Deterrence in the Absence of Reassurance is a Dangerous Game

The vast majority of the analysis appearing in the policy community that addresses how to deter a crisis or conflict with China over Taiwan focuses almost exclusively on the kind and level of military or other “hard power” capabilities that the United States or Taiwan should deploy against Beijing.  The underlying assumption of such analysis is that China’s primary calculus in determining whether or not to attack or apply extreme pressure on Taiwan involves an assessment of the level of physical punishment it can or cannot endure or how highly it prizes the level of benefits it might gain from using force.  In other words, the analysis employs a largely military-centered, material-based, cost/benefit set of measures to determine what constitutes an effective deterrence policy.

This approach significantly distorts Beijing’s calculus toward Taiwan and in the process neglects the most essential feature of any successful deterrence strategy: striking the right balance between deploying effective punishment and/or denial capabilities and conveying credible assurances to the adversary that those capabilities will not be used to threaten his most vital interests. This balance is essential because, if the level of punishment or denial capability acquired is in fact seen as threatening the adversary’s most vital interests, the adversary, rather than being deterred from taking aggressive action, will become more inclined to undertake or threaten preemptive or punishing moves of its own in order to protect those interests, thus increasing, rather than decreasing, the chance of conflict.

This is particularly relevant regarding China’s calculus toward Taiwan. In this case, Beijing’s most vital interest by far lies in preventing the permanent separation of the island from mainland China, not, as a one-sided stress on physical deterrence would suggest, in avoiding the defeat (whether by punishment or denial) of a Chinese attempt to seize the island. This is because the permanent loss of Taiwan, unlike a first-round defeat in what would likely be a prolonged effort to seize or subdue the island, would inevitably result in overwhelming domestic nationalist pressure on the People’s Republic of China (PRC) government, almost certainly leading to the removal of the senior leadership and very possibly the destabilization of the entire regime.