Can the United States Prevent a War over Taiwan?
Taiwan is becoming the most dangerous flashpoint in the world. Events in and involving the small democracy could spark a war that draws in the United States, China, Japan, and possibly others. The administration of President Joe Biden should develop a more credible U.S. strategy to deter such a war.
What even many watchers of world politics could neglect, distracted by so many other global problems and noisemakers, is how much the situation surrounding Taiwan has changed in the last few years. China’s decision to crush local governance and effective rule of law in Hong Kong has had large effects. It changed politics in Taiwan in favor of a president whom China regards as a separatist. Chinese leaders doubled down on xenophobic nationalism and repression, escalating pressure on Taiwan both rhetorically and militarily. Taiwan has begun a significant program of rearmament with a seriousness not seen in a generation, supported by the United States, yet there is a significant window of time before this program can bear sufficient fruit.
We think the current war danger is half understood, but downplayed due to the invariable human tendency to assume that whatever the commotion, tomorrow will be pretty much like yesterday. This is an old problem. Most international wars come as a surprise, except to those planning them.
In 1962, most experts (though not the CIA director) dismissed the possibility that the Soviets would deploy nuclear missiles to Cuba. In 1973, most experts, including in Israel, dismissed the possibility that Egypt and Syria would launch a war. In 1979, most experts dismissed the possibility that the Soviet Union would invade Afghanistan. In 1990, most experts dismissed the possibility that Iraq would invade Kuwait. In 2014, most experts dismissed the possibility that Russia would invade Ukraine. Notably, in the Iraq case, the lone voice predicting an invasion of Kuwait was the CIA’s national intelligence officer for warning, Charlie Allen. Regional experts, and even regional leaders, discounted the warning. Allen afterward admitted to one of us that he had no particular knowledge of the region, but he and his people were watching the Iraqi military prepare.
To us, this recent history is humbling. We are not arguing a war is imminent or even more likely than not to happen. But what little we can know has led us to the conclusion that the risk of a Chinese war against Taiwan is much higher than it has been in decades.
China is doing what a country would do if it were moving into a prewar mode. Politically, it is preparing and conditioning its population for the possibility of an armed conflict. Militarily, it is engaging now in a tempo of exercises and military preparations that are both sharpening and widening the readiness of its armed forces across a range of different contingencies on sea, air, land, cyber, and in space. As was true of the Israeli reading of Egypt’s intentions in the period before the outbreak of the 1973 war, this level of operational activity also complicates the work of foreign intelligence agencies and makes it harder for them to distinguish ominous signals from the background noise.
At the beginning of 2021, leaders in President Donald Trump’s administration left behind an increasingly dangerous case. Watching the danger grow, the administration spoke much more loudly but carried about the same old stick.
The first step is to stop the bluster. The new Biden administration has soothingly reaffirmed historical U.S. postures on Taiwan, while adding, perhaps fatefully, “Our commitment to Taiwan is rock-solid.” The tone of this statement was indeed “rock-solid.” Yet the underlying substance of “our commitment” is no clearer than it was before. The United States ought to take actions to sustain the political balance and deterrence that has kept the peace for the last 50 years.
Second, the United States should immediately develop a more credible stick. A U.S. strategy to save Taiwan should depend less on U.S. aircraft carriers sailing to the rescue in waters China will dominate, and more on intensified and detailed coordinated planning to deter China and help Taiwan defend itself.
We introduced these arguments in a recent special report published by the Council on Foreign Relations. Since our report was published, some readers have assumed that we simply endorse the status quo, or that we want to see Washington walk back from its interest in the fate of Taiwan. Neither of these assumptions is correct. But our proposal admittedly does not fit neatly into stock arguments about what the United States and its allies should do to prevent a crisis or how they should react if such a crisis unfolds.
In the report, we offer three military scenarios: attacks on Taiwan’s periphery (like an offshore island), a quarantine that screens air and sea travel into Taiwan to prevent unwanted foreign arms supplies or interference, and a direct siege and invasion. We then weigh and cite many detailed public analyses (from the optimistic to pessimistic) evaluating what might happen in these scenarios.
It is no longer politically or militarily realistic to assume that U.S. forces, uncoordinated with allies, can be relied upon to defeat any of these types of Chinese assaults on Taiwan. Nor is it realistic to presume that, during such a clash, the United States would or should simply escalate to general war against China with comprehensive blockades or strikes against targets on the Chinese mainland.
If U.S. campaign plans only offer such unrealistic scenarios, they will likely be rejected by an American president and the U.S. Congress (if the Congress gets to decide, which is doubtful). The resulting U.S. paralysis would not be the result of presidential weakness or timidity. Rather, it could arise because the most powerful country in the world did not have credible options prepared for the most dangerous military crisis facing it.
Anyone analyzing alternative U.S. military strategies for Taiwan now studies a fog. Some assert that current defense plans are adequate, though this readiness may not be evident to the general public. Others claim current strategy is a Potemkin village, wishful assurances from a country that has already displayed this trait so often in recent years, from Iraq to Afghanistan, in pandemics and deep Texan winters. Reacting to our report, some current and former insiders think our worries are dead right: that if the emperor is not naked, his garb is at least threadbare. Others claim we just cannot see the clothes, or the tailors so hard at work. This is, of course, the challenge of debating war plans and defense preparedness without deep access to classified information.
Again, our inference is not to assume the worst. But, humbled by uncertainty and what is at stake, we do not trust such mysteries and vague reassurances. Effective defense plans are rarely mysterious. Their plausibility ought to be evident. In principle, we see four main approaches for how the United States might respond to such a variety of Chinese actions, only the last of which we endorse. All of them assume continued willingness to sell arms to Taiwan to improve its defenses, and strong support for the Taiwan Relations Act.
The United States could continue to sell arms to help Taiwan defend itself, but it would not share responsibility for the direct defense of Taiwan. Also, in a change from current U.S. campaign preparations as we understand them, it would not plan to intervene militarily in a conflict between China and Taiwan.
The United States would not commit in advance to share responsibility for the direct defense of Taiwan, yet it would work to be ready to do just that. The likely U.S. campaign plan in a Taiwan conflict scenario would remain unclear to enemies and friends alike, and the allies and partners would therefore not join to prepare the coordinated execution of these plans.
The United States would be similarly unclear about whether its direct defense of Taiwan would involve attacks into the Chinese mainland or whether such an extension of the war is necessary or not. These plans might not require significant changes in the current character and deployment of U.S. and Japanese forces, because it is not evident how those forces would be used.
In our view, this was the status quo until the Trump administration, and may be again.
The United States could plan and prepare to share responsibility for the direct defense of Taiwan in a variety of scenarios. It could commit, in advance, to defend the island. These plans might well involve peacetime deployment of at least U.S. military advisers in Taiwan, and U.S. initiation of attacks on the units of the People’s Liberation Army that have used force against Taiwan. This approach would require significant changes in the character and deployment of U.S. and Japanese forces, along with improved joint training and readiness to execute these war plans. American and Japanese readiness to execute such credible war plans would be evident and exercised.
This third approach deserves careful consideration, although we do not endorse it. The presumed strategy for this is one of “denial,” leveraging new missile and sensor technology to create a 21st-century no man’s land in the air and seas surrounding Taiwan. We take account of ongoing defense innovations, and these are discussed in great detail in the sources we cited in our report. Defense experts who support such plans do not argue that the United States currently has the necessary forces and readiness to execute this approach. Rather, they say that their strategy is doable if and only if the United States will, during the coming years, do x, y, and z.
At the same time, on the vital issue of geographic escalation, this approach is vague and open-ended about planned strikes into China. Such vagueness thus significantly heightens the momentum for preemptive attacks from both sides and would raise the risks of general war, which might spread to the U.S. and Japanese homelands, or even to extreme scenarios about nuclear exchanges.
Three years ago, the Trump administration’s National Security Council approved strategic guidance that called on the United States to:
devise and implement a defense strategy capable of, but not limited to: (1) denying China sustained air and sea dominance inside the ‘first island chain’ in a conflict; (2) defending the first island-chain nations, including Taiwan; and (3) dominating all domains outside the first island-chain.
The Trump White House declassified and released this guidance in January 2021. In short, the Trump administration adopted, at least on paper, this third approach described above, which entails political judgments about U.S. vital national interests and political-military judgments about the credibility and viability of such plans — conclusions that should be shared and coordinated at least with Taiwan and Japan.
We know of no credible net assessment that suggests the United States, in light of U.S. defense plans and considering Chinese advances in the same period, is now more ready to accomplish any of those three tasks than it was three years ago when the guidance was secretly issued. Thus, we are convinced that it is past time to devise a U.S. defense and deterrence strategy to deal with the Taiwan challenge as it is in the dangerous present, not as it could be sometime in the wishful future.
It is tempting to believe, like Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, “in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. … And one fine morning …”
The People’s Republic of China gets to make moves too. It too has an x, y, and z list, as well as fundamental advantages in attention, geography, and sustainment. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, while the U.S. military has been going to school on the People’s Liberation Army, the People’s Liberation Army has also been going to school on the U.S. military, especially in terms of Taiwan contingencies.
There is yet a deeper problem. It may be possible, someday, theoretically, for Taiwan or the United States or Japan to build up the defensive systems, as the Trump administration posited, that will attain enough dominance to thwart Chinese attacks. In an intensely dynamic regional military environment, Beijing could then conclude that it has a shrinking window of advantage — a point we stress in the report. This more confrontational posture of the third option, one that threatens Beijing to watch out because the United States is preparing rapidly to directly defend Taiwan, soon, might more likely cause a war than prevent one.
We conclude that the third approach — to base U.S. planning on a successful direct U.S. defense of Taiwan, coordinated with Japan and other allies — does not seem politically or militarily realistic in the next several years. It is an approach that rests on uncertain military promise with heightened risks of provocation, paralysis, or humiliating defeat.
If China’s window of advantage does shrink over time as the defense of Taiwan improves, what, then, is the right U.S. strategy in the meantime? If time is on the eventual side of those defending peace and freedom, our strategy is designed to buy more of it.
This option that we recommend supports the planning that we describe in the second approach, the status quo, in which the United States has contingency plans to share in the direct defense of Taiwan but will not commit in advance to do so. But in our view, that is not an adequate U.S. strategy to deter war. We believe the United States should, in addition, rehearse — at least with Japan and Taiwan — a parallel plan to challenge any Chinese denial of international access to Taiwan and prepare, including with pre-positioned U.S. supplies, including war reserve stocks, shipments of vitally needed supplies to help Taiwan defend itself.
The United States and its allies, like Japan, should plan to challenge a Chinese quarantine or siege of Taiwan enough to place the burden on China to decide whether to widen the conflict by attacking U.S. or allied forces that were endeavoring to deliver such supplies. If such plans exist now, they are not evident, either in exercises choreographed with allies, in pre-positioned supplies, or in the shipping capacity to carry them out. These plans would probably require significant changes in the character and deployment of U.S. and other allied forces. But these changes, oriented more to helping Taiwan defend itself and less reliant on a rapid build-up of U.S. striking power inside the first island chain, would not menace the People’s Republic of China as much as the strategy envisioned in the third approach.
In this fourth approach, if China did choose to widen the war, the United States and its allies would plan to defend themselves and continue to do what was possible to help Taiwan defend itself. But the United States would not assume that such a war needs to extend to the Chinese, Japanese, or American homelands.
Instead, in another revision to the second approach, the United States and its allies would credibly and visibly plan to react to the attack on their forces by breaking all financial relations with China, freezing or seizing Chinese assets, leading to a severe rupture of the world economy and a likely global financial crisis. Also, the United States and Japan would prepare, visibly and in advance, the massive remilitarization and mobilization measures that they, and perhaps others, would take as the logical consequence of the increased danger of general war. Some critics assert this already is U.S. strategy, but we have seen no such allied economic, political, and military plans on this scale, that would strengthen deterrence.
These plans would be grave to develop and contemplate. They are so serious that it is not credible to threaten them unless China had attacked American and allied forces, in which case such steps are not only credible, they are likely. These measures are not meant as sanctions to force a Chinese retreat. Preparing them, with allies, would demonstrate to China, in advance, what a wider conflict might mean for China and the Chinese Communist Party’s future.
Our favored approach has its flaws. It puts a burden on Taiwan to do as much as it can, with outside help, to realize its potential capacity to defend itself. Yet our proposal adds choices that seem more realistically attainable and more credible as a deterrent to protect Taiwan than the alternatives. This fourth approach takes the escalation that could very well happen after the conflict begins and converts that foreseeable reality into preparations that are visible to China’s leaders before the conflict.
We stress that our proposal could not be successful in the absence of advance coordination and preparation with, at a minimum, Taiwan and Japan. That means the United States must listen to their preferences. If they argue for other approaches, then they have to recognize, accept, and be willing to act upon the responsibilities and risks that go with those approaches. On the other hand, if they join the United States to prepare the further plans envisioned in our fourth option, that joint planning would help unite their societies in more common readiness for joint action.
One concern we have heard is that our report is overly worried about Chinese military dangers. Instead, we should focus on “gray zone” ways China might pressure Taiwan, since these are more likely. Yet we notice that China tried incremental pressure in Xinjiang, but it was counterproductive, and the People’s Republic of China then finally decided to wield the hammer. We notice that China tried incremental pressure in Hong Kong too, but it was counterproductive, and Beijing then finally decided to wield the hammer. Now we notice that China is trying incremental pressure in Taiwan, but it has had counterproductive effects in Taiwan’s politics. And China will now … ?
We would like to be wrong about the possible seriousness of a coming Taiwan crisis. We hope we have exaggerated the danger. We just cannot convince ourselves that the ominous clouds we see gathering are not really there.
Robert D. Blackwill is the Henry Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. Philip Zelikow is a professor of history and of governance at the University of Virginia. Former career diplomats, they worked in senior policy positions in U.S. administrations from Ronald Reagan through Barack Obama.