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Crisis Deterrence in the Taiwan Strait

Authored by Chaplain (Colonel) Douglas McCready. | November 2003

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For more than 50 years, Taiwan?s unresolved international status has been the cause of repeated crises in East Asia. While the parties involved could be willing to live with the status quo, the domestic political transformation of Taiwan has called the status quo into question. China, Taiwan, the United States, and Japan have national interests in how the conflict is resolved, and these interests will be difficult to reconcile. By conventional measures, China cannot gain Taiwan by force before the end of this decade. Chinese leaders believe that, by using asymmetrical means, they will be able to overcome the military advantage of the United States and Taiwan. While the United States will be able to delay Chinese action against Taiwan, it is unlikely to be successful at long-term deterrence. Deterrence, as used against the Soviet Union during the Cold War, will not be effective with China without significant modification. The cultural divide affects not only deterrence theory, but also how China and the United States understand and communicate with each other. Crisis deterrence in the Taiwan Strait is unlikely to succeed due to conflicting national interests and several crucial mutual misperceptions.


The Taiwan Strait has the potential to involve the United States in war with China within the decade. This is not only because the United States has interests in the East Asia-Pacific region that are contrary to those of China, but also because the current status of Taiwan focuses key American and Chinese interests in a way that demonstrates their incompatibility. The tension has existed for 50 years without war, but the past is no guarantee of the future. The leaders of the PRC appear to take the possibility of war more seriously than do American leaders and are preparing for that eventuality. There is the distinct possibility that the United States and Taiwan are preparing for a different type of military crisis than the PRC may be planning. The more this is true, the less successful will be deterrence efforts.

Part of the complexity the United States faces is its historical attachment to Taiwan, ?a place that Americans ought to like.?139 In a part of the world populated by dictatorships and often failed democracies, Taiwan has progressed in less than 15 years from a reactionary dictatorship to a government where the opposition party won the most recent presidential election. It has a strong economy, vibrant society, and a range of freedoms. Taiwan offers a model for other Asian states, and that makes China uncomfortable.

Most parties would prefer the status quo to continue. This worked well through the late 1980s, but political and economic developments have upset it. As a result, China and Taiwan no longer understand the status quo in precisely the same way. The new dynamic threatens regional stability because China faces the possibility of Taiwan following a separate path. Acquiescing in this would be political suicide for China?s leaders.

Most discussion of the Taiwan situation emphasizes the military elements. These are important, but not the most important. The military emphasis avoids the hard work of developing nonmilitary options acceptable to all the parties involved. This will not be an easy job, but it is essential. Just as strategists attempt to ?think outside the box? to develop better military solutions, so too will policymakers have to think unconventionally about Taiwan to find creative possibilities short of war.

The U.S. military has been planning and wargaming conflict in the Taiwan Strait. The question is whether it has been preparing for the right conflict. When deterrence breaks down, the courses of action the United States has been preparing for will not necessarily be the ones China chooses. China would prefer to gain control of Taiwan in a way that provides the United States no rationale for intervening and every incentive not to. American leaders should consider now how they might respond then, instead of waiting for a fait accompli. It is essential to convince Chinese decisionmakers to remember Pearl Harbor, not ?Blackhawk Down,? when they think about American willingness to fight. At the same time, U.S. and Taiwanese leaders should remember other, no less crucial lessons of Pearl Harbor.

China has many advantages when it comes to conflict in the Taiwan Strait. Geography is obvious, but probably even greater is timing. Unless Taiwan for some reason decides to take the initiative, China can decide when to act, how to act, and even where to act. The ideal time for China would be when the United States is distracted by conflict in some other part of the world (e.g., Israel, the Persian Gulf, the Balkans) and has deployed significant forces to deal with that conflict.

In a war over Taiwan, everyone will lose, but some will lose more than others. The military and economic cost will be high. Diplomatic and political repercussions are unclear, but they will be negative. The consequence of the PRC forcibly gaining control over Taiwan without an American response might be even more serious because of the regional military and political repercussions. China?s stated interests are such that, barring an unexpected and imaginative resolution of the tension in the area, deterrence will almost certainly fail in the long run. The United States will be able to delay Chinese action against Taiwan through much of this decade, but it will not be able to deter China indefinitely. This is because China does not believe American interests and commitment match those of China. The United States needs to clearly define and explain its national interests relating to Taiwan, both to the American public and to China?s leaders.

The best situation for all parties would be an indefinite continuation of the status quo and of the American policy of strategic ambiguity. The former is unlikely, but the latter is possible. It will require close coordination between the American executive and legislative branches, careful consideration of the military and political consequences of developing and deploying a missile defense system to the region, continued visible American military presence in the region, and encouragement to the PRC and Taiwan to explore unconventional options for settling the future status of Taiwan. One such option would be to build on China?s self-image as a moral exemplar state.

For the United States, gaining a better understanding of how China views itself and its place in the world is a necessary starting point. U.S. policymakers also need to consider how their words and actions appear to Chinese and Taiwanese leaders. What the Americans intend from their historical and cultural perspective is not necessarily what the Chinese see from theirs. At the same time, Americans should educate the Chinese on the extent of American interests in the region and the Taiwanese on the limits of those interests. No less important is recognizing the many Chinese misperceptions about the United States and seeking to correct them. Planners will need to take these misperceptions into account because they can increase political friction and lead to military conflict. The most serious misperception is that the United States is actively seeking to weaken China and subvert its government, and that every U.S. action in the region is directed toward this end.140

Assuming no Taiwanese misstep, the crucial variable regarding conflict in the Taiwan Strait is the perception of Chinese leaders. Therefore, recognizing Chinese interests concerning Taiwan, U.S. leaders must make clear U.S. interests in the area and American willingness to go to war to defend them?without compromising the strategic ambiguity that has been central to U.S. policy in the region since 1950. This should be balanced by encouraging China to see the advantages, especially economic, that derive from the status quo. The greatest dangers are for Chinese political and military leaders to come to believe they have more control over the situation than they actually do, or for them to become convinced that they have run out of options. There will be some situations in which China believes the time is right for action and it has the advantage, but can be convinced otherwise. Under other conditions, however, the cost becomes irrelevant and nothing will deter China from taking military action against Taiwan.


139 Richard Bernstein and Ross H. Munro, The Coming Conflict with China, New York: Vintage, 1998, p. 149.

140 Michael Pillsbury, ?Dangerous Chinese Misperceptions: The Implications for DOD,? Washington, DC: Department of Defense Office of Net Assessment, 1998, pp. 2, 4.