China has three roads to Taiwan: The US must block them all
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China has three roads to Taiwan: The US must block them all

Dec 24, 2023

Washington has become preoccupied with the threat of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan in the near future. American national security discussions focus ever more intently on the military requirements for deterring or defeating that invasion.

These discussions — and the action they will hopefully generate — are important because the threat of a Chinese invasion is real. Yet it is not the most likely course that China's President Xi Jinping will pursue to gain control of Taiwan.

China is pursuing three roads to unification, not one. It seeks to persuade the Taiwanese people and the international community to accept unification peacefully. It seeks to coerce such acceptance through forceful means short of war. And it is preparing to compel unification through direct military action.

China wins — and Taiwan and the West lose — if Beijing arrives in Taipei by any one of these roads. The U.S. and its partners must block all three.

China has been advancing along all three roads for decades. It began a massive general military modernization program in the 1990s, spurred in large part by the fear that the astonishing American success in the first Iraq War generated in China's military. That modernization campaign does not aim solely at building an invasion force; China wants generalized military capabilities in order to face down and, if necessary, defeat a U.S.-led military coalition in any conflict.

The Chinese military has nevertheless focused, naturally, on expanding its capabilities to invade Taiwan as part of that effort, and China's military capabilities powerfully aid both the persuasion and the coercion campaigns that Beijing has simultaneously waged against Taipei.

The persuasion campaign targets both Taiwan and the U.S.-led coalition supporting Taiwan. Its main effort is to persuade Washington and other members and potential members of a defensive coalition that Taiwan is already part of China. Beijing also seeks to persuade the international community of two lies: that Washington's unofficial support for Taiwan is provocative and that it violates supposed bilateral agreements between the U.S. and the People's Republic of China (PRC). One purpose of this persuasion campaign is to reduce or break the will of the U.S. and its partners and allies to defend Taiwan — in other words, why would Americans, Japanese or anyone else go to war to prevent China from establishing a reality we already agreed to?

The U.S. and its partners and allies have agreed to no such reality, however.

U.S. law, in the form of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) and longstanding U.S. policy, commit America to insisting on the peaceful resolution of the conflict between Taiwan and China. A cornerstone of this policy is that the U.S. does not take a position on Taiwan's sovereignty. The U.S. has always insisted that Taipei and Beijing must work out political and legal differences peacefully, at the negotiating table. The TRA requires the U.S. to maintain robust security and economic ties with Taiwan and to resist Chinese coercion of the island.

During the process of normalizing diplomatic relations with China, the U.S. was clear that it would not allow Beijing to reunify Taiwan by force and that it would predicate its defense relationship with Taiwan on China's military posture across the Taiwan Strait. The U.S. has every right, as part of its publicly stated policy commitment to ensuring peace across the Strait, to increase its security partnership with Taiwan in the face of China's military threat to the island.

The U.S. made an enormous concession to the PRC by removing its recognition of the Republic of China (Taiwan's official name) as an independent state. The PRC pocketed that concession without making concessions of its own and now is attempting to portray U.S. efforts to follow through on its longstanding public statements of policy and law as betrayals and provocations when they are nothing of the sort.

These Chinese efforts also are meant — by persuading the Taiwanese that the U.S. and its partners will abandon them — to weaken Taiwan's resolve to resist reunification. Beijing's persuasion campaign directly targets Taiwan by driving the narrative that the world has already agreed to China's interpretation that Taiwan is part of China.

An associated strategic effort by Beijing is its Orwellian campaign to pressure countries to exclude Taiwan from international organizations, and then use such exclusion as "proof" that Taiwan is not a country. Moreover, it portrays Taiwanese who want to maintain Taiwan's de facto independence (which is most of Taiwan's citizens) as dangerous extremists, or "separatists" fueling tension and the risk of conflict. U.S. policy on diplomatic recognition of Taiwan did not negate Taiwan's status as an independent country with rights to retain the recognition of other states, nor does it bar Taiwan from operating as a legitimate entity in the international system. The "extremists" are those in Beijing who insist that Taiwan's leaders unilaterally give up doing so.

The Chinese coercion campaign reinforces this persuasion effort by creating an environment of constant fear in Taiwan. Chinese combat aircraft enter the Taiwanese Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) constantly; Taiwan's air force must scramble fighters and put air defenses on alert every time. Chinese commercial drones constantly buzz Taiwanese offshore islands; Chinese ships constantly menace Taiwanese waters. Taiwanese actions in response to these threats wear down the personnel and equipment of the Taiwanese military and create a climate of fear on the island.

Beijing accompanies these activities with a continuous information campaign telling the Taiwanese people that the U.S. is a greedy, unreliable partner that will not defend Taiwan in the end. The PRC is sending a message to the Taiwanese people that if only they had more pliant leaders, who accepted the "reality" that Taiwan is part of China, this fear and intimidation would stop. If, on the other hand, Taiwan's leaders cross China's ever-shifting redlines, China will increase the pain. The message is that China can become very violent indeed if the island's leaders do not eventually come around to Beijing's view.

The coercion campaign is, in turn, strengthened by China's menacing preparations for a compellence campaign — direct use of force to compel Taiwan to surrender. That campaign could take the form of an invasion, to be sure, and the U.S. and its partners must be prepared to deter and, if necessary, defeat such a direct attack.

But Beijing could pursue another form of compellence — isolation. China could begin by blockading Taiwan, cutting it off by air, sea, and even in cyberspace by cutting the undersea cables through which Taiwan communicates with the world. Taiwan is, after all, an island; it is not and cannot be self-sufficient. If China can cut off lines of communication and interdict military and civilian supplies by air and sea, then Taiwan eventually would have to capitulate.

Such an isolation campaign may be more attractive to Chinese leaders than an invasion. It could begin, for one thing, with Chinese ships and aircraft deterring or blocking commercial air and sea traffic without shooting. Such a stratagem would put Taiwan and its supporters in the predicament of choosing to initiate actual exchanges of fire and appearing to be responsible for an escalation that China, in fact, initiated. It also would offer more promising off-ramps to Beijing if things appeared not to be going China's way.

An invasion might seem more attractive to Xi, on the other hand, because it could appear to offer a faster, more certain resolution of the conflict. Yet the decision to launch an invasion immediately poses a critical geopolitical dilemma for Xi.

The militarily optimal approach would be to attack U.S. bases in Japan and the U.S. territory Guam right away — but doing so has a high likelihood of turning a campaign to reunify Taiwan into World War III. Thus, Xi would have to choose between two unpalatable options — escalate immediately to war with the U.S. and Japan, at least, or leave in place the forces the U.S. would use to impose potentially devastating losses on China's invasion fleet. American strategists understandably preoccupied with the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of the U.S. position in such a conflict often underestimate the unpleasantness of the choices Xi would have to make in launching an invasion.

Some U.S. analysts therefore propose means to counter an invasion that inadvertently undermine the strategy required to stop China from succeeding via persuasion, coercion or isolation. Understandable concern about China's ability to sink U.S. ships and shoot down U.S. aircraft is driving a certain tendency toward a strategy that relies on long-range, far-over-the-horizon standoff systems to minimize the risk of U.S. losses. But a standoff strategy would make it easier for China to coerce and isolate Taiwan.

The U.S. must recognize the centrality of maintaining the Taiwanese people's confidence that America and its partners will not abandon them. They must be sure not only that the U.S. will fight to defend them but also that it will prevent China from isolating them. Thus, an effective defense of Taiwan from coercion and isolation requires more forward basing, not less. It requires more U.S. presence on an around the island. It also requires much more concerted efforts to push back against the Chinese persuasion campaign by countering the false narratives about what the U.S. has agreed to, what formal American policy actually is, and what Taiwan's own position under international law has been and remains. The U.S. must counter the expanding coercion campaign and lift the pall of fear Beijing is casting over Taiwan.

Washington must resist the tendency to focus narrowly on blocking Beijing's potential invasion and develop a more comprehensive approach that blocks all three roads to Taipei.

Daniel Blumenthal is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, focusing on East Asian security issues and U.S.-China relations. He previously was senior director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia at the Defense Department and is the author of several books, including "The China Nightmare: The Grand Ambitions of a Decaying State" (2020).

Frederick W. Kagan is director of the Critical Threats Project and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. He also advises the Russia team at the Institute for the Study of War.

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