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Deterrence in Taiwan is Failing

Author: Hal Brands

Affiliation: The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Policy

Date/Place: September 8, 2023 /USA

Type of Literature: Journal Article

Word Count: 3435



Keywords: Taiwan Strait, US-China Geopolitical Rivalry, Military Deterrence, Multilateral Alliances, Nuclear Deterrence, Western Pacific Stability



The escalating tensions between the United States and China concerning Taiwan’s future have become increasingly apparent. This paper examines an analysis by Hal Brands, which sheds light on the looming threat of war and argues that the U.S. is risking a major war with China by failing to effectively deter a conflict over Taiwan. Hal Brands presents crucial historical and geopolitical context to emphasize Taiwan’s significance. China’s evolving military capabilities and the United States’ growing military presence raise concerns about the possibility of war, prompting the exploration of critical questions posed by the author and the implications of their reasoning.

In a memo to officers in the Air Mobility Command, U.S. Air Force Gen. Mike Minihan expressed concerns about imminent conflict over Taiwan, predicting, “My gut tells me we will fight in 2025.” The leaked memo intensified focus on the deteriorating situation in the Taiwan Strait, echoing similar concerns expressed by other military and civilian officials. The August 2022 cross-strait crisis, triggered by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, underscored the potential for a conflict between the world’s leading powers. Despite attempts by the U.S. Defense Department to distance itself from Gen. Minihan’s assessment, the specter of a conflict over Taiwan persists, raising questions about the efficacy of deterrence efforts. President Joe Biden, departing from the previous policy of “strategic ambiguity,” publicly affirmed the U.S. commitment to aid Taiwan if attacked. However, effective deterrence requires more than declaratory policy; it demands a robust framework of constraints to instill fear of the consequences of war.

Taiwan’s geopolitical significance is crucial to understanding the current situation. The island’s complex status traces back to China’s civil war, with Mao Zedong in 1972expressing a willingness to wait a century to reclaim Taiwan. Presently, President Xi Jinping has set a deadline of 2027 for potential military action, underscoring the urgency felt in Beijing. Taiwan, often described as a “lock around the neck of a great dragon,” holds strategic importance in anchoring the first island chain as expressed in American geopolitical strategy in the Pacific. The Taiwan Strait Crisis of August 2022, triggered by Pelosi’s visit, exposed the region’s vulnerability to a major conflict. China’s provocative actions, including violating the Taiwan Strait’s centerline and conducting ballistic missile tests, highlighted the potential for a confrontation between the U.S. and China.

A significant driver of escalating tensions is China’s multifaceted military buildup, focusing on ships, planes, and platforms to project power into the Western Pacific. The acquisition of “counter-intervention” capabilities, such as advanced anti-ship missiles and sophisticated air defenses, accompanied by investments in nuclear capabilities, enhances China’s options for deterrence and coercion. Adm. John Aquilino notes that China is undergoing “the largest, fastest, most comprehensive military buildup since World War II.” As China’s military capabilities and urgency grow, the risk of a great-power war over Taiwan becomes more palpable. The author rightly points out that a conflict over Taiwan would be cataclysmic, with combat more intense than anything the U.S. has experienced in generations. The balance of power is shifting rapidly, with assessments indicating that Washington might find it increasingly challenging to save Taiwan from a determined assault by the late 2020s.

Deterrence, therefore, becomes imperative, demanding a multifaceted approach to dissuade China from pursuing military aggression. The U.S. and its allies face the formidable challenge of establishing a credible structure that combines denial and punishment, making any potential conflict too costly for Beijing. Five key pillars form the foundation of this deterrence strategy:

First is Taiwan’s resilient defense that stands as the linchpin in the Western Pacific by adopting an asymmetric defense to thwart potential Chinese aggression. Emphasizing a diverse array of defensive capabilities, Taiwan aims to slow and attrite Chinese forces. U.S. support, primarily through arms sales and advisory efforts, reinforces Taiwan’s ability to withstand an attack. However, internal challenges, political opposition, and delays in arms sales impede the pace of Taiwan’s defense preparations, raising questions about its ability to hold out until external help arrives.

Despite these challenges, Taiwan is undergoing promising defense reforms, signaling its transformation into a formidable adversary. Its commitment to “large numbers of small things,” including sea mines, anti-ship missiles, and mobile air defenses, underscores a dedication to unconventional strategies. While the United States recognizes Taiwan’s strategic importance and has increased support, Taiwan’s commitment to its own defense, with defense spending at just 2.4 percent of GDP, remains a concern.

U.S. military capability forms the second crucial aspect, requiring the means to counter a Chinese invasion, sink invasion fleets, and repel hostile forces. Ongoing reforms, including investments in missiles and base hardening, are positive steps. However, critical weaknesses, such as shortages of munitions and platforms, pose significant challenges. The reported lack of anti-ship missiles and other munitions to blunt a Chinese first attack highlights a potential vulnerability. The U.S. will need to pay urgent attention to prevent a decline in its firepower in the Western Pacific, especially as China’s military reforms progress.

Thirdly, multilateral alliances play a pivotal role in strengthening regional deterrence. The U.S.-Japanese alliance is evolving into a military partnership, while collaborations with Australia, the United Kingdom, and other Indo-Pacific nations contribute to a more balanced military posture. Forming a coalition can enhance denial defense and raise strategic costs for China. Despite progress, uncertainties persist regarding the explicit commitment of certain allies, emphasizing the importance of clear and unwavering support from coalition partners.

The fourth aspect involves a global punishment campaign, necessitating coordinated efforts with allies, including NATO and the G-7, to impose economic and political costs on China. The success of such a campaign relies on a unified and explicit Western position to dissuade China effectively. While the war in Ukraine showcased the ability of democracies to rally against aggression, uncertainties remain regarding global support for sanctions, with some European countries expressing reluctance.

Finally, the fifth and critical aspect is nuclear deterrence. While the use of nuclear weapons may be unlikely, dissuading China from relying on limited nuclear escalation is crucial. The U.S. nuclear arsenal’s superiority and the development of limited nuclear capabilities present a deterrence mechanism. However, China’s perceptions of resolve and the evolving nature of nuclear dynamics in the region add complexity to this aspect of deterrence. Through the end of this decade, the U.S. nuclear arsenal will remain larger and far more lethal than China’s, giving Washington dominance at the top of the escalation ladder. The Pentagon is developing and fielding limited nuclear capabilities, such as lower-yield warheads delivered via submarine-launched ballistic missiles, to close potential gaps in the escalatory ladder. Nevertheless, Chinese leaders may believe they possess greater resolve in a conflict over Taiwan, given that the island holds comparatively less importance to Washington than to Beijing. The complexities of nuclear deterrence are further compounded by recent events and the Biden administration’s stance on not intervening directly in Ukraine to avoid “World War III.” The possibility of miscalculations in Asia, where China perceives the United States as reluctant to engage in a conventional war against a nuclear-armed rival, adds another layer of uncertainty to the deterrence equation.

The author argues that deterrence is challenging to gauge precisely given its subjective nature. Understanding Xi Jinping’s calculations is complex, and the imprecise nature of deterrence adds an element of uncertainty. While progress is being made to address the growing danger, the pace of actions appears to lag behind China’s rapid preparations for a potential conflict.

Analysts debating trade-offs between global challenges oversimplify the situation. Deterrence requires a delicate balance of will and capabilities, exemplified by Indo-Pacific democracies support for Ukraine. Urgency, akin to the Truman administration’s response to the Korean War, is needed to expedite efforts and prevent a catastrophic conflict. Challenges such as spending constraints and bureaucratic hurdles must be viewed in perspective, considering the potential consequences of failing to deter Chinese aggression. In navigating this precarious path, Washington and its allies must not only recognize the growing danger, but also match their rhetoric with swift and decisive actions. The imperative of urgency must guide their efforts to deter Chinese aggression and preserve the stability of the Western Pacific. In the face of potential cataclysm, the price of peace must be paid to avert the price of war.


Effective deterrence in the Taiwan Strait demands a convergence of will and capabilities. The United States and its allies must act urgently, recognizing that time is a finite asset. The Truman-era wisdom that failing to pay the price of peace results in paying the price of war remains relevant. Acknowledging the imperative of urgency is crucial to deterring Chinese aggression and preserving the stability of the Western Pacific. In the face of potential cataclysm, the price of peace must be paid to avert the price of war. The multifaceted nature of deterrence in the Taiwan Strait, involving Taiwan’s resilient defense, U.S. military reforms, multilateral alliances, a global punishment campaign, and nuclear deterrence, underscores the complexity of the challenge. The ongoing war in Ukraine serves as a reminder of the interconnectedness of global security challenges and the need for a unified and expedited response.


By: Mohammed Yaslam Al-Shaibah, CIGA Research Intern



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