The three parties involved in the Taiwan Strait – the United States, China, and Taiwan – are not providing one another with sufficient assurances. The United States should bolster and diversify its military presence in the region and help strengthen Taiwan’s defenses, yet it must also provide clearer and more persistently conveyed assurances to China that – as the United States works with Taiwan to strengthen its security – it is not moving toward restoring formal diplomatic relations or a defense alliance with the island.
The growing might of China’s military and its increasingly aggressive posture toward Taiwan have made deterrence in the Taiwan Strait a tougher challenge than ever before. It is incumbent on the United States to support Taiwan’s efforts to develop a defensive “porcupine strategy.” Washington can help Taiwan’s military stockpile and train with coastal defense and air defense weapons, field a robust civil defense force, and create strategic reserves of critical materials such as food and fuel to deter and, if necessary, defeat an invasion or blockade of the island. The U.S. military should also better prepare to cope with China’s expanding arsenal of missiles that pose a threat to U.S. regional bases and even aircraft carriers by creating a stronger, more agile, and more geographically dispersed military presence in the region.
But deterrence is not just a matter of weapons in arsenals, boots on the ground, planes in the air, ships at sea, or strategies on the planning table. Signaling a credible military threat is only part of a successful strategy of deterrence. It also takes assurances to keep potential adversaries at bay. A threatened state has little incentive to avoid war if it fears the unacceptable consequences of not fighting. As the Nobel Prize–winning economist Thomas Schelling wrote years ago, “‘One more step and I shoot’ can be a deterrent threat only if accompanied by the implicit assurance, ‘And if you stop, I won’t.’”
In truth, the more powerful and credible one’s threat of military action, the more important and the more difficult it is to credibly assure the potential adversary. The three parties involved in the Taiwan Strait are not providing one another with sufficient assurances. For example, to enhance deterrence, Washington must make clear that it opposes any unilateral change to the status quo, not only an attempt by Beijing to compel unification but also a political move by Taipei to pursue independence. And as the United States works with Taiwan to strengthen its security, it must avoid giving the impression that it is moving toward restoring formal diplomatic relations or a defense alliance with the island. Combined with a conditional and credible threat of a military response by the United States and Taiwan to the use of force, such assurances will help prevent a war.
Ill-advised statements made in the past by former and current U.S. officials suggesting that the United States should formally recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state or restore a clear alliance commitment to defend the island would, if adopted, undercut assurances and weaken deterrence as surely as would a lack of military readiness. U.S. military threats will lose their potency if Chinese leaders believe that the United States will take advantage of their restraint to promote Taiwan’s formal independence or to prevent unification under any circumstances, even if it were to result from peaceful, uncoerced negotiation. Beijing may determine that refraining from an attack would mean it would forever lose the possibility of unification or would allow the United States to restore something akin to a defense alliance with Taiwan. And if China comes to that conclusion, then Washington’s focus on beefing up military power in the region may still fail to prevent a war.
DAMNED IF THEY DO, DAMNED IF THEY DON’T
Although the logic of deterrence through brute strength is intuitively appealing, both theory and history show that the threat of punishment fails to deter if it is not paired with assurances that those same military capabilities will not be used to in some way hurt the other side. “The purpose of combining conditional assurances with conditional threats,” the political scientist Reid Pauly has noted, is to “present a choice; one that does not lead the target to believe they are ‘damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.’”
For effective deterrence, both threats and assurances must be credible. As the scholars Matthew Cebul, Allan Dafoe, and Nuno Monteiro have noted, “Power boosts the credibility of threats but undermines that of assurances.” This dynamic is what political scientists have long described as the security dilemma. To issue credible threats and assurances simultaneously, leaders must cultivate “a reputation for restraint in the face of compliance” rather than simply a reputation for unconditionally inflicting punishment. And it is precisely because the United States should bolster and diversify its military presence in the region and help strengthen Taiwan’s defenses that it must also provide clearer and more persistently conveyed assurances.
Beijing, Taipei, and Washington are all focused on demonstrating resolve and building convincing wartime capabilities to signal their preparedness and willingness to use force. Beijing hopes to prevent Taiwan from further consolidating its separation from the mainland, while Taipei and Washington hope to deter Beijing from attacking Taiwan to force unification. Yet all three parties have neglected corresponding efforts to signal to one another that these military preparations are not meant to alter the status quo or to preclude the prospect of an eventual peaceful resolution of cross-strait differences. To be sure, leaders on all sides have, to some extent, continued to offer assurances to one another. Senior Biden administration officials have reaffirmed that the United States does not support Taiwan’s independence; Chinese leaders have reiterated that “peaceful reunification” remains their preferred option (although they tend to regard coercive efforts, short of war, as still peaceful); and leaders in Taipei have refrained from pushing for formal independence. Unfortunately, officials in all three capitals have also expanded the scope of what they believe are legitimate measures to signal resolve in response to perceived threats, fueling a potentially dangerous spiral of actions and reactions. Beijing, Taipei, and Washington have not reiterated key statements that once made an eventual peaceful resolution at least conceivable. Such assurances were never meant to promote a near-term resolution or to specify the details of any eventual resolution; they were meant to convey that there still might be peaceful ways of settling cross-strait differences.
For instance, Beijing’s proposals regarding the governance of a future Taiwan unified with the mainland have grown less generous over time. The “one country, two systems” offer that Beijing made in a 1993 white paper included allowing the island to “have its own administrative and legislative powers, an independent judiciary, and the right of adjudication” as well as “its own party, political, military, economic, and financial affairs,” and a pledge that Beijing would not send troops or administrative personnel to be stationed in Taiwan. The former assurance disappeared in China’s 2000 white paper on the topic, and the latter was removed in its 2022 iteration. “One country, two systems” was never a popular concept in Taiwan, and it has become even less so now that Beijing has tightened its hold on Hong Kong, where it had pioneered the approach. Combined with increasingly aggressive and frequent Chinese military operations near Taiwan, the failure to offer more attractive options for Taiwan’s future only makes Beijing seem both more threatening and less trustworthy.
Military threats alone may fail to prevent a war over Taiwan.
As for Taiwan, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party has a long tradition of supporting independence, but since 1999 it has ceased calling for the creation of a Republic of Taiwan and instead maintains that Taiwan, formally known as the Republic of China, is already an independent sovereign state. The current DPP president, Tsai Ing-wen, has refrained from seeking formal independence and has sought to alleviate Beijing’s worst fears, adhering to her 2016 pledge to act in accordance with the Republic of China’s constitution, which defines China as including both sides of the strait. At the same time, she has refused to accept the “1992 Consensus,” an alleged understanding between representatives of Beijing and the KMT (Kuomintang, the Chinese Nationalist Party) that mainland China and Taiwan belong to one and the same country even as they disagreed about whether that country was the Republic of China or the People’s Republic of China.
DPP members and many scholars dispute that such a consensus ever existed. Still, Beijing accuses Tsai of altering the status quo by failing to accept the 1992 consensus, which her rivals in the KMT continue to endorse. And although she has resisted pressure from radicals in her own party to pursue measures that would likely be interpreted in Beijing as moves in the direction of independence—such as ceasing to use the Republic of China national anthem or insisting on the use of the moniker “Taiwan” rather than “Chinese Taipei” at international sporting events—Tsai has allowed the teaching of Taiwan’s history separate from the history of China in high schools.
And questions remain about the sustainability of Taiwan’s restraint in the future. The current DPP vice president and front-runner in the presidential election scheduled for January 13, 2024, Lai Ching-te, has in the past advocated for independence more stridently than Tsai, describing himself in 2017 as a “political worker for Taiwan independence.” More recently in July 2023, Lai told supporters at a campaign event that his party’s ambition is to have a sitting president of Taiwan “enter the White House,” which implies his goal is to upgrade Taiwan’s relationship with the United States, raising alarm in Beijing and prompting a request for clarification from Washington.
As for the United States, the Biden administration has regularly reiterated that it “does not support Taiwan independence” and opposes unilateral changes to the status quo by either side. These statements are consistent with the traditional U.S. policy of “strategic ambiguity” in which the United States avoids specifying under what conditions it would intervene in a cross-strait conflict and thereby does not give a green light to independence advocates in Taiwan or provoke Beijing by appearing to restore the U.S. alliance commitment to Taiwan. But the credibility of those statements has been called into question by Biden’s repeated insistence that the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense if attacked because it made a commitment to do so, even though the United States has not had a formal obligation to defend Taiwan since it abrogated the alliance with Taipei in 1979 as a precondition to normalizing diplomatic relations with Beijing. Biden administration officials have also noticeably failed to confirm that the United States would accept any peaceful resolution of cross-strait differences achieved through negotiations and without coercion. The Biden administration’s omission of this assurance has increased Beijing’s suspicions that Washington would never accept any form of cross-strait integration, even if achieved through nonviolent means. So have statements by Ely Ratner, the assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific affairs, that Taiwan is “located at a critical node within the First Island Chain” in the Western Pacific, implying that the island is strategically indispensable to the defense of U.S. allies and thus no form of unification would be acceptable to the United States.
Chinese officials no doubt perceive Washington’s efforts to strengthen ties with Taiwan and pursue a stronger military posture in the region as a serious demonstration of resolve. But U.S. actions, paired with the rhetoric of American officials, have also raised fears in Beijing that the United States seeks to “use Taiwan to contain China,” as China’s State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi charged at a press conference in August 2022, and to restore something akin to the alliance that existed with Taipei before 1979. Some analysts in Beijing fear that recent U.S. attempts to reopen high-level diplomatic channels with Beijing merely mask continued efforts to weaken China and prevent even peaceful unification from ever occurring. Such fears are exacerbated by statements by members of the U.S. Congress, former senior officials, and leading scholars who call for everything from restoring official relations with Taiwan to resurrecting the U.S. alliance with it to stationing large numbers of U.S. forces on the island.
DOUBTS AND FEARS IN THE STRAIT
To shore up peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, all sides must recognize that credible assurance is essential for effective deterrence. Credible assurance is not a reward or a carrot. It is a guarantee that a threat is fully conditional on the behavior of its target. Such assurances are not the same as trust-building measures, which are incremental compromises made in a gradual and reciprocal manner. By contrast, an assurance does not have to be reciprocated, as it is not a concession or an effort to build trust. It can and should be made unilaterally to strengthen deterrence, as long as it does not weaken the credibility or capacity to respond to perceived threats. On its own, a credible assurance would strengthen deterrence. If reciprocated, it could, over time, build trust among the parties and reduce tensions.
Beijing has long threatened to adopt “nonpeaceful” means if Taipei appears to be pursuing permanent separation or formal independence. But the Chinese military buildup and intense military drills near Taiwan have fueled fears that Beijing is shifting from a policy of deterring any pursuit of independence by Taiwan to compelling unification through coercion or military force. As these doubts and suspicions multiply, all sides will lose the incentive to avoid provocative moves. When Beijing fails to reassure Taipei that its military preparations are not a harbinger of a coming attack, it undercuts incentives for people in Taiwan to support moderation by its political leaders. The lack of credible Chinese assurances also strengthens the hand of American politicians and commentators who want to scrap strategic ambiguity, upgrade ties with Taiwan from unofficial to official relations, and restore defense commitments to the island akin to those that obtained before 1979.
To strengthen the credibility of Beijing’s commitment to a peaceful process, China should dial back its military operations near Taiwan. Having used such operations to register displeasure with U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022, Chinese air and naval exercises should be reset to the two-decade practice of tacitly observing the Taiwan Strait centerline. Beijing also codified into a 2005 law its right to use force against Taiwan if it perceives that peaceful unification is no longer possible. The vague conditions and implied impatience of such a threat have failed to convince people in Taiwan that the island will not be attacked as long as they do not attempt to permanently separate from China. Without such an assurance, Taipei has less reason to refrain from pursuing unilateral changes in the status quo. China should revise this language to incorporate the assurance that as long as Taiwan does not pursue formal independence, Beijing will not use force. If Beijing’s leaders truly prefer peaceful unification with Taiwan, as they continue to claim, they should keep the door open to precisely that outcome.
For its part, Taiwan must accompany needed measures to bolster its defense with credible assurances to Beijing that as long as the Chinese military refrains from attacking Taiwan, Taipei will not pursue independence or permanent separation. Taiwan should refrain from potentially provocative actions, such as holding a referendum to change its official name, the Republic of China, or revising its territorial claims to exclude mainland China—changes that would indicate a declaration of formal independence. Regardless of who is elected Taiwan’s next president, Taipei will need to convincingly reassure Beijing that it has no intention of fundamentally altering the status quo. But the need for such guarantees will grow in the event of the victory of Lai, the DPP candidate; Chinese officials deeply mistrust him since he has endorsed the pursuit of formal independence for Taiwan in the past. The pledge that Lai made, in an October 2023 speech in Taipei at a dinner attended by nearly 100 foreign dignitaries and guests, to maintain Tsai’s cross-strait policy, with its emphasis on refusing both to bow to Chinese pressure and to provoke Beijing, is a good start. If elected, Lai could use his inaugural address to reaffirm the commitments Tsai made in her inaugural speech in 2016 to conduct cross-strait affairs in accordance with the Republic of China’s constitution and the 1992 act governing relations between the two sides of the strait, Taipei’s law on how the island should manage relations with Beijing.
As Taiwan strengthens its military deterrent—including by increasing its ability to withstand a blockade and to defeat an invading Chinese force—it must also implement additional measures to reinforce the credibility of its assurances. In August, Lai took a step in the right direction when he made his stance on the naming question clear: “President Tsai has used the term Republic of China (Taiwan) to describe our country. I will continue to do so in the future.” This and other statements provide China with rhetorical assurance, but because his party’s 1991 charter still calls for the creation of a “Republic of Taiwan” and a new constitution, doubts persist in Beijing about his willingness to hold to this position as president. If he wins the election, Lai should consider revisiting a proposal made by DPP legislators in 2014 to suspend the independence clause in the 1991 party charter, a nonbinding and reversible step that would give any rhetorical commitment to the status quo more weight and credibility. Such a step could also be part of a gradual, reciprocal process to reduce tensions and build trust, as advocated by Richard Bush, the former chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan.
Just as the United States must not rule out the possibility of an eventual peaceful integration of the two sides of the strait (as long as such a move has the assent of the people of Taiwan), Taipei should also not take actions that would permanently foreclose that outcome. To deter war, Taiwan must allow leaders in Beijing to believe that peaceful unification remains possible.
DISCRETION AND DISCIPLINE
As the third party to this dispute, the United States must also think carefully about its mix of threats and assurances. Its priority is to prevent the Chinese military from attacking Taiwan, but deterrence will not work if Beijing does not believe U.S. assurances. For instance, it is in the United States’ interest for China to remain hopeful that sometime in the future it might be able to resolve its differences with Taiwan without resorting to violence. China would have to persuade Taiwan’s public of the merits of some form of peaceful integration—a hard sell, but not impossible given China’s economic clout and the possibility that a more attractive government may someday emerge in Beijing. To the extent that Washington can influence Chinese President Xi Jinping’s thinking on this crucial issue, it should do so; the United States should avoid making statements or taking actions that could lead Beijing to conclude that unification can only be achieved through force.
Consistent with its “one China” policy of not supporting an independent Taiwan or seeking to restore a formal alliance with Taipei, the U.S. government should not use in its official communications symbols of Taiwan’s sovereignty, such as the flag of the Republic of China, or refer to Taiwan as either a country or an ally, as the Trump administration did in a 2019 Defense Department report. If U.S. officials do so inadvertently, such as when U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken referred to Taiwan as a country on two occasions in 2021, a correction should be swiftly issued. An example of the laudable handling of such a blunder was the White House’s admission that it made an “honest mistake” after including the image of the Republic of China flag in a tweet about the United States supplying COVID-19 vaccines to Taiwan that same year. And since Beijing fears that Taiwan may merely be a pawn in a wider American game of containment, U.S. officials should not imply that Taiwan is a strategic asset essential to U.S. national security.
The Biden administration insists that it has made no changes to the “one China” policy. But Biden’s remarks have repeatedly broken with strategic ambiguity and mischaracterized U.S. policy. During an August 2021 interview with ABC News, Biden stated, incorrectly, that the United States has a treaty commitment to defend Taiwan, comparing the U.S. “sacred commitment” to the pledges it has made to Japan and South Korea. In the most egregious misstatement of U.S. policy on Taiwan to date, Biden told reporters in November 2021 that Taiwan “is independent” and “makes its own decisions,” a description that contravenes long-standing U.S. policy that does not recognize Taiwan as an independent, sovereign state.
Washington’s actions and rhetoric have raised fears in Beijing.
These statements do far more to undermine deterrence than they do to bolster it. Beijing has long anticipated that Washington will intervene if China tries to force unification. The Taiwan Relations Act, a law Congress passed in 1979 to define the now informal relations between Washington and Taipei after the normalization of relations between Washington and Beijing, states that “any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes,” would be considered a “threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.” The U.S. commitment to Taiwan does not need further clarification or beefing up, and certainly no U.S. official should invoke or even suggest anything akin to a restoration of a formal alliance. Such an unqualified commitment to Taiwan could be seen on both sides of the strait as a green light for more strident pro-independence voices in Taiwan to pursue a formal separation from China.
The U.S. government should provide a comprehensive and high-level statement laying out its “one China” policy and explaining why Taiwan matters to the United States in language that is comprehensible to the American people, beyond the rote repetition of the U.S. “one China” policy as comprising the Taiwan Relations Act; the three U.S.-China joint communiques in 1972, 1979, and 1982; and the Six Assurances that the Reagan administration gave to Taipei in 1982. A more complete statement, such as a speech by the national security adviser or the secretary of state, should restate the positions that Biden has reportedly made clear to Xi, including that the United States does not support Taiwan’s independence, opposes any unilateral change to the status quo by either side, does not pursue a “two Chinas” or “one China, one Taiwan” policy, and does not seek to use Taiwan as part of a strategy to contain China or embolden Taipei to push for independence. Such a statement should include the assurance provided by prior administrations that the United States will accept any outcome reached peacefully by both sides and that has the assent of the people of Taiwan.
Until recently, no Biden administration official had publicly called for the resumption of cross-strait dialogue to reduce misunderstandings and manage problems, a position that was central to U.S. policy before the Trump administration. It is welcome that American Institute in Taiwan Chair Laura Rosenberger, in a roundtable with the media in Taipei in October 2023, said that the United States supports cross-strait dialogue and called on Beijing to start a dialogue with Taiwan. Even though Beijing is responsible for the breakdown of cross-strait dialogue, the failure of the United States to encourage a return to talks has been interpreted by Beijing as further evidence that Washington does not want the two sides of the strait to settle their disputes. If Beijing believes that Washington does not truly want cross-strait tensions to be resolved, it will be much harder for the United States to deter an attack on Taiwan.
U.S. officials should also work to ensure that Taiwan does not upset the status quo. Taiwan has laudably begun to strengthen its defenses under Tsai, but her administration has also tactfully refrained from pushing pro-independence initiatives. That marks a departure from her DPP predecessor as president, Chen Shui-bian, who held a referendum in 2008 on pursuing membership in the United Nations under the name Taiwan, rather than the Republic of China, which was rightly interpreted by both Beijing and Washington as a ploy to promote independence. Since the UN is an international institution for which statehood is a requirement for membership, to apply under the name Taiwan instead of the Republic of China would assert the full sovereign separation of the island. If a future government of Taiwan or key political figures appear to be promoting such a change in the status quo, U.S. officials should voice concerns in private, in public, or both. The United States should never coordinate its Taiwan policy with Beijing, but if a rebuke to Taiwan about unilateral efforts to assert independence is delivered only privately, Washington should inform Beijing of that admonition through diplomatic channels so that American assurances remain credible.
The United States could be more transparent about the parameters of its “unofficial relationship” with Taipei, including self-imposed limits on visits to Taiwan by the U.S. president, vice president, secretary of state, and secretary of defense. Taiwan’s president and vice president have long been permitted to make transit visits through the United States en route to other countries, but they do not visit Washington. Such transits are private, unofficial, and arranged for the “safety, comfort, convenience, and dignity of the traveler,” according to the U.S. State Department. As such, these transits should not be occasions for large-scale, public, politically charged events. Following this precedent and acting consistently will make more believable the U.S. position that the United States is not treating Taiwan as it would a sovereign, independent state.
U.S. officials, including members of Congress, should refrain from making statements that are inconsistent with the Taiwan Relations Act. Resolutions calling for the United States to recognize Taiwan as an independent sovereign state or provide an unconditional defense commitment ironically weaken deterrence by suggesting Washington intends to restore the alliance with Taipei that it abrogated in 1979. Legislation should focus on helping Taiwan defend itself and on bolstering U.S. military capabilities in East Asia in ways that are consistent with the Taiwan Relations Act, while avoiding symbolic actions that do nothing to strengthen Taiwan or U.S. forces but could undermine the credibility of U.S. assurances to China.
Just as the executive branch does not send the holders of the top four positions in the U.S. government to Taiwan, similarly, as a matter of policy, Congress should not send to Taiwan the president of the Senate (who is also the vice president of the United States), the Senate president pro tempore, or the Speaker of the House. There are sufficient informal channels for these officials to give and receive messages from Taiwan and to support Taiwan without providing a convenient occasion for Beijing to ratchet up military pressure while blaming Washington and Taipei for sparking tensions. Such expressions of U.S. support for Taiwan are counterproductive as they only make the island less secure.
Some policymakers and analysts make the mistake of conflating assurances with appeasement or outright capitulation. This is wrong-headed. Alongside credible threats, credible assurances are an integral part of deterrence. Given the dramatic ongoing modernization of the Chinese military and China’s increasing assertiveness, the United States needs to strengthen its military posture in East Asia and assist in improving Taiwan’s defensive capabilities and helping the island withstand a potential blockade. The United States will need cooperation from regional allies to make necessary adjustments in its military posture. But failure to provide assurances to Beijing about the purpose of such adjustments will reduce the likelihood of allied cooperation—and make China harder to deter.
Many might argue that assurances would signal weakness and invite Chinese aggression. On the contrary, these assurances would help strengthen a deterrence strategy that includes reinforcing the U.S. military presence in East Asia and hardening Taiwan’s defense. It is precisely because tough measures are needed that it is imperative that Washington and Taipei accompany them with productive diplomatic ones, assuring Beijing that it will not be punished if it forgoes the use of force.