The lesson of the fourth Taiwan Strait crisis
China’s live-fire drills in six maritime areas surrounding Taiwan were the biggest interruptions to stability across the Taiwan Strait since 1996. The past few weeks, which began with speculation around whether House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) would visit Taiwan during a trip to Asia, will be remembered as the fourth Taiwan Strait crisis. But what will – and should – come next is unclear.
In the United States, one popular viewpoint is that the latest cycle of provocation and counter-provocation is a warning that the Taiwan dispute must be “Americanized.” The risk of war is now so great, the argument goes, that the U.S. must do its utmost to convince Chinese leaders that an invasion of Taiwan would be met with the full force of the U.S. military. Taiwan cannot save itself; only the certainty of American military intervention might stay Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s hand.
But Taiwan’s foreign minister, Joseph Wu, has derived a different lesson from the current crisis. “Defending Taiwan is our own responsibility,” Wu recently stated to the BBC. “We have the will and the capability. We need other countries to provide Taiwan with defensive articles, but defending Taiwan is our responsibility, we are not asking other countries to sacrifice their lives to protect Taiwan.”
In making these statements, Wu intentionally echoed the stoicism of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has spent the last six months telling the world that his people are willing to spill blood for their country if only the international community will provide them with weapons and, with them, a fighting chance of survival.
More importantly, Wu’s words seem to reflect a growing determination in Taiwan to place the island’s future in the hands of its people rather than those of outside powers. Prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, 65 percent of Taiwanese believed the United States would send troops to defend Taiwan. After the invasion, the number stands at just 36 percent. This is despite 62 percent of Taiwanese saying that the Chinese threat has increased, and a majority believing that their government has not adequately prepared for an invasion.
Although Pelosi’s visit may reverse this waning confidence, Wu is right. It would be folly for Taiwan to assume that the United States will rush to the rescue. Instead, Taiwan’s leaders should meld their people’s increasing willingness to invest in self-defense with a smart military strategy focused on inflicting massive punishment on a Chinese invading force.
Admiral Lee Hsi-min, the former chief of Taiwan’s general staff, has explained how Taiwan can do this. “Taiwan needs weapons which are not easily targeted by long-range missiles or airstrikes,” he has argued. “[It needs to have] a large number of small, distributed, lethal weapons across the country, so the invaders can expect a strong resistance even when they manage to cross the strait and come over, especially when they are bigger in size and easier to be targeted.”
Such a strategy is well developed and realistic. There is no better time than the aftermath of the present crisis to begin shifting mindsets again from the large legacy systems to which Taiwan’s military has become accustomed. As Taiwan’s “armorer,” the U.S. can supply Taiwan with the lessons of Ukraine fresh in mind.
Deterrence in the modern era is not exclusively informed by military power, however. As Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has argued, other instruments of power should be “integrated” into an overall plan to deter an aggressor such as China. In Taiwan’s case, integrated deterrence means leveraging the island’s vast economic power, especially its critical position in the global semiconductor supply chain.
In the past, Taiwan’s cutting-edge semiconductor foundries were considered a “silicon shield” that ensured the United States would protect Taiwan, much like Kuwaiti oil moved Washington to repel Saddam’s Iraq in 1991. But as China doubles down on its grand economic strategy of leapfrog technological development, Taiwan’s corner on the market of cutting-edge chips is increasingly functioning not as a shield but as a magnet for aggression.
Taiwan can change this by ensuring that if China ever invaded, Taiwan’s semiconductor facilities would self-destruct, thereby depriving Beijing of any semblance of economic payoff. Although some see this “broken nest” approach as radical, even TSMC chairman Mark Liu has stated that an invasion would render the fabs “inoperable” for supply chain reasons. Broken nest deterrence adds intentionality and permanence to this reality, to strengthen deterrence.
Beyond this, the U.S. and allied nations should incentivize Taiwan’s largest chip manufacturers to build out research and production facilities in the U.S. Such a move would revive the idea of the silicon shield by ensuring that a Chinese invasion would devastate China economically while China’s competitors would lose relatively less. The CHIPS and Science Act is a good start, but it should be seen as the first in a sequence of needed inducements.
By responding with resolve and creativity, Taiwan will be emulating Beijing’s actions in the aftermath of the 1995-1996 crisis, during which China’s military was cowed into submission by two U.S. Navy carrier strike groups. Humiliated, China resolved to make itself resilient to such coercion in the future. The result was massive Chinese investment in anti-ship missiles and related weapons.
Because of its adroit response to the last Taiwan Strait crisis, China today cannot be intimidated as it was in 1996. Its military advantages in terms of missile technology give it significant options with respect to U.S. aircraft carriers. China used a foreign policy humiliation as a focusing mechanism for its national defense; as its own military writings call for, it turned “harms into gains” and “bad things into good things.”
Today, Taiwan should do the same. It should use the crisis as a prod to overcome the perils inherent in the status quo. Taiwanese leaders should practically embrace Wu’s words and invest in autonomous, independent and integrated capabilities rather than assuming external intervention will save the day.
If they do this, they will be well positioned to deter and resist Beijing when the next crisis dawns.
Jared Morgan McKinney is an assistant professor at Air War College. Peter Harris is an associate professor of political science at Colorado State University. Together, they are the authors of “Broken Nest: Deterring China from Invading Taiwan,” the winner of the 2021 U.S. Army War College’s Contemporary Strategy and Landpower Essay Award. Opinions, conclusions and recommendations are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Air University, the United States Air Force, the Department of Defense or any other U.S. government agency.