What if US is laying credibility trap for Beijing on Taiwan?

Sixty-nine years ago last month, Secretary of State Dean Acheson delivered a speech defining America’s strategic interests in Asia. He described a security perimeter that did not include South Korea or Taiwan.

Mao Zedong, Kim Il Sung, and Josef Stalin saw a green light and immediately began coordinating invasion plans for both countries. Kim moved first and unleashed his armies across the 38th parallel, igniting the Korean War. President Harry Truman mobilized a United Nations intervention and sent the Seventh Fleet back into the Taiwan Strait, blocking Mao from attacking Taiwan (and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek from attacking China).  

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Ever since, China’s communist leaders have vowed to bring Taiwan under their control, by force if necessary. To avoid repeating Acheson’s wrong signal, Assistant Defense Secretary Joseph Nye told Chinese counterparts in 1995 that a decision to defend Taiwan against a Chinese attack “would depend on the circumstances.”

That strategic ambiguity has kept China at bay for two decades, but it also has motivated Beijing over that period to build a massive arsenal of ballistic missiles and attack submarines to deter U.S. intervention when China finally decides it is time to take Taiwan.

Soon after coming to power, Xi Jinping declared “the Taiwan question cannot be passed from one generation to the next,” and he has stepped up economic, diplomatic and military pressure on Taiwan. Other Chinese officials dutifully have echoed Xi’s threats with increasing frequency.  Wang Zaixi, a former deputy director of the Taiwan Affairs Office of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), said in 2017: “The possibility for peaceful reunification is gradually dissipating.” Retired Chinese Gen. Wang Hongguang told the People’s Daily this past December: “There will very likely be military conflict.”

In its 2018 report to Congress, the Department of Defense (DOD) stated: “The (People’s Liberation Army) is likely preparing for a contingency to unify Taiwan with China by force.”

What the United States will do about it is much debated among academic and think tank experts; many question the wisdom of defending Taiwan and risking a wider war with China — while Beijing naturally forms its own assessment of American will.

Responding to Chinese threats over Taiwan, the South China Sea, and the East China Sea, DOD’s National Defense Strategy (NDS) document names China, along with Russia, as “revisionist powers” seeking to undermine U.S. interests in their regions and globally.

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The NDS itself remains classified, and the unclassified summary by former Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisOvernight Defense: Pentagon chief under investigation over Boeing ties | Trump uses visual aids to tout progress against ISIS | Pentagon, Amnesty International spar over civilian drone deaths Pentagon watchdog probing whether acting chief boosted Boeing Overnight Defense: Judge says Trump can't implement transgender policy | Trump floats admitting Brazil to NATO | Mattis returning to Stanford MORE sheds little light on how the new strategy will succeed in deterring or, if necessary, defeating Chinese or Russian aggression. DOD has not amplified its strategic intent.

Instead, it was left to former defense official Elbridge Colby, who helped draft the NDS, to explain its underlying strategic philosophy. He made this highly revealing statement in recent testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee:

“Fortunately, our political-strategic goals … are defensive. We hope only to prevent our allies and partners like Taiwan from being suborned or conquered by our opponents. We therefore must defeat Chinese or Russian invasions or attempts at suborning our allies, and force Beijing or Moscow to have to choose between unfavorably escalating — and demonstrating to all their aggressiveness and malign intent by doing so — or settling on terms we can accept. This, to emphasize, is a different goal than regime change or changing borders. Rather, it is about preserving the status quo by favorably managing escalation to win limited wars.”

But even a limited war could cause major U.S. losses — a Chinese admiral recently boasted that sinking a carrier or two could cost 5,000 to 10,000 American lives. It is difficult to imagine the American public’s willingness to accept those kinds of losses simply to “preserve the status quo” without imposing far more punishing costs on China. “Favorably managing escalation” would not sound very appealing in a scenario where American deaths exceeded those in Pearl Harbor and 9/11 combined.

Beijing would welcome knowing that Washington had a self-imposed ceiling on its defense commitment to Taiwan — rather than being willing to do “whatever it takes,” as President George W. Bush once declared.

Chinese leaders would be unlikely to stop at that point, if they were risking only bad publicity —  “demonstrating to all their aggressiveness and malign intent.” The Tiananmen Square massacre and the cultural genocide against the Uighurs have shown how little Beijing fears the world’s temporary moral outrage.

For the conspiracy-minded, there could be another explanation for Washington’s professed strategy of self-restraint. Following Sun Tzu’s advice — “Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak” — perhaps a major strategic deception is in play. All the gloomy talk about diminished U.S. capabilities and lowered war-fighting goals may be laying a credibility trap for Beijing on Taiwan.

If China gets lured into a false sense of superiority, it could overreach and make its aggressive move against Taiwan. That could provide the pretext hardliners long have coveted to deal a crushing blow to the PRC before it further narrows the disparity in military capabilities — or at least give it enough of a “bloody nose” to deter further provocations. Despite President TrumpDonald John TrumpMueller report findings could be a 'good day' for Trump, Dem senator says Trump officials heading to China for trade talks next week Showdown looms over Mueller report MORE’s declared affection for Xi Jinping, all bets would be off if the Chinese leader resorts to violence over Taiwan.

It is not an implausible scenario for Beijing to consider. A mistaken action this time will have far greater long-term consequences for China than did North Korea’s aggression in 1950.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010.  He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies and is a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute.