively inexpensive and easily deployed against an amphibious invasion force. Such arms include missile patrol boats, mine-laying ships, small semi-submersibles, and underwater drones for the Taiwanese navy; coastal defence and anti-aircraft missile systems, aerial drones, land mines, anti-armour guided missiles for Taiwan’s land-based defence. Sale of rifles and ammunition would also be welcome since Taiwan is currently facing a shortage. Weapons such as these would do a better job at holding off a Chinese invasion and would likewise prove to be a more effective deterrent.

Operationalizing an Asymmetric Defence Posture

The sale of asymmetric weapon systems is the first step to increase Taiwan’s level of deterrence. The second step is to make Taiwan’s new-founded asymmetric defence capacity operational through necessary defence reforms. The most important reform would be for Taiwan to reinstate its mandatory conscription. To follow up, Washington could encourage Taipei to train its defence and reserve forces in guerrilla tactics. This would help create a territorial defence force, similar to the ones Poland, Estonia, and Lithuania have to deter a Russian invasion. Such reforms would help Taiwan achieve an asymmetric defence posture that is more effective at deterring an invasion by China. These reforms can be encouraged by making them conditional to discounted arms sales or an increased American military presence in the Western Pacific.

Increasing US Deterrence Capacity

The first two steps help boost Taiwan’s deterrence capacity in regard to a Chinese invasion. However, the most critical factor in deterring China from a forceful unification is the prospect of American military intervention. Nevertheless, the US has lost its military edge over China and now stands to lose a war against China if it would come that far. Washington should, therefore, look to regain its advantage in the Sino-American military balance of power. Moreover, what better place to increase its relative capacity than where a US-China war seems to be the most likely: The Western Pacific.

This is where the Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI) comes into play. The PDI is a military fund proposed by the Senate, which aims to restore the US’ competitive edge against China. However, it still awaits approval by Congress. If the PDI gets approved, the Pentagon will do well to invest in areas where China presently has an advantage, namely in countering the PLA’s A2/AD capabilities. Additionally, Washington needs to avoid the crucial mistake it made in regard to the European Defense Initiative (EDI), which was established after Russia’s invasion in Ukraine in 2014. The lesson the US should draw is not to ignore the warning signs, as it did with Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008. China’s regional assertiveness towards the South China Sea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan should, therefore, spur the US to implement the PDI as fast as possible.

Increasing Communication with Beijing

The aforementioned measures carry the risk of provoking escalation, thus potentially leading to a conflict which was eventually sought to be prevented. For this reason, an increase in deterrence capacity must be offset with an increase in communication. On this aspect, policymakers should draw lessons from a historic analogy: the Cuban Missile Crisis. This was a similar situation in which a Great Power war over an island was averted through communication. While tensions had built up to a maximum through military posturing, President Kennedy managed to establish a direct line of communication between the White House and the Kremlin, which had a decisive impact on de-escalation. Washington should learn from this and establish a trilateral format of communication between Beijing, Washington, and Taipei in order to avoid escalation through clear dialogue

Final Thoughts

The prospective Biden administration should not be enticed in continuing the US’ isolationist trend by turning inwards to resolve its health and economic crisis. Nor should it fall into the same trap of the Obama administration, which was characterised by reluctant consequentialism in its foreign policy. Instead, the new American leadership should act swift and resolute in preventing a US-China war over Taiwan through the actions proposed above; especially considering the length of time it takes to implement security reforms. Finally, President-elect Joe Biden should harness his diplomatic competency and play into his already-established relationship with Xi Jinping. Communication is vital in every relationship, and the US-China relationship is no different.

Bas van Beurden is a student enrolled in the Master’s program International Relations & Diplomacy at Leiden University in cooperation with the Clingendael Institute in the Netherlands.

This article is part of a special issue on Taiwan-US relations under Biden presidency.

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