This commentary first appeared as part of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Interpret:China series.
Tensions at the Taiwan Strait are at an all-time high. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit marked the highest level of exchange between U.S. and Taiwanese officials since 1997. China used the visit as a pretext to conduct large-scale military exercises encircling the island, coupled with rhetoric about how it could successfully use force to unify if it decided to do so.
The dynamics between China and the United States over Taiwan are eerily like those laid out in Zuo Xiying’s balanced, informative article. Zuo accurately captures the U.S. deterrence strategy toward Russia before its invasion of Ukraine—highlighting key components such as threatening economic sanctions and international isolation, as well as providing training and equipment to Ukraine to enhance its ability to defend itself. But deterrence failed, the reasons (according to Zuo) being that the United States did not do more to reassure Russia of its peaceful intentions and that ultimately costs are difficult to calculate ahead of time. Once war broke out, as Zuo also points out, the United States escalated its involvement by providing military aid to Ukraine, which increased the costs of the war to Russia.
What does all this mean for U.S. deterrence strategy with respect to Taiwan? Zuo recognizes that “for China, the Russia-Ukraine conflict acts as a mirror. . . . China needs to not only study in depth how the United States deters and how it punishes Russia, but also to carefully analyze how Russia perceives the United States’ threats and to derive experience and lessons from therein.” But he leaves the reader wondering what those lessons are. He hints in his discussion on Ukraine that a U.S. strategy to build up Taiwan’s defenses is unlikely to deter China; however, he also indirectly suggests that China may be underestimating the costs of war. Successful deterrence, Zuo notes, “requires not only that the United States itself has powerful forces and strong resolve but that it can make the other side accurately feel the threat and have an accurate calculation of the costs and benefits. But the real world is complicated, and it is difficult to have both conditions present at once.” In other words, he thinks there is an intermediate step needed in a deterrence strategy. The United States has to not only issue a credible threat, but also make the other side accurately assess the costs and benefits of certain actions.
Zuo does not seem optimistic. He implies the United States needs to increase efforts to paint a more specific picture of what it would do if war broke out—but that, even if it did, the message still might not get through. The reader is left with an acute understanding that if there is war over Taiwan, failures in both Beijing and Washington will be to blame.