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Home Editorials of Interest Taipei Times US deterrence policy and Taiwan

US deterrence policy and Taiwan

Over the past few weeks there have been a number of articles in the international media from US policy analysts which have argued that Washington should integrate more assurances into its deterrence policy toward Beijing — namely, to convince Chinese leaders that the US’ goal is not the permanent separation of Taiwan from China. One case in point is Oriana Skylar Mastro in the New York Times on Oct. 16, who said that to bolster deterrence, the US should reiterate to Beijing that it does not “oppose the island’s peaceful unification with China.”

Assurance is the concept of the moment. Bonnie Glaser, managing director of the Indo-Pacific Program at the German Marshall Fund, writing shortly after Mastro in the same publication, said that the US should “provide credible assurances to Beijing that as long as China refrains from using force against Taiwan, Washington will not support the island’s independence nor return to its past defense treaty with Taipei.”

Last week, Ryan Hass and Jude Blanchette of the Brookings Institution and the Center for Strategic and International Studies respectively, deepened the debate with their contribution in Foreign Affairs. Here they discussed the theory behind what would constitute a successful deterrence policy toward China, arguing that deterrence should not be conceived in terms of military power alone.

“Properly understood, deterrence is an exercise in political-psychological persuasion, and it has never been solely a calculation of who possesses more military assets,” they wrote.

Hass and Blanchette are addressing themselves to the argument, popular on Capitol Hill, that superior military power in the Taiwan Strait, relative to China, is the most important factor to deter Beijing from launching an invasion. It is a view notably espoused by US Representative Mike Gallagher, who said recently: “We need to be moving heaven and earth to arm Taiwan to the teeth to avoid a war.”

Hass and Blanchette’s view on deterrence is shared by the RAND Corp’s Michael Mazarr, who wrote in a policy brief, “Understanding Deterrence,” that deterrence is about much more than “merely threatening a potential adversary” and that “it demands the nuanced shaping of perceptions so that an adversary sees the alternatives to aggression as more attractive than war.”

For Mazzar, “it is the perception of the potential aggressor that matters, not the actual prospects for victory or the objectively measured consequences of an attack.” Japan in 1941 — where the leaders launched a war they knew they had little chance of winning — is the classic example of deterrence having failed.

“Potential aggressors sometimes decide that they must act — because they believe they face national ruin otherwise,” Mazarr said.

Hass and Blanchette pointed out that throughout the latter half of the 20th century, the balance of power tilted in the US’ favor over the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the Taiwan Strait, yet despite this, “Beijing’s appetite for absorbing Taiwan did not diminish.” Moreover, for more than 70 years the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has “defined its claim to Taiwan as core to... [its] political legitimacy.” For now, launching an invasion would be prohibitively costly for China, but if leaders in Beijing came to believe that the “cost of inaction in the Taiwan Strait poses an existential threat to the CCP’s rule,” they might entertain such an approach.

As Mazarr wrote: “History is full of examples of states that seemingly ought to have been deterred nonetheless going to war because they had potent domestic or perceptual reasons for thinking they simply had no choice.”

To prevent this, Hass and Blanchette said that the US should assure Beijing by keeping “a path open for China and Taiwan to peacefully resolve their differences.”

More tactfully put, one might argue, than Mastro’s the US should not “oppose the island’s peaceful unification with China,” but the policy implications must surely be the same.

Yet there is a tension that lies at the heart of a US strategy that seeks to assure Beijing that Washington would not stand in the way of “peaceful unification,” in that it signals ambiguity to the Taiwanese public over the US’ long-term commitment to the nation. Polling consistently shows that Taiwanese willingness to resist a Chinese invasion increases when they believe that the US would have their back. If Chinese leaders entertain the belief that Taiwanese would not have the will to fight if they were invaded, they might come to the view that it is in their interest to launch an attack, believing that the chances of a quick success resulting in a fait accompli were high. Therefore, Washington’s assurances to Beijing have the paradoxical logic of potentially weakening deterrence, by inadvertently encouraging a perception in Beijing that launching an invasion could be in their interest.

Hass and Blanchette have made a rich contribution to the public-facing debate on US deterrence policy and Taiwan, widening and deepening the discussion. A question worth considering as analysts and policymakers take the discussion forward is how can the US simultaneously assure Beijing, without undermining its assurances to Taiwan that the US will be with them for the long term.

Daniel McIntyre is a copy editor at the Taipei Times, assistant editor at 9DASHLINE and author of the weekly newsletter The World’s Taiwan, The Taiwan World.

Source: Taipei Times - Editorials 2023/11/18

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Chi Yang-class frigate Ning Yang fires a Harpoon anti-ship missile during joint-service live fire exercises on July 15 last year.
Photo courtesy of the Ministry of National Defense via CNA

The Legislative Yuan yesterday approved a bill authorizing the government to draft a special budget of up to NT$240 billion (US$8.63 billion) for arms procurements over the next five years.