With the People’s Republic of China (PRC) continuing a military buildup that Taiwan cannot hope to match on it own and a leadership in Beijing that appears increasingly willing to use force to resolve disputes, it is essential for Taiwan and its allies to give renewed attention to the means by which China can be deterred from launching an attack across the Taiwan Strait. The former Deputy National Security Adviser Matt Pottinger called attention to the need for “substantive actions” that can “deter” China in recent remarks at a video conference. While traditional means of deterrence have been parsed out at length by officials and experts alike in the United States and Taiwan, what are some non-traditional means of deterrence against a Chinese invasion of Taiwan?
Preparing and training for various military contingencies across the Taiwan Strait, acquiring defense articles from the United States, and developing an indigenous defense capability are all crucial components of Taiwan’s defense posture and should continue to be augmented as much as is feasible. On its own, however, military deterrence may no longer be sufficient to change the calculations of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP, 中國共產黨). This is due to the power imbalance that has developed across the Taiwan Strait in recent years, as well as to the belief by analysts that Chinese leader Xi Jinping (習近平)—having acquired new powers over war and peace following amendments to the National Defense Law (中華人民共和國國防法) that came into force on January 1—may be ready to mesh capabilities with intent. Taiwan’s relative weakness vis-à-vis China in terms of ability to counter on its own a dedicated and sustained assault by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA, 中國人民解放軍), as well as continued uncertainty over whether the United States would intervene in an attack on Taiwan scenario, have compelled Taipei and its supporters around the globe to think of non-military means by which an invasion against Taiwan can be deterred.
As Michael O’Hanlon suggests in his 2019 book The Senkaku Paradox: Risking Great Power War Over Small Stakes, traditional deterrence can include both punishment—which he describes as centering on “economic reprisal after an initial enemy aggression,” as well as “military forms of cost imposition”—and denial, which would seek to “prevent any further conquests after an initial attack, especially those of a more strategically significant scale.” Whether such a strategy succeeds in deterring against attack—in other words, in convincing a potential assailant that the costs of such a gambit would be too high to justify action—is in turn contingent on signaling by the United States and its allies that they mean business and would undoubtedly activate such retaliatory measures in full.
New Pillars of Deterrence
In addition to traditional deterrence, recent developments in Taiwan’s positioning within the international community have created new opportunities that can be exploited to complement that deterrence. The first is a growing recognition by the United States and other regional partners that due to its location as a node in the “first island chain,” the preservation of Taiwan as a sovereign entity is crucial to arresting the full expression of Chinese military assertiveness. Were Taiwan to fall under Chinese control and become a base for the PLA Navy (PLAN) and Air Force (PLAAF), the potential for destabilization in the region would grow immensely. This would begin with much greater exposure of US forces based in Guam to an attack by China and an increased sense of vulnerability in Japan, which could in turn compel rearmament (possibly leading to Japan acquiring nuclear weapons) and an arms race with the PRC. The geopolitical value of Taiwan amid Chinese assertiveness and territorial expansionism has therefore gained primacy and is increasingly appreciated by security analysts and military establishments within the region. This recognition in turn creates incentives for governments with a stake in regional stability to signal that Chinese military adventurism in the Taiwan Strait would bear serious costs.
China’s authoritarian turn under Xi Jinping, with the crackdown in Hong Kong and ethnic cleansing/genocide of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR, 新疆維吾爾自治區) serving as the two most visible manifestations of that shift, has also forced governments worldwide—and democracies in particular—to reassess the value of Taiwan as a partner in the defense and promotion of democracy, liberalism, and good governance. This reassessment has resulted in greater engagement with Taiwan in recent years, both at the governmental and non-governmental level, amid fears of China’s growing clout and influence within international institutions. Moreover, with the environment in China and Hong Kong becoming increasingly inhospitable to NGOs and media organizations, many have decided to reduce or shutter their presence in China and relocate to Taiwan. The presence of organizations like Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI), and several others that are lining up to do so in the coming year, increases Taiwan’s global visibility, counters longstanding Chinese efforts to isolate it internationally, and further connects it to a fledgling alliance of democracies that are pushing back on China’s authoritarian form of governance.
A more recent element of this phenomenon is Taiwan’s emergence in 2020 as a leader in combating the COVID-19 pandemic and a partner to the international community, which has struggled to respond to the global health emergency. Besides showcasing its high levels of preparedness and utilization of IA to combat the disease, Taiwan has also demonstrated its ability to maintain a very respectable level of economic growth even in times of crisis. In the process, it has put the lie to the notion that authoritarian regimes are better equipped to rapidly mobilize in response to an emergency. Taiwan’s support for international partners, as well as the opportunities which COVID-19 has created for Taiwan joining forces with other countries in developing a vaccine and technologies to contain future pandemics—despite Taiwan’s continued exclusion from the World Health Organization (WHO)—have further strengthened its role as a member of the community of nations.
In the aggregate, all these non-military elements—democracy, press freedom, health—contribute to Taiwan’s deterrent by making its loss to China even more of a loss for the international community. Moreover, the greater Taiwan’s integration into the international system, the greater the number of foreign organizations and nationals who will be present physically in Taiwan, which not only contributes to Taiwan’s knowability and visibility, but should also serve as a deterrent against Chinese attack due to the risks of collateral damage. These positive developments also make it clear that more than ever, Taiwan must regard the modernization of old rules, which have long undermined its ability to attract foreign organizations, as a matter of national security. While Taipei has begun to address the problem, far too much of its response has, to date, been handled in an ad hoc fashion.
The last and newest pillar of Taiwan’s deterrence stems from its recent success in attracting investment by global high-tech companies and in positioning Taiwan as an indispensable link in the global supply chain. Google, for example, announced in late January that it had selected Taiwan as its main hardware R&D hub outside the US. Reporting on the matter, Nikkei Asian Review wrote that the move is “a sign of the democratically ruled island’s growing significance in the global supply chain.” Additionally, Taiwan has emerged as the leader in the semiconductor sector, with Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC, 台灣積體電路製造), the world’s largest foundry, making headlines worldwide amid the growing realization that the world has become extremely dependent on Taiwan. The “comprehensive ecosystem” that has been built around TSMC—with ASE Technology Holding (日月光投資控股股份有限公司) becoming the world’s top chip assembler and MediaTek (聯發科技) the largest smartphone chipset vendor—has also put Taiwan on the map like nothing else has before. With hundreds of billions of dollars and the health of the global economy at stake, the security of Taiwan is now a matter of international concern. As with democracy promotion and other NGOs deepening their ties with Taiwan, two-way, multi-billion-dollar investments in high-tech industries playing on Taiwan’s strengths also contribute immensely to Taiwan’s deterrent capabilities, as it deepens international reliance on Taiwan through integration in the global supply chain and creates a physical foreign presence on Taiwanese soil which could become a collateral during a military assault by China. The consequences of an attack, therefore, would not be limited to Taiwan but to the multinational businesses that have set up shop in Taiwan as well, not to mention the foreign nationals who are employed at such firms and their dependents.
Unlike abstract concepts such as liberal democracy, press freedom, and justice, high-tech can now serve as a means to underscore the importance of preserving Taiwan’s sovereignty by appealing to the self-interests of people everywhere. The disruptions in integrated circuit (IC) manufacturing and assembly that would be caused by a Chinese assault on Taiwan would have global ramifications on a scale which dwarfs even the 7.6-magnitude 921 Jiji Earthquake (921大地震) in Taiwan in 1999, which drove up the price of computer memory worldwide threefold.
Taiwan can further strengthen the silicon shield it has erected over the years by maintaining its leading edge in the semiconductor sector, primarily through further investment in R&D and the creation of a greater number of companies like TSMC. With the authoritarian resurgence led by China and Russia, Taiwan’s silicon shield must be better integrated with the alliance of democracies and a strengthened supply chain, with a view that the military and AI uses of such advanced technological know-how should be denied to states that do not play by international rules.
O’Hanlon observes that economic sanctions and embargoes should be part of the non-traditional deterrence described earlier, adding that “for sanctions to be economically sustainable, the United States and its allies need to understand the vulnerabilities in their supply chains, financial dealings, and other economic relationships and develop strategies in advance to mitigate those vulnerabilities.” The opportunities for Taiwan have never been better, both for the sake of its economic viability and, perhaps more importantly, as a means to bolster its deterrent capabilities against a Chinese assault.
The main point: Facing extraordinary odds on the military front, Taiwan’s best strategy is to consolidate its deterrence through continued investment in the military sector and by exploiting Taiwan’s growing indispensability in both the defense of democracy and the global high-tech supply chain.