Is Taiwan becoming “the most dangerous flash point in the world for a possible war that involved the United States of America, China, and probably other major powers”? Yes, say Robert D. Blackwill and Philip Zelikow in their new report, “The United States, China, and Taiwan: A Strategy to Prevent War,” published by the Council on Foreign Relations last month. Although their contention that many are neglecting the threat is questionable, they do a service in using their prominent voices to call attention to what they see as a brewing crisis. In tackling a complex challenge, Blackwill and Zelikow make a number of trenchant observations and provide some prudent policy recommendations. Unfortunately, shortcomings in analysis make for a set of findings that should largely be dismissed.
What Blackwill and Zelikow (Almost) Get Right
Blackwill and Zelikow effectively paint a portrait of a China that remains unwavering in its definition of “one China” (that Taiwan is sovereign territory of the People’s Republic of China), a leader in Xi Jinping (習近平) seemingly intent on bringing unification about (even if his preferred timeline is difficult to discern), and a Taiwan that is moving ever more distant from the PRC. In essence, they suggest that an unstoppable force is approaching an immoveable object, with a fateful impact drawing nearer.
Strangely, however, there is little if any discussion of what might drive Xi to opt for a far more coercive or forceful approach to Taiwan. Blackwill and Zelikow suggest there must be arguments within Beijing “about how to react during what they could judge to be a window of military advantage.” But systemic drivers only account for part of the equation when it comes to decision-making in Beijing. The authors give little thought to domestic circumstances within the PRC—and within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—that would make Chinese aggression more or less likely. Despite this shortcoming, the report’s key observation—that the threat of cross-Strait hostilities is growing more urgent—is valuable.
According to Blackwill and Zelikow, America’s “strategic objective regarding Taiwan should be to preserve its political and economic autonomy, its dynamism as a free society, and US-allied deterrence—without triggering a Chinese attack on Taiwan.” In discussing what they describe as a new US strategy to do so, the authors focus less on the military aspects of deterrence and more on a “political-economic campaign” to be launched in response to a “local war over Taiwan in which Chinese forces killed Americans, and perhaps also Japanese and other allied forces or citizens.”
First the United States would freeze all assets owned by that country, or its citizens, in the United States. […] Second, the United States would cut off, and strictly control, any business transactions or dollar transactions with China. No trading with the enemy would be conducted. [ …] These moves would immediately trigger a large and devastating financial and economic crisis. […] We are not proposing a strategy of coercive diplomacy. This is a strategy to spell out how world politics and the world economy are likely to fracture after such a terrible break.
Whether this is truly novel is debatable, but the emphasis on non-military responses to Chinese aggression provides a useful illustration of the many potentially effective tools of national power that Washington and its allies have at their disposal. A strategy that seeks to mobilize a wide range of those tools is likely to be more successful than one focused more narrowly on military tools.
Of the authors’ 18 policy prescriptions for the US government, three stand out. First, they are right to caution against using Taiwan policy “to bludgeon China or to weaken US-China relations.” Curiously, Blackwill and Zelikow fail to adequately explain this note of caution. Put simply, to use Taiwan to “bludgeon China” is to make the US-Taiwan relationship all about China, which plays into Chinese hands. Taiwan is important in its own right and for reasons that persist regardless of developments in Beijing. To make Taiwan policy derivative of China policy, however, is to signal to Beijing that bilateral US-Taiwan ties are up for negotiation. They shouldn’t be.
Second, Blackwill and Zelikow wisely recommend that the United States should coordinate its Taiwan policy with Asian allies, Quad partners, and other friendly regional governments. In order to “successfully compete with China,” they argue, “Washington needs Asian and European allies, partners, and friends, beginning with Japan.” The authors quite wrongly assert that “in the current public debate regarding US policy toward Taiwan […] the views of American allies on the subject are never mentioned,” but they are right to suggest high-level coordination as one antidote to the challenge Beijing poses.
On the other hand, Blackwill and Zelikow seem to imply—though they do not say so directly—that American allies and partners should have something akin to a veto over US Taiwan policy initiatives. To be sure, Washington should “take the national interests of allies into account,” given that these nations “have great equities attached to the future of the US-China relationship and its connection to the future of Taiwan.” Those equities, however, should not take precedence over America’s own—or Taiwan’s, for that matter. Rather than act as an “accommodating interlocutor,” as Blackwill and Zelikow suggest, the United States should strive to bring allies and partners around to its own views on cross-Strait issues, while recognizing that complete alignment is unlikely and probably unnecessary.
More confounding is that even as the authors rightly argue for closer US coordination with allies and partners, they fail to argue for closer US coordination with Taiwan itself—the state that will be most affected by a Chinese turn to aggression, the state that knows China better than any other, and the state that has been preparing almost exclusively for cross-Strait war for seven decades. That Blackwill and Zelikow have nary a word to say about joint US-Taiwan preparations for a crisis is a bizarre omission.
Third, Blackwill and Zelikow are absolutely right to encourage President Biden to “discuss US policy toward China and Taiwan with the American people.” The Trump administration actually did this in a way that its predecessors had not, an effort the authors unfairly dismiss as “serial denunciation of Beijing.” But there is more work to be done. If Americans lack an appreciation for US concerns regarding China and for US interests vis-à-vis the Taiwan Strait, American deterrence suffers as the threat of military intervention looks less credible than it otherwise might. A presidential address to the nation on US objectives and strategy regarding China is just what the doctor ordered.
What Blackwill and Zelikow (Mostly) Get Wrong
Despite these positive contributions to the Taiwan policy debate, the report suffers from factual inaccuracies, debatable assertions, and questionable logic. A full accounting of the paper’s shortcomings is not possible here. Instead, let us focus narrowly on the strategy Blackwill and Zelikow propose.
The authors recommend that the United States (and Japan) plan to make “a military challenge to a Chinese attempt to deny access” to Taiwan, such as by sending ships carrying military supplies to the island, daring China to use force. But the authors caution against escalating if China does so:
Instead, we propose a plan that would attempt to limit the fight to a local conflict over and around Taiwan. Taiwan may not end up winning that battle, in the short run, but its resistance could force China to face a much wider and lasting conflict. Instead of escalating to general war, this plan would prepare, in advance, the political and economic breaks and reactions that would likely accompany a local war with China, although the possibility of a wider war would still exist.
A local war, in Blackwill and Zelikow’s telling, would consist of a naval campaign in waters around Taiwan that would limit its targets to PLA vessels (and presumably aircraft) and perhaps to Chinese forces on Taiwan should they have attempted an invasion. US and allied forces would eschew strikes on Chinese territory and, probably, on PLA space assets. Meanwhile, the United States, Japan, and others would carry out the political-economic campaign described above. At the same time, the United States (probably along with Japan and others) would pursue a defense buildup “on a scale not seen in more than a generation,” with plans for doing so made clear to China ahead of time. Blackwill and Zelikow write:
In sum, this overall campaign plan would be for a possible local military challenge that could well escalate into the rapid and disorderly division of the world into two economic spheres, within days or weeks, forcing countries and firms to make painful choices […]
The objective of this strategy is not to convince China that it should surrender. The objective is to develop a picture in Beijing of the world that could follow a local war over Taiwan. Although the United States and its friends would suffer painful sacrifices, China would have to redefine its future where it had provoked a division of the world in which a large part mobilized against China to an extent that had never happened before.
This plan is intended to deter China—the authors expect Beijing will assess that even if it gains Taiwan, the costs of doing so will be too much to bear. The problems with this approach, however, are manifold. Put simply, there are reasons for concern that this strategy would fail to deter. American leaders would then face the prospect of having to institute a largely nonsensical plan.
Deterrence Might Fail
Promising to deliver the sort of economic pain that China has not seen in generations should make Beijing think twice about a move on Taiwan. It is not clear, however, that such a threat would be sufficient to deter an attack. Blackwill and Zelikow pair it with an American (and Japanese) threat to pursue a robust defense buildup in the event that Americans (and Japanese) die coming to Taiwan’s aid. It is unclear why the authors believe China would worry much about allied buildups after it has launched a war—buildups that Beijing knows neither country has a capacity to rapidly undertake.
Perhaps most strangely, Blackwill and Zelikow give little consideration to including a deterrence by denial effort within their broader strategic framework. Arguably the most direct way to deter China from using military force against Taiwan is to strive to convince China that such a move would fail. But denying Taiwan to China—denying the very objective for which China is willing to launch a war—is of secondary importance to the report’s authors. The promised economic repercussions are paramount.
But, as mentioned above, because the authors fail to seriously consider potential domestic drivers of Chinese aggression towards Taiwan, they are unable to imagine the full range of possible Chinese reactions to their strategy. Xi Jinping might be willing to incur significant economic and diplomatic costs in order to conquer Taiwan. Or, depending on the timing, Xi might welcome, or at least find tolerable, the global bifurcation Blackwill and Zelikow promise. After all, China would undoubtedly dominate its own sphere in a way it cannot today.
The political-economic campaign that Blackwill and Zelikow propose may well be a necessary component of a strategy to deter China from acting aggressively towards Taiwan. It may also be far from sufficient.
A Nonsensical Campaign Plan
If deterrence does fail, an American president would likely be tempted to discard—or at least significantly alter—the Blackwill-Zelikow plan. While the authors oddly insist that Chinese surrender should not be an objective, it is hard to see why the United States would bother fighting a “local war” over Taiwan’s fate if not to force China to halt its aggression. If the American strategic objective regarding Taiwan, as the authors put it, is to “preserve its political and economic autonomy,” then Chinese defeat will be necessary in the eventuality Beijing opts for war.
Second, if the United States does want China to back down, it is not clear that keeping the war local is an appropriate course. Blackwill and Zelikow reasonably worry about inviting Chinese strikes on the Japanese and American homelands (though China may not be as shy about early strikes on Japanese and US territories as the authors seem to assume) and about nuclear escalation. They also suggest, however, that American and allied naval forces may need to “consider destroying all the Chinese sensors tracking them with enough precision to enable targeting.” Doing so would require attacks on the Chinese homeland and on Chinese space assets, both of which Blackwill and Zelikow essentially rule out. The United States should not be cavalier about strikes on targets within Chinese borders, but it also should recognize that, for China, a local war is a far easier, far less stressful scenario than one that is not geographically bounded.
Finally, Blackwill and Zelikow fail to consider that if Beijing does opt for war over Taiwan, it will likely seek to deter the very political-economic campaign that they seem to believe could be decisive in preventing the war in the first place. Indeed, Beijing might not perceive the economic punishment the authors propose as fundamentally all that different from the strikes on China itself that the authors rule out. Leaders might see both as having the potential to pose essentially existential threats to the CCP’s rule. How will Washington react if Beijing loosens its “no first use” nuclear pledge or indicates it will carry out massive cyberattacks on American infrastructure in response to economic reprisals? The answer is not readily apparent, but Blackwill and Zelikow curiously fail to even ask the question.
The main point: In their new report, “The United States, China, and Taiwan: A Strategy to Prevent War,” published by the Council on Foreign Relations last month, Robert D. Blackwill and Philip Zelikow make a number of trenchant observations and some prudent policy recommendations. Unfortunately, shortcomings in analysis make for a set of findings that should largely be dismissed.