Don’t Fall for the Invasion Panic

Rachel Esplin Odell and Eric Heginbotham

Oriana Skylar Mastro’s article “The Taiwan Temptation” (July/August 2021) is one of many recent articles that warns of the growing risk of Chinese aggression in the Taiwan Strait. Such articles have become so common that they have created something of an invasion panic in Washington—one that is damaging to both the United States’ and Taiwan’s interests. Anxiety about impending Chinese aggression was part of what drove Washington in recent years to weaken its long-standing “one China” policy by lifting some restrictions on official interactions between it and Taiwan. It also undergirds recent calls for Washington to abandon its policy of “strategic ambiguity” about whether it would defend Taiwan against a Chinese attack.

Although Mastro does not explicitly endorse these policy changes, she does suggest that the United States has no good options for preventing a Chinese assault on Taiwan, implying a false equivalence among the various approaches available to Washington. In reality, the risks are less imminent and more manageable than she suggests. The United States can maintain stability in the Taiwan Strait by bolstering Taiwan’s self-defense capabilities and adopting a lighter and more distributed—and thus less vulnerable—force posture in the Asia-Pacific. At the same time, Washington should strengthen its “one China” policy, reinforce strategic ambiguity, and refrain from making unconditional commitments to Taiwan.

Mastro rightly observes that if China were to take military action against Taiwan, it would have several options, ranging from an invasion to a blockade to the occupation of small offshore islands or strikes on selected economic or political targets. Although some of these options are more realistic than others, all would carry immense risk. Contrary to what Mastro suggests, Beijing is unlikely to attempt any of them unless it feels backed into a corner. 

China’s most decisive option would be a cross-strait invasion. But its chances of succeeding today—and for the next decade at least—are poor. Moreover, failure would produce a wrecked fleet and an army of prisoners of war in Taiwan, an outcome that even Beijing would be unable to spin as a victory. If, as most China analysts believe, regime security is the top priority for Chinese leaders, an invasion would risk everything on dim prospects for glory.  

To be sure, recent Chinese military modernization efforts have yielded potent new capabilities, and the People’s Liberation Army could visit havoc on Taiwan and U.S. forces deployed in the region at the outset of a conflict. But the PLA still lacks the naval and air assets necessary to pull off a successful cross-strait attack. Just as important, it suffers from weaknesses in training, in the willingness or ability of junior officers to take initiative, and in the ability to coordinate ground, sea, and air forces in large, complex operations.  

To put China’s naval capabilities in perspective, consider that the United States captured Okinawa in 1945 from a Japanese garrison that was roughly the size of Taiwan’s current active army with a fleet weighing 2.4 million tons and supported by 22 carriers, 18 battleships, and 29 cruisers. China’s amphibious fleet totals just 0.4 million tons today and would be supported by a much smaller fleet of combat ships that, unlike the battleships and cruisers of World War II, are not equipped with large guns capable of supporting troops ashore. China could supplement its naval transport vessels with civilian ships, but such ships unload slowly, as the British rediscovered in the Falklands in 1982, and these would share with the military fleet a limited number of landing craft for getting supplies from ship to shore. Chinese paratroopers or heliborne forces could also attempt to cross the strait, but they face even greater limitations and would be highly vulnerable to Taiwan’s surface-to-air missiles. 

Even if China could triple the size of its amphibious transport fleet, its ships would remain vulnerable to counterattacks by the United States and Taiwan. To seize control of the island, China would need to keep its fleet off Taiwan’s coast for weeks, creating easy targets for antiship cruise missiles launched from Taiwan or from U.S. bombers, fighter aircraft, and submarines. And even if the PLA managed to capture ports or airports, U.S. bombers or submarines could put those facilities out of commission, assuming Taiwan’s forces did not sabotage them first. To be sure, China could strike U.S. bases in Japan and threaten the U.S. fleet operating east of Taiwan. But unless Taiwan were to collapse without a fight—a scenario on which leaders in Beijing are unlikely to gamble their own survival—China could not sustain a fleet off Taiwan’s beaches long enough to prevail.   

Instead of an all-out invasion, China could opt for an air or sea blockade, seeking to starve Taiwan of trade until it capitulated to Beijing’s demands. But the potential upside would be smaller and less certain, and the potential downside almost as calamitous. A blockade would require China to operate aircraft and ships for extended periods of time to the east of Taiwan, once again creating targets for U.S. bombers, aircraft, and submarines. As Mastro notes, China could respond by striking U.S. bases in Japan, but doing so would ignite a broader war, with all the attendant risks China would have sought to avoid by stopping short of an invasion.  

Mastro acknowledges that “China is unlikely to attack Taiwan unless it is confident that it can achieve a quick victory.” But blockades, by their nature, take months and sometimes years to yield results. Even a few months would give the United States sufficient time to mobilize its immense military might to break the blockade. And a blockade could be met not just with an attack on Chinese forces but also with a counterblockade of China. As a result, this option is also unlikely to deliver Taiwan into Chinese hands and, like an invasion, would succeed only if Taiwan essentially collapsed without a fight.  

Less risky than an invasion or a full blockade would be more limited coercive actions. China could seize a small Taiwan-controlled island immediately off its mainland coast, for instance, or strike economic or political targets in Taiwan. Taiwan’s Kinmen Island is just five miles off the coast of the mainland, well within artillery range. Occupying the island is within China’s current military capability and would signal resolve but would not embroil Beijing in a larger conflict. If China seized Kinmen quickly and then ceased military operations, the onus would be on Taiwan—and the world—to respond or accept the fait accompli. 

But Beijing is unlikely to undertake even limited military action merely because it can, as Mastro suggests it might. China has had the ability to take Taiwan’s closest offshore islands for decades, but it has refrained from doing so. Should it decide to seize one of these islands in the future, the assault would be not “part of a phased invasion,” as Mastro argues, but a statement of frustration with a perceived shift in the U.S. or Taiwanese status quo. Beijing would likewise have to think long and hard before striking targets in Taiwan. Historically, coercive bombing campaigns have achieved limited success, and such attacks would expose China to considerable economic and political risk. Beijing cares about its international reputation, and although it may never forswear the use of force to achieve unification, it is not eager to attack Taiwan without a clear pretext and an endgame that serves its political purposes. 

A cross-strait invasion of Taiwan would risk everything on dim prospects for glory.

Instead of overreacting to Beijing’s growing power, Washington and Taipei should foster peace and stability through a more balanced set of military and political measures. On the military front, they should continue to deter Chinese aggression by implementing their own respective denial strategies, neither of which would require a major military buildup or the integration of U.S. and Taiwanese forces. To that end, the United States should adopt a lighter military footprint in the western Pacific, one that is better able to withstand a Chinese attack and wear down Chinese naval and air forces should they attack Taiwan. It should invest in a distributed air and naval presence rather than in ground forces, more long-range antiship missiles and fewer weapons designed to strike deep into China, and light aircraft carriers to supplement a reduced force of large-deck carriers. Such adjustments would highlight the enormous risks to China of offensive military action and provide the United States with a more usable set of tools, ones that would not risk escalation in the event of a crisis. 

Taiwan should also improve its own defenses. Under President Tsai Ing-wen, Taipei has adopted a more rational defense strategy that emphasizes resilience and sustainability. Washington should incentivize further movement in this direction by selling Taipei defensive weapons capable of surviving a Chinese assault, including antiship cruise missiles, smart mines, drones, and air defense systems, rather than the vulnerable aircraft and warships Taipei has preferred in the past. It should also condition such sales on Taiwan’s willingness to enhance the readiness and training of its troops, especially its reserve forces.

Washington needs the right political strategy to accompany these military efforts. As the pioneering game theorist Thomas Schelling observed, reassurance is an essential corollary to deterrence, because it presents potential adversaries with a real alternative to aggression. Washington should therefore refrain from further blurring the line between cultural and economic engagement with Taiwan and official political recognition, a distinction that lies at the heart of the agreements that accompanied the normalization of U.S.-Chinese diplomatic relations. It should also make clear that it remains committed to the “one China” policy by explicitly reaffirming that it does not favor a unilateral assertion of Taiwanese independence and that it supports the peaceful resolution of cross-strait differences. 

At the same time, the United States should pursue bilateral cooperation with China on issues such as climate change and pandemic management. It should also open an official nuclear dialogue with China and invest in improving military and civilian crisis communication channels, including negotiating procedures for coast guard vessel encounters. In private, U.S. President Joe Biden should emphasize to Chinese President Xi Jinping that the main obstacle to unification is not the U.S. military or the relationship between the United States and Taiwan but China’s own failure to develop a viable peaceful unification strategy that appeals to the people of Taiwan.

Because Beijing refuses to engage the moderate Tsai administration, these measures are unlikely to improve cross-strait relations anytime soon. But by playing a long game of balanced deterrence and reassurance, the United States can discourage Chinese adventurism even as it leaves the door open to positive change.

RACHEL ESPLIN ODELL is a Research Fellow in the East Asia Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

ERIC HEGINBOTHAM is Principal Research Scientist at the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

 

Force Is Still a Last Resort

Bonny Lin and David Sacks

Oriana Skylar Mastro argues that under President Xi Jinping, China has discarded its decades-old strategy of pursuing “peaceful reunification” with Taiwan and is now moving toward a military takeover of the island. But no such seismic policy shift has occurred in Beijing. Preparation for a conflict over Taiwan has always driven China’s military modernization efforts. Using force to achieve unification, however, remains an option of last resort. Instead, China is focused on chipping away at the will of the Taiwanese people. Eventually, Beijing thinks, they will conclude that their only viable future is to join the mainland.  

For decades, China’s approach to Taiwan has involved a combination of carrots designed to demonstrate the appeal of unification and sticks aimed at dissuading the island from moving toward independence. Beijing offers preferential treatment to citizens of Taiwan who do business on the mainland, for instance, while also conducting military exercises in the vicinity of the island to remind Taiwan’s citizens not to flirt with independence. 

Chinese leaders have embraced this approach because they do not see Taiwan as destined for independence and do not believe that the window for unification has closed. Successive Chinese leaders have advanced their policy agendas and burnished their legacies without delivering unification. Xi will be able to do the same, which perhaps explains why he has yet to set an explicit timeline for unification with the island. Xi is also aware that even though Taiwanese identity continues to harden, most on the island still support the status quo; only a small percentage of Taiwanese people advocate immediate independence.

Chinese leaders believe that the people of Taiwan will eventually conclude that their future prosperity is inextricably tied to closer relations with the mainland. Despite the island’s recent efforts to reduce its economic dependence on China, 45 percent of Taiwan’s exports went to the mainland and Hong Kong in 2020, a record high. Beijing is betting that Taipei will not risk Taiwan’s economic livelihood for the sake of independence. 

Under Xi, China has adopted a more assertive foreign policy, including vis-à-vis Taiwan. It has flown increasingly large formations of aircraft through Taiwan’s airspace, expanded maritime patrols in and around the Taiwan Strait, and stepped up military exercises aimed at the island. It has peeled away Taipei’s diplomatic allies and used its influence in international organizations to exclude Taiwan. And it has sought to marginalize the island economically, pressing other countries not to sign free-trade agreements with Taipei. With these and other coercive measures, China has sought to underscore the costs of resisting unification.

China’s growing power and its success in isolating Taiwan have convinced Chinese leaders that the trend lines are moving in the right direction. Mastro cites as evidence that Beijing is growing impatient an April interview in which Le Yucheng, China’s vice foreign minister, refused to rule out the possibility of military action against Taiwan. But in the same interview, Le took a longer view, stressing that Beijing sees unification as a “historical process and the tide of history.”

Beijing still sees an invasion of Taiwan as a last resort, one that would be incredibly difficult, risky, and costly for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Although Mastro concedes that a Chinese amphibious assault on Taiwan “is far from guaranteed to succeed,” she argues that Chinese perceptions of China’s capabilities matter more than its actual capabilities and that Chinese leaders are increasingly confident in China’s ability to win a fight over Taiwan. It is true that China possesses a more advanced military than it did five or ten years ago, but China also intentionally exaggerates its capabilities and confidence as part of its campaign of psychological warfare against Taiwan and the United States. Analysts should not accept at face value China’s claim that it could easily win a fight against Taiwan. 

As evidence of China’s ability to take the island, Mastro points to U.S. war games in which China prevailed over the United States. But such war games are generally designed to challenge U.S. warfighting capabilities, not to predict the outcome of conflicts. They also purposely tilt the fight in favor of China—for instance, by assuming that the PLA, which has not experienced serious combat in over four decades, has nonetheless mastered the incredibly difficult tactical, logistical, and command aspects of what would be one of the largest and most complicated military operations since World War II. By imagining a much more capable China, these war games help identify steps that the United States and Taiwan could take to ensure that even a large-scale and determined Chinese invasion of Taiwan would fail. Their goal is not to model a realistic scenario.

Instead of using force, China is chipping away at the will of the Taiwanese people.

In other words, it is far from clear that China could defeat Taiwan’s military, subdue its population, and occupy and control its territory. Nor is it clear that the PLA could hold off any U.S. forces that came to Taiwan’s aid, or that Beijing would be willing to undertake a campaign that could spark a larger and far more costly war with the United States. A Chinese invasion would invite significant international political, economic, and diplomatic backlash that could undermine China’s political, social, and economic development goals. It would also spur the formation of powerful anti-China coalitions, bringing to fruition Beijing’s long-standing fear of “strategic encirclement” by powers aligned against it. 

Mastro implies that China would be able to devote all its military and security resources to an attack on Taiwan. In reality, however, Chinese leaders are likely to worry that the PLA does not have the capacity to seize and hold Taiwan while still maintaining tight control over Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang, and the rest of mainland China, not to mention defending its claims in the many territorial disputes it has with neighbors. Invading Taiwan would be perhaps the riskiest decision Beijing has made since 1950, when it intervened in the Korean War on behalf of North Korea. In making that choice, Chinese leaders would certainly weigh factors beyond cross-strait dynamics and the PLA’s capabilities; they would also have to consider whether China could politically and economically sustain a protracted conflict and whether attacking Taiwan would undermine Beijing’s broader global ambitions. 

Mastro argues that once China possesses the military capabilities necessary to invade Taiwan, “Xi could find it politically untenable not to do so” because of the heightened nationalism in China. But Xi has consolidated political and military power to an extent not seen since Mao Zedong, and he has revised China’s constitution to allow himself to stay in power indefinitely. Xi’s control over the PLA and his emphasis on personal loyalty mean that his hand will not be forced on such a consequential decision. Moreover, he has a range of coercive options at his disposal. Rather than invading Taiwan, for instance, he could respond to rising nationalist pressure by escalating the PLA’s harassment of the island while censoring additional nationalist criticism. 

Instead of launching a risky assault on Taiwan, China could try to achieve its objectives in a piecemeal way that would make it difficult for Taiwan or the United States to respond. For instance, China may attempt to seize or blockade an island under Taiwanese control, such as Itu Aba (also known as Taiping), Kinmen, Matsu, or Pratas. Alternatively, China could launch a cyberattack against Taiwan’s critical infrastructure, shutting down the island’s Internet or power supply. And these are just a few of the political, economic, and military options short of an invasion that Chinese leaders could use against Taiwan. 

Although Mastro overstates China’s eagerness to invade Taiwan, she is right that the United States needs to redouble its efforts to ensure that Xi is not tempted to do so. Washington, Taipei, and like-minded allies are capable of fielding the military capabilities needed to prevent China from forcibly seizing control of Taiwan. But the United States will need to invest in military capabilities that are either long range or difficult for PLA missiles to target—and signal its willingness to use them should China use force against Taiwan. Washington should also continue to press Taiwan to increase its defense spending and invest in asymmetric capabilities—in particular, sea mines and antiship missiles.

To prevent China’s coercion of Taiwan from sparking a crisis or a conflict, the United States will need to work with Taiwan to improve its overall defense capabilities, so that it does not feel backed into a corner and forced to respond to Chinese provocations by escalating the dispute. Washington should use senior-level dialogues and war games to help Taiwan’s leadership think through the consequences of various responses to Chinese military aggression. It should also help Taiwan secure its critical infrastructure, harden its cyberdefenses, and improve its maritime intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities. 

This is a demanding agenda, but one that is necessary to preserve cross-strait stability. Although Mastro exaggerates the threat of a Chinese invasion, peace in the Indo-Pacific nonetheless hinges in no small part on Washington’s ability to deter Chinese aggression against Taiwan. 

BONNY LIN is Senior Fellow for Asian Security and Director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

DAVID SACKS is a Research Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

A military drill simulating a Chinese invasion in Pingtung, Taiwan, May 2019
A military drill simulating a Chinese invasion in Pingtung, Taiwan, May 2019
Tyrone Siu / Reuters

Xi Doesn’t Need Taiwan

Kharis Templeman

Oriana Skylar Mastro warns that Chinese President Xi Jinping could soon order an attack on Taiwan. She asserts that Xi has staked his legitimacy on progress toward unification and that recent developments in Taiwan, especially the reelection in 2020 of President Tsai Ing-wen, whose party is skeptical of China, have “reinforced Beijing’s fears that the people of Taiwan will never willingly come back to the motherland.” Amid rising Chinese nationalist sentiment, she argues, Xi may soon feel compelled to forcibly impose Chinese Communist Party rule on Taiwan.

This argument exaggerates the importance of Taiwanese public opinion to Beijing’s calculus, as well as the significance and urgency of the Taiwan issue for Xi. As Chinese strategists understand very well, Taiwan’s security rests today, as it has for the last 70 years, on an implicit U.S. commitment to defend the island, not on the will of the Taiwanese people or their leaders. Although the majority of Taiwanese would resist a Chinese invasion if they had U.S. backing, most are also fatalistic about their ability to hold out alone against Beijing—and would probably accede to unification without a fight if abandoned. Trends in the United States, not in Taiwan, will ultimately determine Taiwan’s future. 

Mastro also overstates what is known about Xi’s commitment to achieving unification in the near term. Xi has tied his legitimacy to achieving China’s “national rejuvenation,” which requires a favorable international economic environment—one that a war over Taiwan would jeopardize. Although the military balance of power in the western Pacific has been shifting in China’s favor, the United States still retains both the ability and the will to impose extremely high economic and political costs on China should it attack Taiwan. Even if Xi thinks he could succeed—which is by no means a given—attempting an invasion of the island now simply does not make sense unless the United States signals that it will not get involved. 

Nor is there much evidence that Beijing views Taiwan as an urgent issue to resolve. Most Chinese analysts believe that long-term trends in the U.S.-Chinese relationship favor Beijing, as the scholars Rush Doshi and Julian Gewirtz have both argued persuasively. With President Joe Biden in office, Xi has to assume that the United States would respond forcefully to an attack on Taiwan today. But wait another 20 years, and the picture could look quite different. The American public has already elected one president who saw Taiwan and U.S. alliances in Asia Beijing’s way: as optional and worth bargaining away for the right price. What is to stop Americans from electing another? Taiwan’s future is thus likely to be decided by a Sino-American contest not of capabilities but of wills, and the Chinese Communist Party has reason to believe that it is slowly but surely gaining the upper hand in this long-term struggle—and thereby improving its prospects of taking Taiwan without a fight. 

The shifting U.S.-Chinese contest in Taiwan is really about both sides’ perceived willingness to fight.

China’s growing advantage stems not from the changing balance of power between it and the United States—most Chinese forecasts of American decline are overstated, if not flat-out wrong—but from shifting perceptions of both sides’ will to fight. The Chinese Communist Party has already scored an important victory by framing the terms of the debate. For the last 70 years, Beijing has relentlessly asserted that Taiwan is the last piece of “Chinese territory” it needs to achieve “national unification” and a “core interest” that it must use force against, if necessary, to place under its control. For such a transparently self-serving claim, it has been remarkably persuasive: most American observers now accept the threat of invasion as credible and the goal of unification—if not the means—as legitimate. 

By comparison, the case that Taiwan is essential to the United States is weak, as much as friends of Taiwan try to argue otherwise. As the former diplomat Robert Blackwill and the historian Philip Zelikow have noted, Taiwan is a vital U.S. interest only insofar as it enables the projection of U.S. power and the security of U.S. allies in the region. Future U.S. presidents could be tempted to drop the implicit security guarantee for the island, either to avoid a devastating war or in exchange for other concessions from China. The critical question is thus not whether Beijing is willing to invade but how long Washington will continue to accept the risk of war with China. 

Many U.S. analysts already believe that risk to be unacceptably high. Ted Galen Carpenter, Charles Glaser, and John Mearsheimer, among others, have argued that to preserve peace with China, the United States should disavow any commitment to defend Taiwan. It is ironic, then, that in attempting to sound the alarm about the urgent threat facing Taiwan, Mastro has reinforced Beijing’s preferred narrative: that China will soon be able to launch a successful invasion and that defending Taiwan will only grow harder and more costly for the United States. Her assumption that Beijing will spare no expense and bear any burden to conquer Taiwan is shared both by those who call for urgently strengthening U.S. military capabilities in the western Pacific and by those who would abandon Taiwan to avoid war. 

But that assumption is a dubious one. Xi has many other priorities, and moving against Taiwan would set back most of them. The United States should not uncritically accept China’s narrative about its rise in the world, its need to avenge “the century of humiliation,” and the centrality of Taiwan to this “sacred mission.” In reality, China has survived and prospered for 70 years without exercising political control over Taiwan, and there is no reason why Beijing must seek to conquer it today. Mastro may have the best of intentions, but her argument ultimately bolsters those who would concede Taiwan to China without a fight. 

KHARIS TEMPLEMAN is a Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution and part of the Hoover Institution Project on Taiwan in the Indo-Pacific Region.

 

Mastro Replies

Rachel Esplin Odell and Eric Heginbotham, Bonny Lin and David Sacks, and Kharis Templeman all argue that China is unlikely to attempt armed unification with Taiwan. Although I appreciate their perspectives, they do not present any new evidence that would make me reconsider my assessment that the risk of Chinese aggression across the Taiwan Strait is real and growing. To the contrary, they repeat many of the increasingly dangerous misperceptions that I sought to dispel in my original article—namely, that China does not have the military capabilities to pull off an amphibious invasion, that the economic costs of an invasion would be sufficient to deter Chinese President Xi Jinping, and that China can afford to wait indefinitely to achieve its most important national goal of unification. My critics assume that insofar as there are risks, they can be dealt with through relatively limited adjustments in U.S. policy and military posture—a position with which I still strongly disagree. 

Let’s take these arguments in order. My critics say that I have exaggerated China’s military capabilities and understated the difficulties of an invasion. But their assessments rely on outdated or largely irrelevant comparisons. Odell and Heginbotham, for instance, note that the United States needed more naval tonnage to capture Okinawa from Japan in 1945 than China has today. But this example is inapposite. Japan’s military was more than six million strong in 1945 and had been fighting for over a decade; Taiwan’s military consists of 88,000 personnel and two million reservists, of whom only 300,000 are required to complete even a five-week refresher training course. Tonnage, moreover, is not a useful metric. Modern navies have moved to lighter, more flexible fleets. Odell and Heginbotham point out that civilian ships were of only limited use in the Falklands War, but the United Kingdom used just 62 of them in that campaign. The People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia has many thousands of ships and is closer to a naval force than a civilian one. If China were to mobilize all its naval vessels, including its new large amphibious transport ships and civilian ships, it could hypothetically carry hundreds of thousands of troops across the 80-mile-wide Taiwan Strait in a short period of time. Even if the United States had enough warning to optimally position its submarines, it does not have enough munitions to target such a large force. 

For their part, Lin and Sacks argue that to believe China can take Taiwan by force is to fall for a Chinese misinformation campaign. They warn that “analysts should not accept at face value China’s claim that it could easily win a fight against Taiwan.” But no one, not even the cockiest of People’s Liberation Army analysts, argues that a full-scale attack on Taiwan would be easy, only that the PLA could prevail at an acceptable cost. Moreover, my assessment of Chinese military capabilities is not based on Chinese discourse or the results of war games alone. Reams of unbiased and rigorous analysis—from the U.S. Department of Defense’s annual report to Congress on China’s military modernization to Congressional Research Service reports on Chinese naval modernization to hundreds of studies by think tanks and defense-affiliated organizations, such as the RAND Corporation—suggest that the PLA has made unparalleled advances in the past two decades and could take on the United States in certain scenarios. Indeed, Heginbotham himself argued in 2017 that “the balance of power between the United States and China may be approaching a series of tipping points, first in contingencies close to the Chinese coast (e.g., Taiwan).” 

I do not mean to suggest that a Chinese invasion would be a cakewalk. Taiwan could get some shots in, but it does not have the ability to defend itself. Luckily, the United States would, I believe, come to Taiwan’s aid and could still prevail in many scenarios. Taiwan is far from a lost cause. But ten years ago, the United States would have prevailed in any scenario. Because there are now some scenarios in which U.S. strategists think the United States could lose, it is not unfathomable to think that Chinese strategists have come to a similar conclusion. 

My critics also argue that economic considerations will deter Beijing. Should China attempt to use force to assert control over Taiwan, the international response would be severe enough to imperil Xi’s ambitious development goals. But as I argued in my original article, Chinese analysts have good reason to think the international response would be weak enough to tolerate. China could even reap economic benefits from controlling Taiwan, whose manufacturers accounted for more than 60 percent of global revenue from semiconductors last year. The United States is heavily reliant on Taiwanese semiconductors. Should China take Taiwan, it could conceivably deprive the United States of this technology and gain an economic and military advantage. 

But economic costs or benefits, while part of Beijing’s calculus, are unlikely to be the determining factor. Xi’s top priority is protecting China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity—as Beijing defines it. China’s Belt and Road Initiative, its militarization of the South China Sea, and its sanctions against countries that offend it, such as Australia or South Korea, all demonstrate that Chinese leaders are willing to subordinate economic considerations to considerations of power and prestige. In a speech marking the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party in July, Xi warned against foreign attempts to bully or oppress China, declaring that “anyone who dares try to do that will have their heads bashed bloody against the great wall of steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people.” Those words should be taken seriously. 

Finally, my critics argue that China has no need to attempt to forcibly unify with Taiwan. Lin and Sacks think peaceful unification is working; Templeman believes China can wait indefinitely to resolve the issue. I disagree because I think unification is a top priority for the Chinese Communist Party and Taiwan will not give up its autonomy without a fight. 

A Chinese invasion is by no means imminent or inevitable, but Beijing is now seriously considering initiating a conflict to gain political control over Taiwan, whereas in the past the only scenario in which it would have used force was to prevent Taipei from declaring independence. I agree with Templeman that China is unlikely to invade in the next four years (although I think this is largely because China could benefit from more time to prepare, not because it fears U.S. President Joe Biden’s resolve), but his argument that China can wait indefinitely is logically and empirically flawed. As I argued in my original article, Xi has made numerous statements that suggest he wants to achieve unification during his reign. It would be unwise to dismiss these as mere rhetoric, since he has repeatedly voiced his intention to assert control over other territorial claims before doing exactly that—in the South China Sea, by building military infrastructure and conducting naval drills, and in Hong Kong, by imposing a harsh national security law last year.  

Beijing still needs to put boots on the ground to gain full political control of Taiwan.

Templeman argues that if China believes the United States is in decline, then it has every reason to wait on Taiwan. But in the eyes of Chinese strategists, American decline actually hastens the need for action. Power transition theory, which holds that war becomes more likely as the gap between a rising power and an established great power diminishes, is also studied in Beijing. And although U.S. strategists fret that a rising China, dissatisfied with the U.S.-led international order, will become aggressive and start a conflagration, Chinese strategists fear a different pathway to war. They worry that the United States, unable to accept its inevitable decline, will make a dangerous last-ditch effort to hold on to its unrivaled great-power status. By this logic, a declining United States is more dangerous than a stable, ascendant one. 

Lin and Sacks make a different argument for why Beijing does not need to attempt armed unification. They believe that Chinese leaders remain committed to their long-standing approach of limited coercion coupled with economic incentives showcasing the benefits of unification because that strategy is working. As evidence of Beijing’s progress, Lin and Sacks point to polling that shows the majority of people in Taiwan support the status quo, not independence. But it is an enormous leap from not supporting independence to desiring or conceding to unification. As Lin and Sacks themselves acknowledge, China has employed this strategy of limited coercion and economic inducements for decades, but Taiwan is no closer to being a part of mainland China. In a September 2020 poll conducted by National Chengchi University, only six percent of Taiwanese citizens preferred eventual or immediate unification. So although Lin and Sacks are correct that Beijing will likely continue with its carrot-and-stick approach, it will still need to put boots on the ground to gain full political control of Taiwan. 

My critics also raise concerns about some of the policy implications of my argument. Odell and Heginbotham warn against focusing too much on the credibility of the U.S. military threat when it comes to deterrence, rightly highlighting the equal importance of reassurance. They warn that changes in U.S. policy toward Taiwan could convince Beijing that the United States now supports Taiwanese independence—a misperception that could lead to war. But my argument is for a change in posture, not in policy: the United States should develop the force posture and operational plans to deny China its objective in Taiwan and then credibly reveal these new capabilities. It should not make dangerous policy changes that would risk provoking a Chinese military response. Indeed, I have argued elsewhere that even if a war breaks out over Taiwan and the United States wins, Washington should not demand Taiwan’s independence as one of the terms of peace. 

Templeman raises a separate concern: that highlighting the potential costs of defending Taiwan could bolster the case of those advocating that Washington abandon Taipei. If this were a serious worry, I would be the first to shift my work to more private channels. But those calling for the United States to reconsider its commitment to defend Taiwan are still in the minority, and the Biden administration has been clear that it would come to Taiwan’s aid in the event of an invasion.

Moreover, the reaction of the U.S. Department of Defense to the threat posed by China’s growing military power has been not to back down but to ramp up efforts to counter it. From new doctrines that enhance joint capabilities between the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy to base-resilience initiatives to efforts to improve U.S. early warning systems in the region, the Pentagon is firing on all cylinders to ensure it can deter and, if necessary, defeat China in a wide range of conflict scenarios. U.S. Cyber Command, the U.S. Space Force, and the Department of Defense’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center were all established partly to counter Chinese advantages in those organizations’ respective domains. If Lin and Sacks are correct that China exaggerates its capabilities to try to convince the United States to give up, Beijing has achieved the opposite.   

In the end, all my critics highlight an important truth: the situation across the Taiwan Strait has been relatively stable for 70 years because of the United States. Washington has managed to convince Beijing that armed unification would fail and that China would pay a hefty price for trying. But China is not the same country it was 70 years ago. Its rapid military modernization, spectacular economic ascent, and growing global influence have changed Beijing’s calculus on many issues. It has taken a more assertive approach to international institutions; built one of the world’s largest, most capable militaries; and extended its economic influence deep and far throughout the world. It would be wishful thinking to assume that China has not also changed its thinking on Taiwan.

Indeed, although my critics argue that China is unlikely to invade, they still recommend that Taiwan improve its defenses and that the United States enhance its military posture in the region—not exactly a vote of confidence in Beijing’s restraint. I had hoped to convince skeptics that China is now seriously considering armed unification, but at least our debate has yielded a consensus that more must be done in Taipei and Washington to enhance deterrence across the Taiwan Strait.

ORIANA SKYLAR MASTRO is a Center Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University and a Senior Nonresident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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