All China Program News Commentary August 9, 2021

Strait of Emergency?

Debating Beijing’s Threat to Taiwan
Figures of Kuomintang soldiers are seen in the foreground, with the Chinese city of Xiamen in the background, on February 04, 2021 in Lieyu, an outlying island of Kinmen that is the closest point between Taiwan and China.
Figures of Kuomintang soldiers are seen in the foreground, with the Chinese city of Xiamen in the background, on February 04, 2021 in Lieyu, an outlying island of Kinmen that is the closest point between Taiwan and China. An Rong Xu/ Getty Images)

In her recent Foreign Affairs essay, The Taiwan Temptation: Why Beijing Might Resort to Force, Center Fellow Oriana Skylar Mastro argues that Chinese leaders now consider a military campaign to take Taiwan a real possibility and cautions that the United States cannot by itself alter Beijing’s calculus on Taiwan. The essay sparked a heated debate. In the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs, several scholars — Rachel Esplin Odell and Eric Heginbotham, Bonny Lin and David Sacks, and Kharis Templeman — provide counterarguments to Mastro's analysis and she responds to their criticism. Read her complete rebuttal below.


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Rachel Esplin Odell and Eric Heginbotham, Bonny Lin and David Sacks, and Kharis Templeman all argue that China is unlikely to attempt armed unification with Taiwan. Although I appreciate their perspectives, they do not present any new evidence that would make me reconsider my assessment that the risk of Chinese aggression across the Taiwan Strait is real and growing. To the contrary, they repeat many of the increasingly dangerous misperceptions that I sought to dispel in my original article—namely, that China does not have the military capabilities to pull off an amphibious invasion, that the economic costs of an invasion would be sufficient to deter Chinese President Xi Jinping, and that China can afford to wait indefinitely to achieve its most important national goal of unification. My critics assume that insofar as there are risks, they can be dealt with through relatively limited adjustments in U.S. policy and military posture — a position with which I still strongly disagree. 

Let’s take these arguments in order. My critics say that I have exaggerated China’s military capabilities and understated the difficulties of an invasion. But their assessments rely on outdated or largely irrelevant comparisons. Odell and Heginbotham, for instance, note that the United States needed more naval tonnage to capture Okinawa from Japan in 1945 than China has today. But this example is inapposite. Japan’s military was more than six million strong in 1945 and had been fighting for over a decade; Taiwan’s military consists of 88,000 personnel and two million reservists, of whom only 300,000 are required to complete even a five-week refresher training course. Tonnage, moreover, is not a useful metric. Modern navies have moved to lighter, more flexible fleets. Odell and Heginbotham point out that civilian ships were of only limited use in the Falklands War, but the United Kingdom used just 62 of them in that campaign. The People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia has many thousands of ships and is closer to a naval force than a civilian one. If China were to mobilize all its naval vessels, including its new large amphibious transport ships and civilian ships, it could hypothetically carry hundreds of thousands of troops across the 80-mile-wide Taiwan Strait in a short period of time. Even if the United States had enough warning to optimally position its submarines, it does not have enough munitions to target such a large force. 

For their part, Lin and Sacks argue that to believe China can take Taiwan by force is to fall for a Chinese misinformation campaign. They warn that “analysts should not accept at face value China’s claim that it could easily win a fight against Taiwan.” But no one, not even the cockiest of People’s Liberation Army analysts, argues that a full-scale attack on Taiwan would be easy, only that the PLA could prevail at an acceptable cost. Moreover, my assessment of Chinese military capabilities is not based on Chinese discourse or the results of war games alone. Reams of unbiased and rigorous analysis—from the U.S. Department of Defense’s annual report to Congress on China’s military modernization to Congressional Research Service reports on Chinese naval modernization to hundreds of studies by think tanks and defense-affiliated organizations, such as the RAND Corporation—suggest that the PLA has made unparalleled advances in the past two decades and could take on the United States in certain scenarios. Indeed, Heginbotham himself argued in 2017 that “the balance of power between the United States and China may be approaching a series of tipping points, first in contingencies close to the Chinese coast (e.g., Taiwan).” 

I do not mean to suggest that a Chinese invasion would be a cakewalk. Taiwan could get some shots in, but it does not have the ability to defend itself. Luckily, the United States would, I believe, come to Taiwan’s aid and could still prevail in many scenarios. Taiwan is far from a lost cause. But ten years ago, the United States would have prevailed in any scenario. Because there are now some scenarios in which U.S. strategists think the United States could lose, it is not unfathomable to think that Chinese strategists have come to a similar conclusion. 

My critics also argue that economic considerations will deter Beijing. Should China attempt to use force to assert control over Taiwan, the international response would be severe enough to imperil Xi’s ambitious development goals. But as I argued in my original article, Chinese analysts have good reason to think the international response would be weak enough to tolerate. China could even reap economic benefits from controlling Taiwan, whose manufacturers accounted for more than 60 percent of global revenue from semiconductors last year. The United States is heavily reliant on Taiwanese semiconductors. Should China take Taiwan, it could conceivably deprive the United States of this technology and gain an economic and military advantage. 

But economic costs or benefits, while part of Beijing’s calculus, are unlikely to be the determining factor. Xi’s top priority is protecting China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity—as Beijing defines it. China’s Belt and Road Initiative, its militarization of the South China Sea, and its sanctions against countries that offend it, such as Australia or South Korea, all demonstrate that Chinese leaders are willing to subordinate economic considerations to considerations of power and prestige. In a speech marking the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party in July, Xi warned against foreign attempts to bully or oppress China, declaring that “anyone who dares try to do that will have their heads bashed bloody against the great wall of steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people.” Those words should be taken seriously. 

Finally, my critics argue that China has no need to attempt to forcibly unify with Taiwan. Lin and Sacks think peaceful unification is working; Templeman believes China can wait indefinitely to resolve the issue. I disagree because I think unification is a top priority for the Chinese Communist Party and Taiwan will not give up its autonomy without a fight. 

A Chinese invasion is by no means imminent or inevitable, but Beijing is now seriously considering initiating a conflict to gain political control over Taiwan, whereas in the past the only scenario in which it would have used force was to prevent Taipei from declaring independence. I agree with Templeman that China is unlikely to invade in the next four years (although I think this is largely because China could benefit from more time to prepare, not because it fears U.S. President Joe Biden’s resolve), but his argument that China can wait indefinitely is logically and empirically flawed. As I argued in my original article, Xi has made numerous statements that suggest he wants to achieve unification during his reign. It would be unwise to dismiss these as mere rhetoric, since he has repeatedly voiced his intention to assert control over other territorial claims before doing exactly that — in the South China Sea, by building military infrastructure and conducting naval drills, and in Hong Kong, by imposing a harsh national security law last year.

Beijing still needs to put boots on the ground to gain full political control of Taiwan.
Oriana Skylar Mastro

Templeman argues that if China believes the United States is in decline, then it has every reason to wait on Taiwan. But in the eyes of Chinese strategists, American decline actually hastens the need for action. Power transition theory, which holds that war becomes more likely as the gap between a rising power and an established great power diminishes, is also studied in Beijing. And although U.S. strategists fret that a rising China, dissatisfied with the U.S.-led international order, will become aggressive and start a conflagration, Chinese strategists fear a different pathway to war. They worry that the United States, unable to accept its inevitable decline, will make a dangerous last-ditch effort to hold on to its unrivaled great-power status. By this logic, a declining United States is more dangerous than a stable, ascendant one. 

Lin and Sacks make a different argument for why Beijing does not need to attempt armed unification. They believe that Chinese leaders remain committed to their long-standing approach of limited coercion coupled with economic incentives showcasing the benefits of unification because that strategy is working. As evidence of Beijing’s progress, Lin and Sacks point to polling that shows the majority of people in Taiwan support the status quo, not independence. But it is an enormous leap from not supporting independence to desiring or conceding to unification. As Lin and Sacks themselves acknowledge, China has employed this strategy of limited coercion and economic inducements for decades, but Taiwan is no closer to being a part of mainland China. In a September 2020 poll conducted by National Chengchi University, only six percent of Taiwanese citizens preferred eventual or immediate unification. So although Lin and Sacks are correct that Beijing will likely continue with its carrot-and-stick approach, it will still need to put boots on the ground to gain full political control of Taiwan. 

My critics also raise concerns about some of the policy implications of my argument. Odell and Heginbotham warn against focusing too much on the credibility of the U.S. military threat when it comes to deterrence, rightly highlighting the equal importance of reassurance. They warn that changes in U.S. policy toward Taiwan could convince Beijing that the United States now supports Taiwanese independence — a misperception that could lead to war. But my argument is for a change in posture, not in policy: the United States should develop the force posture and operational plans to deny China its objective in Taiwan and then credibly reveal these new capabilities. It should not make dangerous policy changes that would risk provoking a Chinese military response. Indeed, I have argued elsewhere that even if a war breaks out over Taiwan and the United States wins, Washington should not demand Taiwan’s independence as one of the terms of peace. 

Templeman raises a separate concern: that highlighting the potential costs of defending Taiwan could bolster the case of those advocating that Washington abandon Taipei. If this were a serious worry, I would be the first to shift my work to more private channels. But those calling for the United States to reconsider its commitment to defend Taiwan are still in the minority, and the Biden administration has been clear that it would come to Taiwan’s aid in the event of an invasion.

Moreover, the reaction of the U.S. Department of Defense to the threat posed by China’s growing military power has been not to back down but to ramp up efforts to counter it. From new doctrines that enhance joint capabilities between the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy to base-resilience initiatives to efforts to improve U.S. early warning systems in the region, the Pentagon is firing on all cylinders to ensure it can deter and, if necessary, defeat China in a wide range of conflict scenarios. U.S. Cyber Command, the U.S. Space Force, and the Department of Defense’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center were all established partly to counter Chinese advantages in those organizations’ respective domains. If Lin and Sacks are correct that China exaggerates its capabilities to try to convince the United States to give up, Beijing has achieved the opposite.   

In the end, all my critics highlight an important truth: the situation across the Taiwan Strait has been relatively stable for 70 years because of the United States. Washington has managed to convince Beijing that armed unification would fail and that China would pay a hefty price for trying. But China is not the same country it was 70 years ago. Its rapid military modernization, spectacular economic ascent, and growing global influence have changed Beijing’s calculus on many issues. It has taken a more assertive approach to international institutions; built one of the world’s largest, most capable militaries; and extended its economic influence deep and far throughout the world. It would be wishful thinking to assume that China has not also changed its thinking on Taiwan.

Indeed, although my critics argue that China is unlikely to invade, they still recommend that Taiwan improve its defenses and that the United States enhance its military posture in the region — not exactly a vote of confidence in Beijing’s restraint. I had hoped to convince skeptics that China is now seriously considering armed unification, but at least our debate has yielded a consensus that more must be done in Taipei and Washington to enhance deterrence across the Taiwan Strait.

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