The War Threat Against Taiwan: Preparing for All Contingencies

The War Threat Against Taiwan: Preparing for All Contingencies

The War Threat Against Taiwan: Preparing for All Contingencies

A recent uptick in military activity by Russia along its border with Ukraine and by the Chinese armed forces around Taiwan has caused alarm in some circles who warn that Moscow and Beijing may be coordinating their actions to test the Biden Administration’s “red lines.” Others, meanwhile, have speculated that the two revisionist powers, having convinced themselves that the United States is in decline or is not serious about committing national treasure to defend Ukraine and Taiwan, may have concluded that now is the time to strike simultaneously to accomplish long-desired outcomes on the ground.

Such analyses are countered by the view that the recent military activity—the deployment of heavy armor along the border with Ukraine and more frequent clashes between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian militias since January, daily intrusions by People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and Navy (PLAN) aircraft into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), and enveloping maneuvers and naval exercises involving a Chinese aircraft carrier near Taiwan—is merely a test. From such a perspective, reading these operations as signs of preparation for major military action (i.e., an invasion) overstates that matter and, moreover, only helps the belligerent states by “hyping” the psychological pressure on the targeted populations.

The latter opinion fundamentally assumes that for all their posturing, decision makers in Beijing and Moscow nevertheless continue to be governed by the rules of “rational” decision making. In other words, the risks of a US and/or NATO intervention—as well as potentially extreme economic and human costs associated with such an operation—are still too high for Moscow and Beijing to initiate major military action. The potential costs, therefore, outweigh the likely benefits. China and Russia, one argument goes, would not risk their economies for the sake of acquiring Ukrainian or Taiwanese territory. This assumption underpins international relations theory, and as a general rule, it provides a reasonably accurate picture of how governments weigh the costs and benefits of their actions.

The Rational versus Irrational Model

Although this argument may be comforting, history also offers various examples of regimes that, facing extraordinary odds against them, nevertheless chose a course of action that, in hindsight, could only bring disaster. Japan’s decision to attack the United States in 1941 when it was clear that it did not have the national capacity to fight a sustained war against its much wealthier opponent is just one example. In fact, the rulers in Tokyo ignored several warnings and war games by the Imperial Army, which demonstrated that such a war would be calamitous for Japan. [1] Instead, the Japanese believed that a bolt from the blue, in the form of a debilitating first strike at Pearl Harbor, would break the back of the United States and compel it to make concessions. Recent research into “cognitive biases” and how, in certain scenarios, those helped rather than undermined decision makers, also points to the dangers of adopting the rational actor model (RAM) for the analysis of all behavior among states. [2][3]

“Cognitive biases” can be added to the possibility that great powers will “stumble into war,” which occurred in Europe in the lead-up to the World War I. [4] Rather than a calculated decision, major armed conflict can instead become a descent, an accumulation of multiple decisions that, in the aggregate, can take on a life of their own and lead otherwise “rational” actors to engage in “irrational” decision making. Under such a scenario, a series of small, limited crises may propel belligerents down a ramp to a major conflict. For instance, this could potentially result from Taiwan acting on its threat to shoot down Chinese drones if they intrude in the Pratas Islands (Dongsha Islands, 東沙群島) in the contested South China Sea.

And to this, finally, we can add another variable, which applies particularly to decision making within authoritarian regimes. Besides the megalomania of the leaders themselves, the very structure of authoritarian systems militates against any recommendation or piece of information that does not fit the leadership’s grand vision. Consequently, there is a high likelihood that the individual at the top, or the small circle of advisers who make decisions on matters of war and peace, are not being fed all the information that they need to make enlightened policy decisions—in other words, to make “rational” decisions. The tremendous concentration of power that characterizes the regimes of leaders like Xi Jinping (習近平) and Vladimir Putin only exacerbates this phenomenon, turning a handful of advisers into mere yes-men who fear contradicting their superior(s). The dearth of information about developments within China further complicates matters, as it makes it more difficult for outside observers to assess the domestic dynamics (e.g., a severe economic downturn) that could compel the leadership to create an external crisis so as to distract potential opponents, if not the general public.

All this isn’t to say that major armed conflict is imminent. However, for small states like Taiwan that face an existential threat, the ability to prepare for worst-case scenarios can mean the difference between survival and extinction. Analysts who counsel calm and warn against overreaction (in other words, who believe that the RAM still applies) may be 80 percent right. But what happens if they get it wrong? The key, therefore, is to prepare against that remaining 20 percent by telegraphing all assurances that such adventurism would be catastrophic for one’s opponent. That means bolstering full-spectrum deterrence—military, economic, and political—and doing so in conjunction with major allies and partners. For the United States, this entails going beyond “red lines” and warnings of “dire consequences.” Instead, Washington should clearly demonstrate the costs that would be imposed if Beijing and Moscow were to act on their threats. In the current state of affairs, ambiguity risks inviting miscalculation. More than ever, the international community must make it clear to the Chinese and Russian leaderships that they must continue to calculate “rationally.”

The Ignored Threat

Assuming that the RAM prevails, various scenarios other than war remain as alternatives for regimes which intend to undermine their opponents. In Russia’s conflict with Ukraine, the use of “gray zone” operations or “hybrid warfare” constitute a below-the-radar means by which to wage war by eroding an opponent’s ability to function while simultaneously weakening alliance systems that could provide aid in major armed scenarios. [5] While several books, papers, and academic treatises have been written on Russia’s reliance on such tactics, surprisingly little work has been done studying China’s ability to use “gray zone” operations against countries like Taiwan. This is a major blind spot, given that in both RAM and the “cognitive bias” or “irrational” models, the Chinese would likely rely upon such instruments, albeit for different reasons.

Under the RAM, and with the implicit understanding that China is not on the cusp of launching major military operations against Taiwan proper, “gray zone” operations would nevertheless provide a necessary instrument to cause social unrest through modulated, and escalatory, tactics. This would involve collaborating with substate actors within Taiwan who embrace Beijing’s ideology and that have access to firearms or other means to launch sabotage operations, assassinations, guerrilla warfare, or terrorism. The symbiotic relationship that exists between pro-Beijing groups—such as the China Unification Promotion Party (CUPP, 中華統一促進黨) and major crime syndicates like the Bamboo Union (竹聯幫)—and the potential for escalatory violence by such organizations is an issue that warrants much greater scrutiny. The use of such substate actors, moreover, could provide deniability for Beijing, allowing China to “wage war”—and quite rationally so, one might add—without engaging in open hostilities using the PLA. If the regime in Beijing feels compelled to escalate and to punish Taiwan for its refusal to give in to its demands, such tactics constitute, in this author’s assessment, the next likeliest step. Already in recent years, there have been a number of incidents involving pro-Chinese Communist Party (CCP) organized crime—including an assassination attempt ostensibly funded by the Chinese side—targeting people in Taiwan.

Conversely, in a “cognitive bias” or “irrational” scenario, the same substate actors could be prompted into action in the initial phase of a major conflict so as to weaken (again through sabotage, assassination, and guerrilla warfare) the state apparatus and sow chaos within society before a major assault by the PLA. One can also expect that similar tactics, also relying on organized crime or other agents in place, could precede major hostilities in the Taiwan Strait by targeting US military bases in places like Okinawa.

Too much focus on the conventional threat posed by China may have blinded the Taiwan government, analysts, and partners worldwide to the high likelihood that Beijing will rely on nontraditional and yet still violent means by which to wage war against Taiwan. There is, as of this writing, little indication that Taiwan’s national defense, law enforcement, and intelligence agencies are fully cognizant of the threat posed by such tactics—let alone that they are prepared to respond to such a crisis.

The main point: As the debate rages over whether Beijing is ready to launch an “irrational” invasion of Taiwan, the more immediate—and perhaps likelier—threat of violent action by pro-China substate actors continues to be ignored.

[1] Toll, Ian W. Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012.

[2] Johnson, Dominic D.P. Strategic Instincts: The Adaptive Advantages of Cognitive Biases in International Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020.

[3] Allison, Graham T., and Philip Zelikow. Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis, Second Edition. New York: Longman, 1999.

[4] Clark, Christopher M. The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. New York: Harper Perennial, 2014.

[5] Orenstein, Mitchell Alexander. The Lands in Between: Russia vs. the West and the New Politics of Hybrid War. New York: Oxford University press, 2019.