By Lonnie Henley
(FPRI) — Discussions of how to prevent a war over Taiwan tend to center on strengthening deterrence and convincing Beijing that it cannot conquer Taiwan at an acceptable cost. The underlying concern seems to be that China’s growing military and economic power will make an attack on Taiwan both feasible and attractive, that deterrence is waning, and therefore, may fail.
I disagree. Deterrence remains strong, but deterrence alone is not sufficient to prevent conflict in the Taiwan Strait. If Chinese leaders come to believe that war is the only possible route to unification, they will attack despite military uncertainty and political and economic costs. A successful US strategy to avoid that outcome must pair deterrence with dissuasion, fostering Beijing’s belief that non-military paths to unification remain viable.
There is a large and well-developed literature on deterrence theory, but the fundamentals have not changed since the late 1950s. One deters an adversary from a course of action by convincing him that the action cannot succeed (deterrence by denial) or that the costs far outweigh any possible benefits (deterrence by punishment).
There is less discussion of how to persuade an adversary that action is not necessary in the first place. The 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review introduced the concept of dissuasion, defined as convincing a potential opponent not to build military capabilities that might challenge US interests in the future. That kind of long-term force development is not our focus here. Rather, “dissuasion” in this context centers on encouraging Beijing to continue believing that war is not necessary because other less costly options are available.
Deterrence Is Working
Many commentators advocate measures to convince China that a military attack on Taiwan cannot succeed, strengthening deterrence by denial. Recommendations include stronger and more explicit expressions of US resolve to defend Taiwan; increased military preparedness, with emphasis on defeating a Chinese amphibious landing; and helping Taiwan improve its own defenses and societal resilience. Some have even recommended stationing tactical nuclear weapons in Taiwan to ensure that any conflict would quickly escalate.
Other prescriptions center on deterrence by punishment, raising the anticipated cost of a military conflict in the mind of Chinese decision-makers. Discussion of “cost-imposition strategies” peaked in the second Obama Administration, then evolved in recent years to broader “all-of-government” strategies against China.
These discussions have two unstated assumptions: that our ability to deter attack on Taiwan is waning as China’s military and economic power grows, but that deterrence is sufficient to avoid conflict if we employ the right combination of denial and punishment. I take issue with both those premises. Deterrence is working in the Taiwan Strait, as it has for seventy years. Clearly, Chinese forces would have seized Taiwan long ago if it were easy and cheap. But it is not, and nothing on the horizon will change that.
Today’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is vastly more capable than even a decade ago, and it will continue improving. But invading Taiwan in the face of US military opposition remains among the most daunting military operations any country has considered. The risk of failure will remain high even with the next generation of PLA hardware, and the one after that. (I have argued elsewhere that China can win despite a failed invasion, but at a very high cost to all involved.)
Even more important, however, is the recognition by Chinese leaders that war over Taiwan would have a devastating impact on all China’s other strategic priorities, whether they win or lose militarily. China’s economy and international status would suffer enormously, both from the conflict itself and from the enduring hostility between the United States and China thereafter. The regime’s 2049 goals for the centennial of the People’s Republic would be delayed for decades or more. The Communist Party’s hold on power would be at severe risk, particularly if it could not spin the military outcome as a strategic victory. Even if deterrence by denial is undermined by ongoing PLA modernization, deterrence by punishment will remain extremely strong for the foreseeable future.
Deterrence Is Not Enough
For most of the past half-century, Chinese leaders have believed that as long as they can prevent breakout moves by “Taiwan independence splittists,” abetted by perfidious US hegemonists, then there is a reasonable prospect that China’s growing power and prestige will eventually bring Taiwan back into the fold without military conflict. “Peaceful reunification” remains the official policy articulated by Xi Jinping and the Chinese government. If they decide that a long-term approach cannot succeed, however, that time is not on China’s side and war is the only way to achieve unification, then there is a high risk that they will attack despite the extreme cost and uncertain prospects for success.
Additional deterrence does not affect this calculus. The likelihood of military success has never been decisive in Communist Chinese decision-making. The question has always been whether the use of force can achieve the regime’s strategic objectives, rather than whether the PLA can achieve specific operational objectives. So deterrence by denial—“your military operation cannot succeed”—gives way to the strategic imperative not to allow Taiwan’s permanent separation.
That leaves deterrence by punishment—“this will cost more than you can possibly gain.” The problem here is that the economic and political cost of a Taiwan conflict is already enormous, endangering every one of China’s other strategic objectives. Nothing we can do will materially increase the deterrent value. That meter is pegged; it is at eleven.
This is not to say that deterrence is of no use. Deterrence is enormously important, having prevented a war over Taiwan for over seventy years and being likely to continue doing so for decades to come. We must continue building the capacity to defeat a Chinese invasion, and also build new and different capabilities to deny them victory through a prolonged blockade. The United States should continue actions and policies that make a conflict as expensive for China as possible, never allowing any prospect that a war would be affordable in the short term or long term. That will maintain deterrence at its present, highly effective level.
Deterrence with Dissuasion
But deterrence is not enough. We must also reinforce the perception that war is not necessary, that non-violent approaches remain viable. Here lies the danger.
Actions designed to increase deterrence risk undermining Beijing’s belief that peaceful unification is possible. In particular, actions designed to convey US resolve can instead reinforce suspicions that the true policy is to permanently separate Taiwan from China. We say we want to prevent unilateral forceful change to the status quo, but China hears is “we are never, ever, ever getting back together.”
The truly difficult challenge for US policy, then, is to maintain the effective deterrent, reinforcing Taiwan and building a US force that can win both the short war and the long war, while fostering Beijing’s continued belief in peaceful reunification. Complex and expensive as it is, deterrence is the easy part of this problem.
We need to adopt a consciously duplicitous strategy, combining serious preparations for conflict with reassurances to Beijing that time is on their side, that we would accept and even welcome peaceful unification, and that we are working with them to maintain that as a realistic possibility.
This will be a hard sell with Beijing, given how deeply they distrust our motives. It may be even more difficult to sustain in US politics, where all sides compete to be more vehemently anti-China. But with deterrence already at an effective maximum, dissuasion is the only tool available that can reduce the risk of war.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.
This article was security reviewed and cleared for release by the DIA Prepublication Review Office, case number 23-376N. The views, statements of fact, and conclusions expressed in this article are strictly the author’s and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Department of Defense, or U.S. Government. Review of the material does not imply DoD or U.S. Government endorsement of factual accuracy or opinion.
- About the author: Lonnie Henley is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a retired U.S. intelligence professional who held several senior positions including Defense Intelligence Officer for East Asia, Senior Defense Intelligence Analyst for China, and National Intelligence Collection Officer for East Asia.
- Source: This article was published by FPRI