On Taiwan: An Option between Total War and Withdrawal for the U.S.


For more than a half century, the United States has been able to help deter the use of force by China and Taiwan.  Yet the new dynamic in the area surrounding Taiwan has increased the likelihood of use of force. How the United States responds will have enormous implications for both the Chinese, and the allies of the U.S. in the South and East China sea. To avoid the catastrophic impact of total war and the implications of abandoning an ally, the author examines one option between the two that the U.S. can adopt.

By Noriya Nakazawa,7th November, 2015

Time to Focus on Taiwan

Despite recent developments in cultural and economic relations between China and Taiwan, the two have also been engaged in increased military rivalry. In June the People’s Liberation Army (PLA: China’s Army) conducted simulation attack against Taiwan.[1] The Taiwanese then soon performed their own defensive exercise against China.[2] The Taiwanese Democratic Progress Party (TDPP), which is almost certain to win in the coming national election in 2016, has a fundamental policy for independence, which will definitely strain Taipei-Beijing relations.[3] In case the confrontation results in a military conflict, the US will have trouble not only with freedom of navigation around Taiwan, but will also have to make the choice of whether it abandons Taiwan or not.

For more than a half century, the United States has been able to help deter the use of force by China and Taiwan. In 2004, a visiting researcher at Kyoto University stated that it is U.S. forces supported by Japan’s Emergency-at-Periphery Law of 1999, which deterred China’s invasion of Taiwan.[4] However, the international security environment in 2015 has changed since then. Today China is trying to establish its own regional hegemony, therefore resulting in a bilateral rivalry between China and the United States.[5] In fact, the change in the security environment around Taiwan, now covered by China’s Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2AD) Strategy, makes it obvious that the US can no longer easily deploy its aircraft carriers there; this is due to concerns about escalation. Nevertheless, the US should maintain its commitment to Taiwan to maintain stability in East Asia. US withdrawal from its commitment towards Taiwan will generate much negative effect, such as regional arms-race involving other nations suppressed by China.

To find a Pareto optimal approach to the situation the US has to keep supporting Taiwan militarily, and also maintaining US forces’ posture to relegate China at least out of the East Coast of Taiwan within a frame of limited war. In short, US Strategic Ambiguity needs to become a little more lucid.

The Chinese Anti-Secession Law

     After inauguration of Chen Shui-bian as the Taiwanese president in 2000, China increased pressure on Chen by alluding to possible use of force against Taiwan.[6] In response to that pressure, Chen stated that there was no doubt about the fact Taiwan belonged to the Taiwanese people, and the public mood for independence rose in Taiwan from 2003 through 2004.[7] After those political exchanges between China and Taiwan, China established the 2005 Anti-Secession Law.[8] This Law stipulates that reunification with Taiwan is a domestic matter, and that no foreign power should intervene in it. Additionally, the Law articulates China’s right to use force against Taiwan:[9]

Article 8: In the event that the “Taiwan independence” secessionist forces should act under any name or by any means to cause the fact of Taiwan’s secession from China, or that major incidents entailing Taiwan’s secession from China should occur, or that possibilities for a peaceful reunification should be completely exhausted, the state shall employ non-peaceful means and other necessary measures to protect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Thus since 2005 China has kept the possibility of attacking Taiwan on the table as a possible course of action, should Taiwan show will or movement towards independence.

China’s Favorable Military Balance against Taiwan

     The increasing military gap between China and Taiwan will work as a variable to influence a future possible military conflict between them. As to China’s military strength, it is obvious that China enhances it year by year. IHS Jane, an international defense review, estimates China’s military budget in 2015 to amount to 141.6 billion dollars, which is a 10.1% growth from the previous year, and a double in comparison with the military budget of 2008.[10] The Annual Report to Congress in 2015 by US Department of Defense concludes that China’s military growth is primarily for preparation for a military conflict with Taiwan.[11] On the other hand, Taiwan has gradually reduced its military size, following Taiwan’s defense policy for the transition to all-volunteer military forces by January 2017.[12]

In 2005, the Taiwanese Army maintained 200,000 soldiers vis-a-vis 375,000 PLA soldiers over the Taiwan Strait. The Taiwanese Navy maintained 27 combat vessels against 47 of the PLA Navy (PLAN), and the Taiwanese Air Force maintained 420 combat aircrafts against 1,500 of the PLA Air Force (PLAA).[13] When comparing the numbers of the military branches of each force ten years later (2015), we notice that the gap has widened more to China’s favor: 130,000 Taiwanese soldiers face 400,000 PLA soldiers, 27 Taiwanese warships with 67 on the PLAN side, and 388 Taiwanese combat aircrafts with 1,700 PLAA aircrafts.[14] If these gaps increase in the future and China gains more military leverage over Taiwan, China’s opportunity cost for military invasion of Taiwan will decrease. Since the decreased cost for the invasion of Taiwan lowers the hurdle for China to use force against Taiwan, the possibility of China’s use of force against Taiwan will rise.

China’s Criteria to Use Forces and Identity Change inside Taiwan

China has stated the reunification of Taiwan is an important matter. On the other hand, China emphasizes peaceful reunification is the best option in China’s Anti-Secession Law. Considering those two facts, it seems that China will use forces to reunify Taiwan only after careful consideration.

     The annual report to Congress by the US Department of Defense analyzes China’s consideration to use forces against Taiwan. That report says that China will attack Taiwan in one of the following cases:

Formal declaration of Taiwanese independence, Undefined moves toward Taiwanese independence, Internal unrest in Taiwan, Taiwan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, Indefinite delays in the resumption of cross-Strait dialogue on unification, Foreign intervention in Taiwan’s internal affairs, and Foreign forces stationed in Taiwan.[15]

Hence, if Taiwan meets one of those conditions, China will, according to the above-mentioned analyses, attack or use forces against Taiwan. As a recent example in the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1995 and 1996, China actually demonstrated its possible military attack against Taiwan because China saw a condition, which allowed China to use force. During that crisis, China regarded Lee Teng-hui’s visit in the US as a step toward Taiwan’s two-China policy, and decided to use military measures to pose a threat to Taiwan.[16]

     When focusing on people’s preference inside Taiwan, one of the conditions is gradually being met. An indicator is the local election of November 2014, where the Taiwanese people began favoring the pro-independence TDPP with 47.5% of the votes defeating the one-China Kuomintang of China (KMT) with their 40.7%.[17] Moreover, as a result of a census in April 2015, 89.3% of the Taiwanese people do not regard themselves as Chinese but as Taiwanese, and 68% of people in Taiwan think that Taiwan is an independent sovereign country.[18]

     It is unclear whether Taiwan will move towards independence or not after Taiwan finishes its national election on 16 January 2016.[19] At this time, as Tsai Ing-wen, a leader of the TDPP, officially states that the TDPP will maintain the current bilateral relations with China, a possible new administration in Taiwan will not declare Taiwan’s independence if the TDPP wins.[20] Yet, there is a danger of new pro-independence civil movements being led by the student movement in Taiwan, because of the TDPP leadership.

There was a recent students’ movement of anti-China sentiments. It was the Sunflower Movement (太陽花學運) in March 2014. Students, who were against the pro-China policy led by President Ma Ying-jeou, occupied the Taiwanese during that movement.[21] Hidenori Ijiri, a Professor of Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, points out an anti-China aspect of the Sunflower Movement with explanation of features about the young Taiwanese people, who are called the Strawberry Generation.[22] A part of the public announcement of the Sunflower Movement articulates that the movement is to protect Taiwan’s democracy against China, and that Taiwan should continue to pursue self-determination in spite of China’s wishes.[23]

     If a future movement results in unlimited activities towards independence or insurgency in Taiwan, China would decide to use force against Taiwan. The possibility is not low because a civil movement coupled with young generations often shows unmeasurable energy. China also experienced such a movement on 4 June 1989 in front of the Tiananmen Square. That is, it is reasonable that China will fear an unlimited civil movement in Taiwan and attack it on a basis of its domestic law.

US Rebalancing Strategy and Taiwan

     From the view point of US presence in East Asia, US Rebalancing Strategy clearly works in some regions; however, it is not clear around Taiwan. For better understandings, it is reasonable to divide East Asia into three parts for analysis: 1) Japan, Korean Peninsula and their vicinity, 2) the South China Sea, and 3) the sea around Taiwan. In the first region around Japan and Korean Peninsula, US Rebalancing Strategy works well. The US has kept its strong and effective military power in that region and it has the bilateral defense treaties with Japan and South Korea.[24] Additionally, now the US plans to reinforce its military forces there. Especially, the US plans to increases military assets in Japan to enhance allied deterrence on a basis of the Joint Statement of the Security Consultative Committee on 27 April 2015.[25] Those increased US military forces around Japan and the South Korea will enhance US deterrence against China, strengthening US will and capability.

     In the second region, the South China Sea, the US is redeveloping its presence, which the US once lost. The US is increasing its military operations and strengthening relations with regional allies and friendly nations. Thus, it is clear that US conduct rebalancing against China. After the Cold War, US troops withdrew from Subic Naval Base in 1991 and they did from Clark Air Base in 1992.[26] Because of degraded US presence and deterrence in the South China Sea, China expanded its presence there. For instance, China occupied Mischief Reef in Spratly Islands in 1994,[27] thereby increasing its presence. M. Taylor Fravel points out that China will not soften its diplomatic policy over islands dispute if China does not have any other primary threat.[28] As he explains, China has maintained its aggressive diplomatic policy and activities in the South China Sea because China was no longer afraid of US intervention. The US notices the importance of retrieving its presence in the South China Sea. Now the US tries increasing its deterrence against China by sending military forces there and making concerned countries’ different attitude aligned against China.[29]

     Nevertheless, it is still unclear what the US tries to do around Taiwan. To my best knowledge, there is no clear statement for Taiwan in the current US rebalancing strategy.

US Strategic Ambiguity

The US Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979 plays a role in terms of US Strategic Ambiguous against Taiwan. The US admitted Peoples Republic of China (PRC: China) as the only sovereign nation to represent China in 1978. In December 1979, the US discarded the Mutual Defense Treaty with the Republic of China (PRC: Taiwan). On the other hand, the US established the TRA to protect the Taiwanese people’s human rights. The TRA articulates that the US provides Taiwan with defensive weaponry to protect it against China. Moreover, although the sentence does not clearly mean US military protection for Taiwan, the TRA stipulates, “to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.”[30]

As for those two US responsibilities to protect Taiwan, the US obviously conducts provision of defensive arms to Taiwan in spite of China’s strong opposition.[31] On 4 November 2014, US Admiral Jonathan Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations of the US Navy, emphasized US responsibility based on the TRA, “[w]ith regard to Taiwan, the US has responsibilities with a treaty with Taiwan. The US will honor those responsibilities and has a process worked out with the US Department of State… [a]nd then the US implements provision to assist Taiwan…”[32] After that, in December 2014, the US decided to sell four Oliver Hazard Perry-class missile frigates to Taiwan.

     On the other hand, the US would no longer deploy its military forces to deter Sino-Taiwanese military conflicts just as the US did send aircraft carriers around Taiwan during the past crises. Although this article will discuss those details later, one reason for the low possibility of US military intervention is China’s preference of massive and precise surprise attacks and Anti-Access Area-Denial (A2/AD) capability against US forces.[33] Those two China’s military features degrade US power projection capability around Taiwan, thereby reducing US deterrence by punishment and denial, which were once effective against China. Thus, it is likely that the US is not able to send its military forces to protect Taiwan.

     Greenert emphasizes US responsibilities for Taiwan; however, the TRA does not clearly articulate US responsibility to deploy US military forces for defense of Taiwan. Hence, it is understandable that a political decision will finally determine US military operations for Taiwan. If so, it is hard for US leaders to decide a military intervention against strong China, which may result in large causalities.


Unclear US will to Defend Taiwan

     The US must have regarded Taiwan as a strategic importance in US security strategy. The US did not recognize the importance of Taiwan until the time when the Korean War broke out in 1950. Actually, the US did not include Taiwan in US defense area in the Far East until the occurrence of the Korean War.[34] However, after Harry Truman’s “Statement by the President on the Situation in Korea,” in which the president ordered the US Seventh Fleet to defend Taiwan from China and to observe Taiwan’s cease fire against China, the US has kept its strong tie with Taiwan.[35] At this time, the US has practical relations with Taiwan based on the TRA.

     In spite of US-Taiwan historical relations, to my best knowledge, US official strategic documents do not have specific policy on Taiwan’s defense. For instance, the “US National Security Strategy in 2015” does not have concerns about Taiwan’s defense but ongoing issues in the South China Sea such as keeping the right of freedom of navigation.[36] Additionally, “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Sea power,” by the US Navy, the Marine Corp and the Coast Guard, do not include anything about Taiwan.[37]

     However, some researchers state that US strategy towards Taiwan’s defense is an indirect approach. Dean Chen, a lecturer at University of California, Santa Barbara, discusses that US policy. Chen explains that the US keeps provision of arms for Taiwan to promote its democracy and to maintain its status against China, and the US works on Taiwan not to provoke China, such as persuading Taiwan not to declare Taiwan’s independence of China.[38] When focusing on maintaining Taiwan’s status against China, for instance “Hard ROC 2.0: Taiwan and Deterrence Through Protraction,” offered by Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), actually suggests not US military protection of Taiwan but increasing Taiwan’s own deterrence by denial to keep Taiwan’s position against China.[39] For these reasons, one US strategy for Taiwan’s defense is to increase Taiwan’s own deterrence against China.

     It is still in question whether the US will use force to protect Taiwan in case of a failure of Taiwan’s deterrence against China. As for US policy about Taiwan’s defense, the US does not state clearly its intension to defend Taiwan. Joseph Bosco, a member of the U.S.-China task force at the Center for the National Interest and a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, insists that the US abandon its strategic ambiguity on Taiwan and show its clear will to defend Taiwan.[40] On the other hand Hugh White, a professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defense Studies Centre, states that Taiwan has no value for the US to defend it with costly military measurements.[41] Furthermore, Charles Glaser, a professor in the Elliott School of International Affairs and the Department of Political Science at George Washington University, argues that the US should abandon Taiwan against China to get a peaceful solution in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, and to ensure China’s consent about the future US presence in East Asia.[42] Because of the current US ambiguity for using force and Taiwan’s low-estimated value, it is difficult to reach a plausible conclusion that the US will protect Taiwan by military means.

The Potential Military Significance of Taiwan

     In terms of military strategy, in the present Taiwan’s values is not always crucial to the US. The following paragraphs discuss Taiwan’s strategic values from the two viewpoints: the first case in which Taiwan enjoys the present status quo and the second case that Taiwan becomes under China’s control. After analyzing those two situations, it becomes clear that Taiwan’s value is not worth a total war against China.

     As far as Taiwan maintains its present status against China, the US could improve its deterrence Mark Stokes, the Executive Director of the Project 2049 Institute, and Russell Hsiao, a senior research fellow at the institute, argue that Taiwan’s tactical information is important to US military operations because Taiwan is inside China’s A2/AD environment.[43] That is, Taiwan can collect so many acoustic signals, electric signals and other information that the US will be able to know essential information to conduct military operations. For instance, if the US knows a part of malfunction of China’s air-warning radar systems, it can exploit its small hole to intrude into China. Additionally, Robert Kaplan points out Taiwan’s geopolitical importance for the US to project its power through Taiwan, referring to it as the unsinkable aircraft carrier.[44]

If China reunified Taiwan, US deterrence by both denial and punishment would reduce its effectiveness because the PLA Navy (PLAN) would acquire easy access to deep seas in the western Pacific. As to this issue, Bosco points out that China’s submarines would be able to dive into the deep sea without passing shallow waters from the east coast of Taiwan – although PLAN submarines likely have to keep their snorkels above the sea surface from PLAN bases at China’s east coast up to around Okinawa islands’ line.[45] Actually, in the sea below lat. 24°30’ N along the east coast of Taiwan, the sea depth becomes more than 1000m within 12 nautical miles from the coast, and it reaches more than 2000m at some places in that area. If China’s submarines dived into such deep level shortly after departing naval bases at Taiwan’s east coast, it would become difficult to detect those submarines and locate their area of probability. As a result, US naval assets would face much threat against sudden attacks from China’s submarines. That US vulnerability against China’s submarines will surely degrade US deterrence against China. Especially if China’s strategic submarines would achieve easy access to the deep sea, China’s deterrence by punishment will improve owing to enhanced survivability of the China’s nuclear second-strike capability.

Taiwan’s military values are not sufficient to draw the US into a direct military conflict with China to protect Taiwan. That is because the US can select more reasonable options than defending Taiwan from China, while maintaining the efficacy of US military strategy in the west Pacific region. For instance, the US can use and develop its bases in Japan and Philippines to regain US deterrence against China. If Taiwan became a part of China, Japan and Philippines would welcome more US troops because of their increased concerns against China. Additionally, in case of Taiwan’s surrender, the US could form alliances to encompass China as Michael Pillsbury argues, and maintain US deterrence against China.[46] Thus, a total war for defense of Taiwan is not a good option to the US.

US Military Difficulties about Taiwan Defense

     A problem in the military strategy level is that the US will not be able to conduct a total war against China because there is a possible danger to lead to a thermonuclear war. Although China operates three Type 094 (Jin-class) ballistic missile submarines, the US estimates that China will increase the number of Jin-class submarines to eight by 2020.[47] As Jin-class submarine’s CSS-NX-14 (JL-2), a submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM), will reach up to 7,400km, it is an important measurement for China’s nuclear deterrence against the US.[48] Besides, operating three Jin-class submarines means that at least one of them is patrolling at the sea if China keeps a cycle of duty, training and maintenance. That is, China maintains the survivable second nuclear strike capability against the US and other nuclear powers. Additionally, China explicitly states it in China’s defense white paper in 2015 that China will carry out a nuclear counter-attack.[49] Now China has both nuclear capability and clear will, which are essential factors of deterrence. Robert Jervis explains that nuclear weapons deter a total war between nuclear powers – although nuclear weaponry alone cannot keep the peace.[50] On a basis of Jervis’s theory, the US would not be able to conduct unlimited military operations against China, disregarding a possibility of escalation. In that case, the US will have to fight against China within a limited-war frame, which China can recognize as a limited war, even if the US launches military campaigns. That limited-war frame means operations only by conventional weaponry and within limited area. Those missions will force severe restrictions in each operation and many casualties as the US experienced in the Korean War and the Vietnam War, thereby increasing public opposition in the US and decreasing a possibility of success.

     A problem in operational level is that the US will have trouble keeping its air and sea superiority against China at the west area of Taiwan because of China’s A2/AD capability. Since the result of the First Gulf War in 1991 shook China, after 1999 the PLA has developed its military capability, focusing on asymmetric warfare.[51] Now the PLA makes the efforts to develop its A2/AD capability against the US. This A2/AD capability consists of electric warfare, cyber warfare, long-range accurate attacks (ballistic missile s and cruising missiles), ballistic missile defense, surface warfare, undersea warfare, space/anti-space warfare, and integrated air defense to deter or eliminate the third parties intervention in China’s anti-Taiwan operations.[52] For instance, as for the geographical aspect, PLA sets three-layered defense area.[53] The first defense layer covers the area between 540 and 1,000 nautical miles from China’s mainland. In this first layer, which roughly lies over Japan’s Bungo Strait through Ogasawara Islands in the Pacific Ocean, China will attack enemies by anti-ship ballistic missiles and submarines. The second layer covers the area between 270 and 540 nautical miles, in which Japan’s Kyushu Island and the most of Okinawa Islands exist. China will deploy submarine and aircrafts in this area. In the final layer, China will use surface combatants, aircrafts and submarines to attack enemies. This layer covers Taiwan and the western part of Okinawa Islands. Thus, it seems difficult for US troops to conduct military operations to protect Taiwan by attacking PLA forces in the west area of Taiwan because China has improves its A2/AD capability as mentioned above.

Ijiri states that it is possible to defend Taiwan if Taiwan can avoid the surrender to China until US aircraft carriers arrive around Taiwan.[54] Yet, his statement does not have enough evidence. Ijiri does not mention details about the condition, which US military forces require to succeed in defending Taiwan. In other words, it is still unclear how and where US aircraft carriers can conduct successful operations against China. Hence, this paper conducts an analysis about US aircraft carrier operations from military perspectives. In order for the US to protect Taiwan against PLA invasion, US forces will have to maintain the military superiority around the west coast of Taiwan. Given that the arrival position of US aircraft carriers means a specific, in which the aircraft carriers’ strike packages can reach the west of Taiwan, US FA-18E/F fighters will have to penetrate China’s air defense system.[55] Actually, the Chinese defense network has anti-aircraft missiles, such as SA-N-20 ship-to-air missiles and S-400 surface-to-air missile, and interceptors from land bases, and a Chinese aircraft carrier.[56] As FA-18E/Fs are not stealth aircrafts, China’s satellites, land-based radars and early air warning aircrafts, will likely catch those US aircrafts. Thus, in that case it is hard for FA-18E/Fs to accomplish attacks against PLA troops without many casualties. Additionally, when comparing US F-18E/F fighter with China’s J-11 fighter, there is not major difference between their combat ranges.[57] This fact will reduce the possibility of US aircraft carriers’ success because China’s JH-7 fighters and H-6K bombers, escorted by J-11 fighter, could attack US aircrafts by YJ-12 anti-ship missiles if US aircraft carriers conduct operations to keep their superiority in the west area of Taiwan.

     There is another serious problem for US aircraft to defend Taiwan because possible China’s attacks at US carrier strike groups will come not only from aircrafts but also from surface combatants, submarines, cyber area and the space. For instance, China’s attacks from the space alone impose significant restriction to US carrier strike groups. The PLA has DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missiles. The most important effect of those DF-21Ds would be to keep away US aircraft carriers from that missile’s range.[58] That is, US aircraft carriers will have to operate more than 810 nautical miles away from China’s mainland. As US F-18E/F fighter’s combat range is 1,275 nautical miles, those fighters will not be able to take military deception such as to attack via completely different direction from US aircraft carriers’ positions.[59] If China detects rough location of US aircraft carriers, it is easy for the PLAN to accumulate its assets along the expected attacking routes of US strike packages. This increased China’s air defense assets will make US military operations much difficult. Additionally, PLAN warships and submarines will attack US aircrafts. Under such severe hostile environment, US aircraft carriers will not always be able to succeed in maintaining their superiority in the west area of Taiwan. It is highly possible that several hundred thousand of PLA troops will successfully land on Formosa.

     A problem in operational and tactical level is that US forces will not be able to start operations in time. In other words, US troops will not be likely to reach their operation areas to protect Taiwan before PLA soldiers start invasion of Taiwan. Allen S. Whiting, a professor at the University of Arizona, explains that China will possibly take a preemptive attack because it prefers to take initiative in using forces.[60] The reality is that China will use more than 1,100 short-range ballistic missiles, aircrafts, cruising missiles, cyber-attacks, Special Forces and betrayer’s sabotage to conduct a surprise attack.[61] If China’s landing operations on Taiwan follow shortly after the first surprise attack, it is doubtful that US aircraft carriers will arrive to intercept China’s invasion, overcoming the tyranny of distance. James Holmes, a professor of US Naval War College, points out that US forces will not come early because of complicated bureaucratic and political procedures in the US.[62] US troops will not able to reach around Taiwan early enough to defend Taiwan if China secretly prepares a war and suddenly attacks Taiwan.

     Those three problems in each level will affect US grand strategy and US leaders will hesitate to order US forces to defend Taiwan. Hence, it is unlikely at this moment that the US will positively conduct defensive military operations for Taiwan. This fact means now that Taiwan plays a role in deterring China’s attack. In other words, in spite of US aircraft carries, which have trouble protecting Taiwan, Taiwan’s own deterrence by denial is the most important factor to maintain the stability around Taiwan. This situation is so vaporable that no one can tell whether Taiwan will be able to deter China’s use of force against Taiwan or not.

What is the problem?

     The US should not and cannot fight a total war for Taiwan as mentioned above. Nevertheless, the US will face a problem if it abandons Taiwan. If the US does not defend Taiwan at all, other countries in East Asia and South East Asia will rush into building strong military capability to deter China. Although Glaser seems for abandoning Taiwan, even he mentions possible objections from US allies. That is because US abandoning its commitment to Taiwan would deteriorate US credibility of defense commitments to them.[63]

Glaser argues that the concern is overstated. His stance, however, is mistaken because it is merely an American defensive realist’s view, which does not see the problem from the perspective of other countries around Taiwan. From a Japanese view, if the US abandons Taiwan, it also implies the future possibility that the US would abandon  Japan to tie up with China. In such a case Japan would have to consider acquiring more effective weapons, to deal with potential nuclear blackmail. If the US does not protect small democratic Taiwan from the current authoritarian China, other states must recognize that the security environment in East Asia is based on pure Realism. Hence, they will prepare for a war to defend their land, thereby accelerating a dangerous arms-race. That arms-race may not be a direct threat to the US; however, the US will have to invest much in deterrence cost to enjoy freedom of navigation in East Asia. In sum, the US has to select a Pareto optimal answer between selling Taiwan, and total war for Taiwan.

Taiwan’s Deterrence by denial as the Key

     The point is how the US supports Taiwan to improve its deterrence by denial. That is because Taiwan’s deterrence by punishment will not only invoke China’s attacks but also be useless against China’s surprise attacks. The best weaponry to enhance deterrence by punishment is nuclear weapons; however, it will prompt China’s attacks against Taiwan. If Taiwan gets A-bombs, China will invade Taiwan as the US Navy assumes.[64] Moreover, only if Taiwan tries to acquire A-bombs, it is natural to expect that China will immediately attack Taiwan because Taiwan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons will force China to live with the situation of mutual assured destruction against Taiwan. Thus, China will destroy Taiwan’s military capability before it is too late.

Other assets like a large surface combatants and combat aircrafts are useful to improve deterrence by punishment; nevertheless, they will be useless in Taiwan’s case because of their vulnerability against China’s surprise attacks albeit their high costs. In terms of surprise attacks, the most important point is Taiwan would have difficulty detecting signs of China’s attacks due to its proximity to China. For instance, sudden attacks by China’s short range ballistic missiles are effective to destroy Taiwan’s forces.[65] For instance, China has CSS-6 variant short range ballistic missiles with range of 950 km and the circular error probable of 10 to 30 m.[66] It means that those CSS-6s can hit the Taiwanese navy’s Oliver Hazard Perry class surface combatants, length: 133.5 m and beam: 13.5 m, if they are moored in a base.[67] It is the same story about Taiwanese runways, combat aircrafts, radar sites and other important facilities. As this estimation explains, large assets for deterrence by punishment are useless in spite of their high costs to acquire and maintain. Hence, Taiwan should improve its defensive capability to enhance deterrence by denial. Yet, Taiwan alone would not achieve such strong deterrence because it is so small against China and surrounded by the ocean. Hence, the US needs to support Taiwan’s efforts to gain its deterrence.

Making Taiwan’s East Coast Sanctuary

     The US need to protect the east area of Taiwan for the purpose of the Taiwanese guerrilla warfare base. The US will not commit a total war against China; therefore, preparation for a total war is not efficient in terms of deterrence. That is because logically little will to conduct a total war does not ensure enough deterrence. Yet, it will be able to take limited options like combinations from military aid and a limited war against China. Additionally, the US cannot expect much against Japan because Japan does not have a domestic law like the US TRA and has official policy not to touch the Cross Strait Issue. Thus, possible US options are as follows: 1) only military aid, 2) military aid and maintenance of US posture to fight a limited war, and 3) official treaty to defense Taiwan’s east coast. Since this paper is not a policy paper, it summarizes each option.

     The first option of military aid is doubtful in terms of efficacy because neither the US nor Taiwan could get appropriate profit against cost for military equipment. Military aid alone will not improve Taiwanese deterrence by denial, due to large weaponry’s vulnerability against China’s surprise attacks. After losing all large weapons, Taiwan would keep its small arms safe and use them for guerrilla warfare against China. Yet, if China invades Taiwan from all directions, the survived Taiwan’s army will have to withdraw into the middle mountainous area. That Taiwanese army will be able to do little operations. Sooner or later that Taiwanese army will suffer from the lack of food and weaponry as Japan did in Philippines and many other battle fields in South East Asia. Thus, no matter how much weaponry Taiwan received from the US, it alone would not improve Taiwan’s deterrence by denial.

     The second option, military aid and implication of US protection of the east side of Taiwan, is effective because the US can avoid complete competition with China and keep a frame of limited war while enhancing Taiwan’s deterrence by denial. US aircraft carriers will be able to support Taiwanese military in the east side of Taiwan, controlling escalation by avoiding China’s attacks on them. Additionally, US submarines will not need to be afraid of China’s mines so much in the deep seas in the east side of Taiwan. Even such limited US operations will contribute to the Taiwanese forces’ resilience and sustainability. That is because US-Taiwan superiority in the east coast of Taiwan will reduce possibility of China’s attacks from that direction, thereby increasing Taiwanese forces’ capability to continue a protracted war against China. That US support will also encourage Taiwanese moral. In other words, Taiwanese forces will be able to keep attacking China’s invaders for a long time like the North Vietnamese guerrilla warfare against US forces, using protected Taiwan’s east coast as a foundation of anti-China war. This foundation will increase Taiwan’s deterrence by denial based on asymmetric and protracted warfare as offered by CSBA. That is, if PLA forces come from the west coast of Taiwan, Chinese landing troops will face Taiwanese guerrilla warfare units from the eastern part of Taiwan. In that case, as China has to bear a protracted war against Taiwanese forces like the US experienced in Iraq, China’s opportunity cost to invade Taiwan will increases. The increased cost will force China’s leaders to seek other political solutions against Taiwan than use of force. Hence, increasing possibility of US limited military intervention will increase Taiwan’s deterrence by denial against China and reduce possibility of China’s invasion of Taiwan, thereby sustaining the stability around Taiwan. This stability will reduce a danger of arms-race in East Asia as well. As far as the US implies its possible military intervention in a Sino-Taiwanese conflict albeit limited defensive operations, other countries feel safe against China’s aggression and no necessity to launch costly and dangerous arms-race.

     This second option is good in practice inside and outside the US. As for US domestic politics, this option is more probable than abandoning Taiwan’s defense because it has at least a concept to defense democratic country in a direct manner as last resort. US citizens will support this option better than mere military aid. Additionally, it is possible that the US can imply its intention to defend Taiwan without clear statements. If the US organizes and develops specific military capability for defense of Taiwan in East Asia, China will assume US intention and count it into China’s decision making process. International trainings by the US and allies will contribute US implication to China. Thus, the US can let China assume US possibility to intervene without clearly speaking its intention and directly confronting China.

     The third option, public announcement of US protection of Taiwan, is apparently inappropriate because it surely worsens US-Sino relations and increases possibility of a war between China and Taiwan. If the US announces its will to defend Taiwan, China will be likely to invade Taiwan on a basis of China’s Anti-Secession Law, regarding US announcement as foreign power to promote Taiwan’s independence. Although the purpose of this US strategy for Taiwan is to maintain the stability around Taiwan, provoking China’s invasion is far from that object. Hence, the thirds option is not good in terms of compatibility.

Revised US Strategic Ambiguity

As analyzed in this paper, US possibility of success in defending Taiwan from China’s landing operations is low. Wu argued it in 2004 that US Strategic Ambiguity about possible intervention deterred military conflicts between China and Taiwan. Nevertheless, now it is obvious that Wu’s theory is no longer suitable for the changed situation made by China’s military improvement.

US implications of conducting limited defensive operations for Taiwan, stated in this paper, are not the same policy called US Strategic Ambiguity, but a revised one. On a basis of the New Strategic Ambiguity, the US should develop its military capability and deepen ties with allies in order to create sanctuary in the east side of Taiwan. Additionally, the US needs to positively imply its will and let China fear possible US military intervention. As US relative military capability against China becomes lower, the US needs to make its intention more obvious to maintain effective deterrence.


Noriya Nakazawa is Lieutenant Commander of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF). He graduated from Japan’s National Defense Academy in 2003, and joined the JMSDF as a surface warfare officer. He is currently a graduate student of the Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy program at the Fletcher School, Tufts University, as well as a staffer of the JMSDF Command and Staff College, Tokyo.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force or Japan Ministry of Defense.

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[2] Ralph Jennings, “Taiwan simulates attacks by China,” CTV News, 10 September 2015, http://www.ctvnews.ca/.

[3] Taiwan held a local election in November 2014, which could be a precursor of the next national election. In the local election, TDPP defeat Taiwanese Nationalist Party. On a basis of this result, it is likely that TDPP will win the national election and make the TDPP administration.

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[6] Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, “China’s National Defense in 2000,” October 2000, http://china.org.cn/.

[7] Jacob Bercovitch; Mikio Oishi, International conflict in the Asia-Pacific: Patterns, consequences and management (repr. New York: Routledge, 2010), 87.

[8] People’s Republic of China, “Anti-Secession Law,” 14 March 2005, http://www.china. org.cn/english; Chunjuan Nancy Wei, “China’s Anti-Secession Law and Hu Jintao’s Taiwan Policy,” Yale Journal of International Affairs Volume 5, Issue 1(Winter 2010), pp. 112-127. This article explains a story about establishment of China’s Anti-Secession Law.

[9] People Republic of China, “Anti-Secession Law,” Article 8.

[10] IHS Jane’s 360, “China’s defence budget more than doubles since 2008,” 4 March 2015, http://www.janes.com/.

[11] “ANNUAL REPORT TO CONGRESS: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2015,” Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2015, p. 6.

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[13] “ANNUAL REPORT TO CONGRESS Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2005,” Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2005, p. 43.

[14] “ANNUAL REPORT TO CONGRESS Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2015,” p. 78.

[15] Ibid, p. 57.

[16] Dean P. Chen, US Taiwan Strait Policy (Boulder: FirstForumPress, 2012), p. 50.

[17] Robert A. Manning, “Forget the South China Sea: Taiwan Could Be Asia’s Next Big Security Nightmare,” The National Interest, 5 December 2014, http://nationalinterest.org/.

[18] “Taiwan Brain Trust Trend Survey,” New Taiwan Peace Foundation Taiwan Brain Trust, April 2015, http://en.braintrust.tw/.

[19] “総統・副総統選挙と立法院選挙の投票を2016年1月16日に同日実施 [Soutou Huku Soutou Senkyo to Rippouin Senkyo no Touhyou wo 2016 Nen 1 Gatsu 16 Nichi ni Doujitsu Jissi [Presidential and vice Presidential election, and the Diet election will be held on the same day 16 January 2016]]”, Taipei economic and cultural representative office in Japan, 18 March 2015, http://www.taiwanem bassy.org/.

[20] “中台は「現状維持」 台湾野党・蔡主席が明言 [Chutai wa Genjou Iji Taiwan Yatou Sai Shuseki ga Meigen [Maintaining the status quo between China and Taiwan, stated Tsai Ing-wen]],” 朝日新聞DIGITAL [Asashi Shinbun DIGITAL], 10 April 2015, http://www.asahi.com/.

[21] “太陽花學運 [Taiyouka Gakuren [the Sunflower Movement]),” http://himawariundo.wix.com/himawa riundo, Accessed on 18 March 2015. Students of the Sunflower Movement occupied the Taiwanese Diet and requested to remand the Service trade agreement with China, which Ma led.

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[23] “太陽花學運 [Taiyouka Gakuren [the Sunflower Movement]]”

[24] Section V of the US-Japan Security Treaty in 1960 articulates US responsibility to defend Japan. Section VI of that Treaty regulates that US forces can use Japanese facilities and area to protect Japan’s security and to keep the peace and security in the Far East. The US and Korea have also maintained the Mutual Defense Treaty since October 1953.

[25] “JOINT STATEMENT OF THE SECURITY CONSULTATIVE COMMITTEE,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, 27 April 2015, http://www.mofa.go.jp/.  The statement emphasizes 1) Alliance Coordination Mechanism, which enables a seamless response in all phases, from peacetime to contingencies, 2) Regional and Global Cooperation for greater contributions to international security initiatives, 3) New Strategic Cooperation to work on space and cyberspace, 4) Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief to respond to a huge disaster in Japan or around the world, and 5) A Strong Foundation for bilateral cooperation in defense equipment, technology, intelligence, information security and education and research.

[26] 福田保 [Tamotsu Fukuda], “東南アジアにおける米国同盟 [Tounan Ajia ni Okeru Beikoku Doumei [US alliances in South East Asia]],” 日米関係の今後の展開と日本の外交 [Nichibei Kankei no Kongo no Tenkai to Nihon no Gaikou [Estimation about the future Japan-US Relations and Japan’s Diplomacy]] (Tokyo: The Japan Institute of International Affairs, 9 May 2011), http://www2.jiia.or.jp/.

[27] M. Taylor Fravel, STRONG BORDERS, SECURE NATION (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), p. 296.

[28] Ibid, pp. 298-299.

[29] Michael Swaine, “Averting a Deepening U.S.-China Rift Over the South China Sea,” The National Interest, 2 June 2015, http://nationalinterest.org/.

[30] “TAIWAN RELATIONS ACT,” The United States of America, 1 January 1979.

[31] “China lodges protest after Obama approves Taiwan frigate sale,” Reuters, 19 Dec 2014, http://www.reuters.com/.

[32] Jonathan Greenert, “Remarks at The Brookings Institution: “Charting the Navy’s Future in a Changing Maritime Domain,”” 4 November 2014, http://www.navy.mil.

[33] “ANNUAL REPORT TO CONGRESS: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2015,” pp. 33-34, 58-59.

[34] 呉春宜 [Wu Chuen-Yi], “日米安保体制と台湾の国家安全保障 [Nichibei Anpo Taisei to Taiwan no Kokka Anzen Hoshou [Japan-US Security Treaty and the National Security of Taiwan]],” pp. 194-195.

[35] Harry S. Truman, “Statement by the President on the Situation in Korea,” 27 June 1950, Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/.

[36] “National Security Strategy,” The United States of America, p. 10.

[37] “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Sea power,” The US Navy, Marine Corp and Coast Guard, March 2015.

[38] Dean P. Chen, US Taiwan Strait Policy, p. 259.

[39] Iskander Rehman; Jim Thomas; John Stillion, “Hard ROC 2.0: Taiwan and Deterrence Through Protraction,” CSBA, 21 December 2014, http://csbaonline.org/; Lawrence Freedman, Deterrence (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004), pp. 36-40.

[40] Joseph A. Bosco, “Taiwan and Strategic Security,” The Diplomat, 15 May 2015, http://thediplomat.com/.

[41] Hugh White, The China Choice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 94-97.

[42] Charles Glaser, “Time for a U.S.-China Grand Bargain,” Policy Brief, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, July 2015, http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/.

[43] Mark Stokes; Russell Hsiao, “Why U.S. Military Needs Taiwan,” The Diplomat, 13 April 2012, http://thediplomat.com/.

[44] Robert D. Kaplan, “The Geography of Chinese Power,” Foreign Affairs, 2010, pp. 22-41.

[45] Joseph A. Bosco, “Taiwan and Strategic Security”

[46] Michael Pillsbury, The Hundred-Year Marathon, New York: Henry Holt, 2015), p.219.

[47] “US upgrades assessment of China’s Type 094 SSBN fleet,” IHS Jane’s 360, 19 April 2015, http://www.janes.com/.

[48] “ANNUAL REPORT TO CONGRESS Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2015,” p.9.

[49] “China’s Military Strategy,” The State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, USNI News, 26 May 2015, http://news.usni.org/.

[50] Robert Jervis, “The Utility of Nuclear Deterrence,” Kenneth N. Waltz, “Nuclear Myths and Political Realities,” THE USE OF FORCE (Plymouth: ROWMAN & LITTLEFIELD PUBLISHERS, 2009).

[51] Qiao Liang; Wang Xiangsui, Unrestricted Waefare (PLA Literature and Arts Publishing House, 1999), pp. 61-83.

[52] “ANNUAL REPORT TO CONGRESS: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2015,” pp. 33-37.

[53] “The PLA Navy – New Capabilities and Missions for the 21st Century -,” Office of Naval Intelligence, 2015, pp. 6, http://www.oni.navy.mil/.

[54] 井尻 秀憲 [Hidenori Ijiri], “中国・韓国・北朝鮮でこれから起こる本当のこと [Chugoku Kankoku Kitachousen de Korekara Okoru Hontou no Koto [About What Will Really Happen in China, South Korea and North Korea]],” p. 77.

[55] “United States Navy Fact File: F/A-18 Hornet strike fighter,” The United States Navy, 26 May 2009, http://www.navy.mil/; “ANNUAL REPORT TO CONGRESS: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2015,” p. 89.

[56] Ibid.

[57] “J-11 [Su-27 FLANKER],” GlobalSecurity, 5 February 2015, http://www.global security.org; “J-11 [Su-27 FLANKER],” Federations of American Scientists, 29 March 2000, http://fas.org/.  Both articles estimate J-11’s combat range as 2,000km.

[58] “The PLA Navy,” p. 21.  DF21-D’s range is more than 810NM.

[59] “F/A-18 Hornet strike fighter.”  F/A-18’s combat range is 1,275 NM (2,346 km).

[60] Allen S. Whiting, “China’s Use of Force, 1950–96, and Taiwan,” International Security Volume 26 Issue 2 (2001), p. 125.

[61] Iskander Rehman, “Hard ROC 2.0,” p. 6.

[62] James R. Holmes, “4 Ways Taiwan Can Survive,” Real Clear Defense, 20 June 2015, http://www.realclear defense.com/.

[63] Charles Glaser, “Time for a U.S.-China Grand Bargain.”

[64] “ANNUAL REPORT TO CONGRESS Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2015,” p. 57.

[65] “ANNUAL REPORT TO CONGRESS Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2015,” p. 87.

[66] Ron Christman, “China’s Second Artillery Force – Capabilities and Missions for the Near Seas -,” China Maritime Studies Number11, Newport, Rhode Island: China Maritime Studies Institute U.S. NAVAL WAR COLLEGE, February 2014, p. 38.

[67] “Frigates – FFG,” The US Navy, United States Navy Fact File, 14 November 2014, http://www.navy.mil/.


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