US Army War College

Dr. Roger Cliff – China and Taiwan (Part 2)

Released 9 March 2022.

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 podcast analyzes the cutting-edge understandings of deterrence with empirical evidence of Chinese strategic thinking and culture to build such a strategy and the counter-arguments from  Part 1 of this series. Click here to read the original article.

Episode Transcript:


Stephanie Crider (Host)

(Prerecorded Conversations on Strategy intro) Decisive Point introduces Conversations on Strategy, a US Army War College Press production featuring distinguished authors and contributors who explore timely issues in national security affairs. The views and opinions expressed on this podcast are those of the podcast’s guest and are not necessarily those of the Department of the Army, the US Army War College, or any other agency of the US government.

The guests in speaking order on this episode are:

(Guest 1 Dr. Roger Cliff)



Conversations on Strategy welcomes Dr. Roger Cliff. Dr. Cliff is a research professor of Indo-Pacific Affairs in the Strategic Studies Institute at the US Army War College. His research focuses on China’s military strategy and capabilities and their implications for US strategy and policy. He’s previously worked for the Center for Naval Analyses, the Atlantic Council, the Project 2049 Institute, the RAND Corporation, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense.


The Parameters 2021-22 Winter Issue included an article titled, “Broken Nest: Deterring China from Invading Taiwan.” Authors Dr. Jared M. McKinney and Dr. Peter Harris laid out an unconventional approach to the China-Taiwan conundrum. Shortly after the article was published, Parameters heard from Eric Chan, who disagreed with them on many fronts.

We’ve invited you here today, Roger, to provide some additional insight on the topic. Let’s jump right in and talk about “Broken Nest: Deterring China from Invading Taiwan. What is the essence of Jared McKinney and Peter Harris’s article “Broken Nest: Deterring China from Invading Taiwan?”



So this article is an attempt to find an innovative solution to the Taiwan problem that has bedeviled the United States since 1950. In this particular case, the author’s goal is not to find a long-term, permanent solution of the problem, but simply to find a way to deter China from using force against Taiwan in the near term. Specifically, a way that doesn’t entail risking a military conflict between two nuclear-armed superpowers. Their proposed solution is a strategy of deterrence by punishment, whereby even a successful conquest of Taiwan would result in unacceptable economic, political, and strategic costs for Beijing.

The premise of the article is that China’s military is now capable enough that it could conquer Taiwan, even if the United States intervened in Taiwan’s defense. The result, they argue, is that the long-standing US deterrence-by-denial strategy for deterring a Chinese use of force against Taiwan—in other words, by threating Beijing with the risk that a use of force against Taiwan would fail—is no longer credible. Unlike most strategies of deterrence by punishment, the strategy that McKinney and Harris proposed does not primarily rely on military attacks on China. Instead, the punishment comes in the form of imposing other costs on China for a successful use of force against Taiwan.

This has several elements. One is the United States selling to Taiwan weapon systems that will be most cost-effective and defending against a Chinese invasion. This would make a successful invasion of Taiwan more difficult and, therefore, more costly for China.

Related to this, they also recommend that Taiwan’s leaders prepare the island to fight a protracted insurgency, even after Taiwan’s conventional military forces have been defeated. The most important element of their strategy, however, consists of the United States and Taiwan laying plans for what they call “a targeted, scorched-earth strategy” that would render Taiwan not just unattractive, if ever seized by force, but positively costly to maintain.

According to McKinney and Harris, this could be done most effectively by threatening to destroy facilities belonging to the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, which they say is the most important computer chipmaker in the world. They would also encourage Taiwan to develop the means to target the mainland’s own microchip industry and by preparing to evacuate to the United States highly skilled Taiwanese working in its semiconductor industry. McKinney and Harris say that a punishment strategy should also include economic sanctions on China by the United States and its major allies, such as Japan. And possibly giving a green light to Japan, South Korea, and Australia to develop their own nuclear weapons.

At the same time as threatening increased cost to China for using force against Taiwan, the authors also advocate decreasing the cost to Beijing of not using force against Taiwan. Specifically, they recommend that Washington reassure Beijing that the United States will not seek to promote Taiwan’s independence.



We got some pretty strong pushback from Eric Chan. In fact, he wrote a reply to this article. Can you break that down for our listeners and explain the essence of Chan’s response to the article?



In his response to McKinney and Harris’s article, Eric Chan of the US Air Force makes three main critiques. First, he questions their assertion that attempting to maintain deterrence by denial would result in an arms race between the United States and China, pointing out that China has already been engaged in a rapid buildup of its military capabilities for the past quarter century, even while the United States has been distracted by the war on terror and its counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Second, Chan finds McKinney and Harris’s recommendations for reducing the cost to Beijing of not using force against Taiwan to be unconvincing. In particular, he disagrees with their claim that Taiwan is moving farther away from mainland China, pointing out that polling in Taiwan has repeatedly found that the vast majority of people there favor a continuation of Taiwan’s current ambiguous status.

Therefore, Chan implies, there is essentially no cost to Beijing for not using force against Taiwan as Taiwan is not moving farther in the direction of independence. Chan also points out that the reassurances that McKinney and Harris recommend that the United States offer to Beijing are in fact things that the US is already doing.

Chan’s third critique is that the cost of China of the punishments that McKinney and Harris recommend compared to the costs that Beijing would already have to bear as a result of fighting a war of conquest over Taiwan are insufficient to provide any additional deterrent value.

For example, he points out that the economic cost to China of destroying the Taiwanese and Chinese semiconductor industries would be minor compared to the enormous economic damage that any cross-strait war would inevitably cause to China. Similarly, he argues that the prospect of Taiwan fighting a protracted counterinsurgency campaign would be of little deterrent to a Chinese government that has decades of experience brutally crushing popular resistance.

After critiquing this strategy recommended by McKinney and Harris, Chan asserts that the only way of deterring China is to demonstrate an ability to destroy a Chinese invasion force while systematically grinding the rest of China’s military to dust.



Thanks for laying the groundwork for this conversation. So what I would like to hear from you is how would you analyze these arguments?



Yeah, so to better understand both the McKinney and Harris article and the Chan critique of it, I think it’s useful to examine the decision-making model that is implicit in McKinney and Harris’s argument. Their analysis treats Beijing as a unitary, rational actor that is faced with a choice between two alternatives. It can either use force against Taiwan or it can continue not to. If it chooses not to use force, then Taiwan will continue in its current, unresolved state.

In addition, however, McKinney and Harris argued that, over time, the likelihood of Taiwan voluntarily agreeing to unification with the mainland is diminishing—and, therefore, that the cost of Beijing of not using force against Taiwan is, in fact, gradually increasing over time.

On the other hand, if Beijing chooses to use force against Taiwan, then there’s two possible outcomes. It could, of course, fail, in which case Beijing would be worse off than before because not only would Taiwan remain independent, but China would also have incurred the human and material costs of fighting and losing a war.

If the use of force succeeded, however, then they assume Beijing would be better off because the benefits of conquering Taiwan would outweigh the costs of the war fought to achieve that. They argue that, up until now, Beijing has been deterred from using force against Taiwan because of the likelihood that the United States would intervene on Taiwan’s side and defeat China’s efforts. Thus, from Beijing’s point of view, the expected costs of using force against Taiwan have exceeded the costs of not using force.

Since they do not believe it is feasible to restore the military balance in the favor of the United States and Taiwan so that a Chinese use of force against Taiwan would likely fail, they now propose a strategy to raise the cost of even a successful use of force against Taiwan, while reducing the cost of not using force against Taiwan, so that Beijing’s rational choice will continue to be to not use force against Taiwan.

From the perspective of this model of China’s decision making, Chan’s critique is essentially that McKinney and Harris’s recommendations will not significantly increase the cost of Beijing of a use of force against Taiwan, nor will they reduce the cost of Beijing of not using force against Taiwan. His proposed alternative is to ensure that a use of force against Taiwan will fail and, simultaneously, to increase the cost of China’s ruling party of a use of force against Taiwan by threatening to destroy China’s military at the same time.



Where do you fall on this topic? Do you favor one perspective over the other?



Well, I partially agree with Chan’s critique, but I think he overlooks some important issues, and I think his proposed alternative is problematic. And although I don’t entirely agree with their recommended strategy, I think McKinney and Harris’s recommendations have some value. So let me start with the part of Chan’s critique that I agree with. The value of China’s exports to just two countries, the United States and Japan, is more than $600 billion a year. That’s nearly 5 percent of China’s total economy.

If China went to war with the United States, and possibly Japan, over Taiwan, it is highly unlikely that the US and Japan would continue to trade with China. And other countries, such as those in the European Union, might impose trade embargoes on China as well. Regional war would also cause massive disruption to other countries’ trade with China as well as to investment and technology flows into China.

Compared to all these costs, the additional cost of Beijing of efforts to specifically destroy Taiwan and mainland China semiconductors industries would seem to be relatively minor, and, therefore, I agree with Chan that this is unlikely to affect Beijing’s calculations in a dramatic way.

I also agree with him that McKinney and Harris’s recommendations for reducing the cost to China of not using force against Taiwan are already US policies, and, therefore, nothing they propose would actually reduce Beijing’s perceived costs of not using force against Taiwan over what is currently being done.

There are, however, two even more fundamental problems with McKinney and Harris’s analysis. The first one is implied by my depiction of it as a one based on a unitary, rational actor, and that is the idea of treating a country as a unitary, rational actor. Now this is a valid approach when looking at individual people, but countries and governments are collective actors, and collective actors behave in ways that would not be considered rational for an individual person. This has been proven at the theoretical level by the economist Kenneth Arrow, and even a cursory observation of the behavior of countries in the real world confirms that this is true. National leaders are constantly making decisions that are clearly not in the best overall interests of their nations.

In this specific case of China, China’s leaders have repeatedly shown their willingness to do anything to maintain their hold on power, no matter how damaging those actions are for the Chinese nation as a whole.

Nowadays, the legitimacy of the Communist Party of China and its top leader, Xi Jinping, rests on two pillars. One is ever-improving standards of living for the Chinese people, and the other is restoring China to what is seen as its rightful place, as one of the dominant civilizations of the world.

Key to the second pillar is recovering those territories that China lost during its period of weakness during the nineteenth and early twentieth century—most especially, Taiwan. If the party or its top leader is seen as failing at either of these two tasks, then they are at risk of being pushed aside and replaced by someone who is believed can achieve them. And Xi and the rest of the communist party leadership are keenly aware of this reality.

If something were to occur that signified the possibility of the permanent and irreversible loss of Taiwan, therefore, China’s leaders would be willing to pay almost any cost to prevent that from happening. And this gets to the second fundamental flaw with the unitary, rational actor approach to predicting China’s external behavior, which is that it assumes that the costs and benefits for national leaders are purely material and, therefore, can be objectively calculated by an external observer. But both of those assumptions are incorrect when it comes to China’s policy toward Taiwan.

China already enjoys virtually all of the material benefits that unification with Taiwan would convey. People travel freely between Taiwan and mainland China, and trade and investment across the Taiwan Strait are virtually unrestricted. China is not currently able to base military forces on Taiwan, which creates something of a strategic disadvantage for it. But, in fact, in its promises regarding unification to Taiwan, Beijing has said that it would not station military forces in Taiwan so long as Taiwan voluntarily accepts unification.

The value to Beijing of formal political unification with Taiwan, therefore, would be almost entirely symbolic. And whichever leader brought that about could be confident of going down in history as a hero of the Chinese nation. Under these circumstances, it is simply not possible to objectively calculate what material price Beijing would or wouldn’t be willing to pay in order to achieve the goal of unification.



So what would you recommend?



McKinney and Harris’ proposal, as I said, is not without merit. It should be taken seriously. Although Chan makes a number of arguments as to why it might not be practical, anything that raises the cost to Beijing and using force against Taiwan can only contribute to deterring it from doing so. It would be foolish, however, to rely solely on a strategy of punishment for deterring Chinese use of force against Taiwan. And that’s where I part company with them. I also disagree with their assessment, moreover, that China already possesses the capability to invade and conquer Taiwan.

In an analysis I did for a book on the Chinese military published by the Cambridge University Press in 2015, I concluded that it would not be possible, in fact, in the near term, for China to do that. And I disagree that maintaining the US capability to prevent a successful invasion of Taiwan would require an all-out arms race with China. It would, however, require focused and determined efforts that concentrate on key capabilities and their enablers, not simply on fielding large numbers of ever more advanced ships, aircraft, and other military technologies.

I should also say, though, that I disagree with Chan’s prescription for deterring China, which is to threaten to grind China’s military to dust. US military planning should be focused purely on deterrence by denial, being able to thwart any Chinese effort to use military force to compel Taiwan to unify with the mainland.

To threaten the survival of the Chinese regime in response to an attack on Taiwan would be hugely escalatory and could bring about just the type of all-out war that McKinney and Harris’s strategy attempts to avoid. Moreover, I don’t think it’s necessary to deter Beijing, so long as we maintain the capability to prevent it from forcibly unifying with Taiwan.


Roger, you’ve really added an extra layer of insight into this topic.



My pleasure, it’s a very interesting and provocative article, and it’s an important topic that deserves debate, discussion, and analysis.



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