How Do Regional Dynamics Impact Deterrence and Dissuasion in the Taiwan Strait?

Discussions on preventing a war over Taiwan often focus on strengthening deterrence and convincing Beijing that it cannot conquer Taiwan at an acceptable cost. The concern is that China’s growing military and economic power may make an attack on Taiwan both feasible and attractive, making deterrence waning and potentially failing.

However, deterrence alone is not sufficient to prevent conflict in the Taiwan Strait. If Chinese leaders 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 must pair deterrence with dissuasion, fostering Beijing’s belief that non-military paths to unification remain viable.

Deterrence theory has been well-developed since the late 1950s, but the fundamentals have not changed since then. One deterrence method involves convincing an adversary that the action cannot succeed (deterrence by denial) or that the costs far outweigh any possible benefits (deterrence by punishment). Dissuasion, introduced in the 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review, encourages Beijing to continue believing that war is not necessary because other less costly options are available.

Many commentators advocate measures to convince China that a military attack on Taiwan cannot succeed, such as stronger and more explicit expressions of US resolve to defend Taiwan, increased military preparedness, and helping Taiwan improve its defenses and societal resilience. Some even recommend stationing tactical nuclear weapons in Taiwan to ensure conflict would quickly escalate. These discussions have two unstated assumptions: that our ability to deter attacks on Taiwan is waning as China’s military and economic power grows, and that deterrence is sufficient to avoid conflict if the right combination of denial and punishment is employed.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is increasingly capable, but invading Taiwan in the face of US military opposition remains a daunting military operation. The risk of failure remains high even with the next generation of PLA hardware. China recognizes that war over Taiwan would have a devastating impact on all its other strategic priorities, including China’s economy and international status. The regime’s 2049 goals for the centennial of the People’s Republic would be delayed for decades or more, and the Communist Party’s hold on power would be at severe risk if it could not spin the military outcome as a strategic victory.

Deterrence by denial is undermined by ongoing PLA modernization, but deterrence by punishment will remain extremely strong for the foreseeable future. Chinese leaders believe that preventing Taiwan independence splittists and US hegemonists’ breakout moves could lead to China’s growing power and prestige eventually bringing Taiwan back without military conflict. However, if a long-term approach fails, they risk attacking despite the high cost and uncertain prospects for success.

The Chinese decision-making process prioritizes deterrence over military success, focusing on preventing Taiwan’s permanent separation. Deterrence by denial is less effective, as the economic and political costs of a conflict threaten China’s other strategic objectives.

To maintain deterrence at its present, highly effective level, the United States must continue building the capacity to defeat a Chinese invasion and develop new capabilities to deny them victory through a prolonged blockade. Deterrence alone is not enough to prevent war, as non-violent approaches remain viable. However, actions designed to increase deterrence risk undermining Beijing’s belief in peaceful unification. The US must maintain the effective deterrent, reinforcing Taiwan and building a force capable of winning both short and long wars, while fostering Beijing’s belief in peaceful reunification.

Deterrence is the easy part of the problem, but a duplicitous strategy is needed. This involves combining serious preparations for conflict with reassurances that time is on their side and that the US would accept and welcome peaceful unification. This may be difficult to sell with Beijing due to their distrust of US motives. In US politics, where all sides compete to be more vehemently anti-China, dissuasion is the only tool available to reduce the risk of war.

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