US Army War College

Dr. Jared M. McKinney and Dr. Peter Harris – “Broken Nest: Deterring China from Invading Taiwan”

Released 16 December, 2021.

Deterring a Chinese invasion of Taiwan without recklessly threatening a great-power war is both possible and necessary through a tailored deterrence package that goes beyond either fighting over Taiwan or abandoning it. This article joins cutting-edge understandings of deterrence with empirical evidence of Chinese strategic thinking and culture to build such a strategy.  Click here to read the article.

Episode Transcript:

Stephanie Crider (Host)
Welcome to Decisive Point, a US Army War College Press production featuring distinguished authors and contributors who get to the heart of the matter in national security affairs.

Decisive Point welcomes Dr. Jared M. McKinney, co-author of “Broken Nest: Deterring China from Invading Taiwan,” written with Dr. Peter Harris and featured in Parameters’ 2021 – 22 Winter issue.

Dr. McKinney is the chair of the Department of Strategy and Security Studies at the eSchool of Graduate Professional Military Education, Air University, and reviews editor of the Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs.

Dr. Peter Harris is associate professor of political science at Colorado State University and Indo-Pacific Perspectives editor of the Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs.

Jared, I’m so glad you’re here. Thanks for joining me today. Let’s talk about your article, “The Broken Nest.”  Would the People’s Republic of China invade Taiwan even if it meant risking war with the United States and its allies? Your article says there’s no doubt that the United States has a strong interest in deterring a Chinese takeover of Taiwan but relying on the latent threat of a great power war is the wrong approach.

Please elaborate on this.

Dr. Jared M. McKinney
Yeah, it would be my pleasure to walk you through the argument. Just as I get going, I’ll note that my opinions, conclusions, and recommendations are solely my own and that of Peter Harris, my coauthor, and we don’t represent the views of the Air Force or the Department of Defense.

The Taiwan issue is really hot right now not just because of provocations or perceived provocation, but also because the strategic environment has changed.

The historical position of the United States has been that the Navy could deter a Chinese invasion by denying it the possibility to succeed.

This is how the 7th Fleet responded in the 1950s to various Taiwan Straits crises. And as recently as 1996, the US Navy again was deployed to the region around Taiwan in an act of deterrence against perceived Chinese aggression at the time.

In 2021, the question really is, is this possible anymore? And pretty much everyone agrees that the status quo is inadequate.

One camp says that we need to double down on deterrence by denial, and we need to do more much more quickly.

This is in a response to the recognition that China’s capabilities have developed very quickly. The PRC of this decade is radically more powerful than (the) PRC of previous eras.

And so, in this environment a posture of deterrence by denial seems much less credible because it’s quite possible that the United States would not have the ability to effectively deny a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. The question therefore becomes, does this create an opportunity for a Chinese invasion, and what would the United States do?

In our article, we argue that simply doubling down on deterrence by denial is foolish and not sufficient in the long run. Because even if deterrence by denial could be reinvigorated for this year or next year, it’s not going to be possible to do so in the long run due to imbalances in valuing Taiwan, and in geography. The United States is located on the other side of the world.

In this environment. There is an increase in risk because if the United States policy is to deter such an invasion, but it no longer has the capability to do so, there’s the potential for a real crisis.

We develop an argument that deterrence is still possible, but we need to rethink how we go about it. Because deterrence by denial has succeeded for so long. It’s our default approach today.

But we need to start thinking of the situation in new terms, and so we suggest a deterrence by denial [should be deterrence by punishment as corrected by author post-taping] approach. The bottom line is that because of shifts in the balance of power, and because of Taiwan’s trajectory further away from China, mainland China is becoming increasingly aggressive in a way to signal its dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Deterrence by denial [should be deterrence by punishment as corrected by author post-taping] seeks not to stop an invasion from occurring, but to inflict such costs after an invasion has occurred that the costs of invasion outweigh the benefits.

The U.S. has, to some extent, a de facto policy of deterrence by punishment such that automatically US sanctions would probably be inflicted on China in response to an invasion, regardless of any other military decision. However, we can actually think ahead about the economic response, and we can design a strategy that makes the economic costs of an invasion very, very high. And that is what we have called the “Broken Nest” approach.

If Taiwan fell to China, a successful democracy would be snuffed out, and Beijing’s geopolitical position in East Asia would be enhanced at the expense of the United States and its allies. What are the costs and the risks attached to abandoning Taipei to China?

The most basic cost is that 23.5 million people who live in Taiwan would no longer live under a free and democratic government. And that’s a real and significant cost. To some extent, we need to be aware that U.S. policy has at least partially accepted this cost in the sense that from 1954 to 1979 the United States had a mutual defense treaty with Taiwan, including sometimes tens of thousands of soldiers deployed to Taiwan.

We severed this mutual defense treaty in 1979, despite knowing the risks that China would successfully invade Taiwan.

We have lived with the ambiguity of the “one China” policy and taking no stance on the sovereignty of Taiwan since 1979 and the earlier years when the agreements were negotiated.

That being said, there are also geopolitical costs in that China’s position would be marginally improved in terms of power projection.

There’s also image costs in that a successful Chinese invasion would send a great victory to China’s communist regime, and it would certainly come at the expense of American credibility.

So, the costs are real, and for that reason, just a blanket “abandon Taiwan” position is not prudent, and that’s why it has not been US policy.

Are there options to the Taiwan-China issue that don’t involve a great power war?

So this is the problem: deterrence by denial, if it can’t succeed, the tendency would be to escalate it. Because if you can’t succeed in the Taiwan Straits or over Taiwan, then there’s concepts of AirSea battle, which call for strikes on the Chinese mainland and the horizontal escalation of the war.

Very quickly a local war could become a global war, and the costs are essentially incalculable.

So, that’s actually part of the problem, because incalculable costs indicate that America’s current posture may not be credible.

A Chinese proverb asks, “Beneath a broken nest, how can there be any whole eggs?” and we work with this metaphor to suggest that Taiwan, so long as the status quo is maintained, should be an unbroken nest in that it is mutually beneficial in its ties with China and with the United States and the region.

However, were China to invade Taiwan, it’s possible that a strategy could be set up beforehand that would inflict very high costs on a Chinese invasion.

And these costs would be from the United States economically. But from Taiwan, they would have to be worked domestically. At the center of Taiwan’s economy, and actually the region’s economy and the global economy, is the semiconductor industry.

Were Taiwan’s semiconductor manufacturing to be destroyed as a result of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, the costs would be very significant.

Beyond that, were this strategy to be joined to a wider economic sanctions and interdiction campaign against advanced semiconductor trade with China and Taiwanese attacks on Chinese manufacturing capability in Shanghai, it’s possible that a Chinese invasion would trigger a semiconductor and economic crisis in China, which would have no resolution for the short term.

The costs would be very high. There would also be costs the global economy, but the costs would be distributed principally to China.

Now this isn’t in itself likely to deter a Chinese invasion. However, a “broken nest” approach, which could combine serious harm to the semiconductor industry with a well-planned resistance to a Chinese occupation to a significant defensive effort before the invasion succeeded and to a regional coordinated regional response which takes the Taiwan issue as an assessment of China’s relative belligerency could create a package of tailored deterrence by punishment that would make the invasion of Taiwan very costly.

The Chinese Communist Party is not going to abandon its long-term ambitions. However, we can approach the issue not from the possibility of definitive resolution, of which there may be none, but from the possibility of maintaining stability in the short term, by which we think of the short term being approximately the next 10 years.

And so, really, we’ve come up with a plan that we think could create significant incentives to maintain peace between Taiwan and China, probably for the next decade.

So the plan you came up with—you’re talking about the broken nest approach, right? Do you want to walk us through that?

For years Pentagon planners have pushed for Taiwan to adopt what someone in the Naval War College called a “porcupine strategy” more than a decade ago, and the porcupine strategy is to make the cost of invading very high. It acknowledges that invasion probably won’t be prevented, but by investing in anti-access area denial capabilities, Taiwan can inflict significant costs already at the step of invasion.

That’s the status quo. We say accept the status quo. Double down on it. And as part of that, if Taiwan is serious about defending itself, it also could double down on its defense budget. The Liberal Democratic Party in Japan is talking about doubling Japan’s national defense budget in response to the changing security environment.

I think Taiwan should do the same thing. And it has the capability to do so, given that it’s spending at approximately two percent of GDP is relatively meek compared to the threat with which it is faced.

But beyond spending more and spending it on the right things, a tailored deterrence package would have to be planned ahead of time. There would have to be a resistance operating concept developed and integrated across Taiwan’s society. Taiwan’s people would have to be willing to fight and suffer and die for their freedom.

And Taiwan would have to be willing to develop a device that automatically destroyed the physical capital in the semiconductor foundries. And a mechanism would also be needed to be developed to evacuate as much of Taiwan’s human capital in this sphere as well because physical capital can in fact be rebuilt, though it takes time. But human capital is key to doing so.

So, this approach can only work if it’s absolutely assured that a Chinese invasion 1) is going to be costly, 2) it’s going to spark a resistance, 3) it’s going to result in the destruction of Taiwan’s technological production, and 4) it’s going to have significant regional security consequences.

These costs would not make an invasion impossible, but it come at such a cost that Beijing’s leadership would have a significant incentive to put off the issue as long as possible.

And probably putting off the issue as long as possible is the only realistic strategy for both sides at this point.

I’m afraid that’s all we have time for, Jared. Thanks so much for your time today.

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