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Deterrence in the Taiwan strait

Policymakers have long argued to jettison the idea of “strategic ambiguity” that has underscored decades of America’s Asia policy, and outright declare that the United States would militarily defend Taiwan in the event of an attack.   

The rhetoric over the possibility of armed conflict between China and Taiwan has escalated recently.  In a statement released on Friday, China declared that the Taiwanese military “won’t stand a chance” if China chose to annex the island by force. These threats come as the Chinese military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), committed a wave of incursions into Taiwan’s air and naval territory. A military analyst who chose to remain anonymous told the Chinese state-run media outlet, Global Times, that “The island’s military won’t stand a chance.”

This series of three articles will examine the issues in this strategic ambiguity and how Taiwan could actually succeed against a Chinese attack.

The China – Taiwan struggle dates back to the late 1940s.  When Nixon and Kissinger “opened up” China in the early 1970s the US withdrew recognition of Taiwan as representing all of China.  China has sought to return Taiwan to its control while the island has sought to maintain its independence.  The US has sworn that it would defend Taiwan’s independence.  Militarily that might not be feasible. 

The Global Times further reported that: “The PLA exercises are not only warnings, but also show real capabilities and pragmatically practicing reunifying the island, if it comes to that.” The PLA has been particularly bold in recent weeks as they sent an aircraft carrier – the Liaoning – accompanied by a fleet of five other vessels towards the Pacific through the tactical waterway connecting Taiwan with Japan. Chinese aircraft also breached Taiwan’s southwestern air defense identification zone which saw eight fighter jets and two other aircraft enter the sovereign nation’s territory.

The Biden administration’s relations with China have not progressed as it had anticipated.  Many members of the administration had economic and social ties to China and had been optimistic that the new administration could have better ties with China than the Trump administration.   China may have been hoping for a relationship more like that it enjoyed during Biden’s last stint in government, under President Barack Obama, whose rhetoric about being tough with China and a supposed “pivot to Asia” did not have much effect on the two countries’ economic ties, nor according to critics, do much to restrain Chinese territorial ambitions.  However, Secretary of State Blinken has said that relations with China are critical and must be based upon a less belligerent China.  China for its part probably sees the Biden administration as soft and more interested in socialism than containing Chinese expansionism.

Against this backdrop the US has been slowly increasing its support for Taiwan’s autonomy with a recent official visit to the country by an ambassador, which China met with threats and warnings.  This was reinforced last Wednesday when the USS John McCain transited international waters in the Taiwan Strait as part of a “freedom of navigation operation” to contest China’s claims in the South China Sea over which it has claimed 90 percent as part of its territory.  This exercise is just one part of a larger freedom of the seas effort throughout the region.  Currently an amphibious assault group and a carrier battle group are conducting exercises in the waters off of the Philippines in response to over 200 Chinese ships (claimed to be fishing vessels, but accompanied be hydrofoil coast guard patrol boats) are denying access to the area where these “fishing boats” are.  Is this an attempt to draw US resources away from Taiwan?

A spokesman for the Pentagon said: “We don’t conduct Freedom of Navigation Operations around the world to respond to some specific event or the specific action of another country. We conduct Freedom of Navigation Operations around the world to send a message about how strongly we believe in international law and in the freedom that all nations have to sail, operate and fly in accordance with that international law.  “Freedom of the seas doesn’t just exist for fish and icebergs and that’s the purpose of conducting these operations, to reinforce that notion.”

The US military is warning that China is probably accelerating its timetable for capturing control of Taiwan.  A military move against Taiwan, however, would be a test of US support for the island that Beijing views as a breakaway province. For the Biden administration, it could present the choice of abandoning a friendly, democratic entity or risking what could become an all-out war over a cause that is not on the radar of most Americans.

“We have indications that the risks are actually going up,” Admiral Davidson, the most senior Pacific Commander, told a Senate panel last month, referring to a Chinese military move on Taiwan. “The threat is manifest during this decade — in fact, in the next six years,” Davidson said.  Days later, Davidson’s expected successor, Admiral Aquilino, declined to back up the six-year timeframe but told senators at his confirmation hearing: “My opinion is, this problem is much closer to us than most think.”

Rep. Adam Smith, a Washington Democrat and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, is skeptical of the any military’s fixation on dominance. “Given the way the world works now, having one country be dominant is just hopelessly unrealistic,” he said.  He said the US military can maintain sufficient strength, in partnership with allies, to send the message: “China, don’t invade Taiwan because the price you’re going to pay for that isn’t worth it.”

This is the essence of the defense issue!  In the grand scheme of things Taiwan may not be militarily defensible, if China is willing to pay the price. Conquering Taiwan could in fact be a pyric victory.  If the PLA was to take significant losses and if the Chinese economy could be adversely affected by world economic boycotts, then the gaining of an obliterated Taiwan might not have been worth the price.  If the war extended to the Chinese mainland this could also raise the price to the Chinese extensively.  Do not be surprised if such threats are not forthcoming soon—probably not form the US but from Taiwan.  The above is the essence of the game of deterrence.

Biden administration officials have spoken less pointedly than the congressman, but the message is the same as they stress the intention of the administration to deepen ties with Taiwan.  Also playing upon the deterrence theme Taiwanese Foreign Minister Wu said the military threat against his country is increasing, and while he said it was not yet “particularly alarming,” the Chinese military in the last couple of years has been conducting what he called “real combat-type” exercises closer to the island.  “We are willing to defend ourselves, that’s without any question,” Wu told reporters. “We will fight a war if we need to fight a war, and if we need to defend ourselves to the very last day, then we will defend ourselves to the very last day. “

The price issue cuts two ways.  Are the US and their Asian allies willing to pay the price in military losses not to mention the loss of face if/when Taiwan has fallen to Chinese occupation?

For the time being one would expect the saber rattling to continue.  The Biden administration will continue to try and look tough to the public while quietly trying to return to the Obama era in terms of US-Chinese relations.  This will be a difficult mission to accomplish.


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