Deterrence by Uncertainty: A New Defense Posture for Taiwan

Deterrence by Uncertainty: A New Defense Posture for Taiwan

Deterrence by Uncertainty: A New Defense Posture for Taiwan

Recent debates over Taiwan defense posture have led to the spawning of a veritable zoo of strategies named after animals: the porcupine, the pit-viper, and the poison-frog. These differing strategies come from disagreements over the nature of asymmetry and deterrence. Furthermore, these discussions are made even more complicated by several other factors: 

  1. Time: Optimal Taiwan and US responses to People’s Liberation Army (PLA) developments will differ, depending on the most probable timeframe of invasion.
  2. Balance of most likely vs most dangerous: The ongoing gray zone warfare of today, versus the potential for an all-out invasion tomorrow.
  3. Unilateral defense versus a bilateral/multilateral response: Taiwan facing off against China alone will prioritize different methods of deterrence and operational defense, in contrast to a scenario where Taiwan is securely inside a US or multilateral defense umbrella

Ultimately, these disagreements and factors all boil down to one overarching question: What most scares the Chinese Communist Party? 

In this article, I will look at existing concepts of deterrence as well as the PRC concept of war control (戰爭控制). I will then look at methods that Taiwan can take to weaken Chinese Communist Party (CCP) confidence in its ability to achieve war control—and thereby enhance Taiwan’s capacity for effective deterrence. 

Denial or Punishment 

The two classic Western approaches to deterrence are deterrence by denial and deterrence by punishment. The deterrence by denial strategy “seeks to deter an action by denying a potential aggressor confidence in attaining its objectives.” Broadly speaking, Western advocates for a Taiwan asymmetric “porcupine strategy” adhere to this method for deterrence, under the logic that increasing Taiwanese operational lethality and survivability will: (1) raise the perceived costs on the PLA of a potential invasion; and (2) provide time for the United States to intervene and tip the balance of power in Taiwan’s favor. 

Alternatively, the focus of deterrence by punishment “is not the direct defense of the contested commitment but rather threats of wider punishment that would raise the cost of an attack.” Taiwan’s interest in acquiring long-range, “deep strike” platforms is a reflection of this, as a less extreme version of the 2004-era “whisper” campaign (one occasionally revived since) of Taiwanese contingency planning for a strike on China’s Three Gorges Dam (三峽大壩). The logic here is that threatening the CCP with strikes on major targets beyond the immediate battlefield would: (1) raise the threat to senior Party members’ personal safety; (2) threaten vast disruption in the Chinese domestic economy; and (3) increase the risk of social unrest and the long-term economic costs from the effects of war, even in the case of an operationally successful Taiwan campaign.

Both methodologies have their respective strengths and weaknesses. The main strength of deterrence by denial is that it is an inherently defensive method, focusing on a “large number of small things” to bolster resiliency. Thus, it is relatively cost effective and fits in well with the possibility of US intervention, which above all would require time to carry out. The main weakness of deterrence by denial is that because it is inherently defensive, it grants both initiative and a sense of control to the CCP: the main military calculation then simply becomes an attrition calculation of how big the symmetric PLA hammer must be to break the asymmetric Taiwan shield as quickly as possible. Moreover, from the perspective of Taiwan’s domestic politics, telling voters that in order to credibly deter China, Taiwan must be prepared to turn the entire island into a new Stalingrad—in the hopes of holding out until the Americans may possibly intervene—is not a position that is particularly politically compelling. 

Deterrence by punishment, on the other hand, relies on the mantra that the best defense is a good offense. There are multiple layers to deterrence by punishment, ranging from the threat of attacks on tactical targets such as PLA amphibious landing ships and port facilities; to strikes on mid-tier targets like CCP regional offices and the PLA Eastern Theater Command (東部戰區軍) headquarters; and then to “strategic” strikes on cities and infrastructure (such as the Three Gorges Dam). The main strength of deterrence by punishment is that it introduces uncertainty: for instance, if Taiwan had a credible ability to either take out a significant portion of the PLA amphibious assault capacity, or to strike directly at Xi Jinping (習近平) and the other members of the Politburo Standing Committee, then this would create risks that wouldn’t be as easily quantifiable or controllable. In fact, this would be a deterrent capability even exceeding that of the United States, as China would not be able to as credibly threaten Taiwan with a nuclear response. 

Unfortunately, the main weakness of deterrence by punishment is that it involves dividing deterrence capabilities from warfighting capabilities. If the CCP accepts a higher risk tolerance and invades anyway, then by definition most of the deterrent factor will have dissipated. Moreover, given the number of potential targets, Taiwan’s missile inventory—as well as its targeting capabilities—would need to increase exponentially for this to be truly credible. 

Thus, Taiwan is left in an uncomfortable position wherein both methods of deterrence have significant gaps which will likely not be filled in the relevant time period (this decade). These methods of deterrence also do little against China’s current and intensifying gray zone warfare campaign. New methods of deterrence must be explored.

Controlling War 

In my previous article for Global Taiwan Brief, I discussed how the concept of integrated deterrence is a US strategy of improving coordination and resiliency among its allies and partners to deter China, while the US military undergoes a feverish interwar period of experimentation and technology integration to establish a better balance of conventional deterrence a decade down the line. In short, this is a combination of both methods of deterrence (although it is more heavily weighted towards deterrence by punishment). It threatens deterrence by punishment via a global network able to squeeze China’s economy—as well as holding out the prospect of China having to fight on both a regional and global scale against multiple nations. In the longer-term, technology sharing and development will allow the US to more credibly threaten deterrence by denial. 

Taiwan, of course, does not have the resources and the global reach of the United States, and thus must develop its own methods of deterrence. However, the integrated deterrence concept points to an area of Chinese weakness that Taiwan can consider for its own deterrent efforts: war control.

War control, 戰爭控制 in Chinese, has been discussed extensively since the PLA started using the term circa 2001. Original Western translations of this term tended to lump it in with concepts of escalation control or crisis management. However, as the concept developed, it became clear that unlike the Western concept of escalation control—which is heavily weighted to crisis de-escalation as a goal—Chinese war control has moved away from “war prevention” towards “shaping warfighting intensity to the Party’s advantage”. This means that escalation is seen as a tool, and that unintended escalation, not de-escalation, is the primary PLA concern.

This is reflected in PLA writings of military actions in a crisis or conflict. Alison A. Kaufman’s 2016 article identifies three key principles of war control that PLA writers have highlighted: (1) focus on strategic initiatives; (2) seize the initiative; and (3) preserve stability and flexibility. Ms. Kaufman identifies some troubling threads—namely support for pre-emptive strikes, both kinetic and non-kinetic, to display credible deterrence and to seize the initiative. PLA operational concepts developed since then have integrated elements of these principles, particularly the importance of information dominance, as key to both war control and the start of system destruction warfare

Flooding the Zone

For Taiwan, then, undermining the PLA sense of war control represents a method of tailoring deterrence. Taking the opposite of the PLA war control approach would then mean:

  1. Forcing the PLA to fixate on tactical problems; 
  2. Demonstrating that attempts to seize the initiative will lead to strategic blowback;
  3. Impressing on the CCP that attempts to wage war will result in serious economic and political instability. 

In short, this approach would demonstrate that a war would not be controllable; that it would be prolonged; and that it would involve a high level of risk to Party control.

What might this look like in practice? The Taiwan army and air force could practice rapid breakout surges from dispersal and cover involving the coordination of ground based air defense, electronic warfare, and air assets, in order to demonstrate survivability against missile strikes—and the ability to create targeted small windows where the PLA Air Force would not be able to ensure air dominance or even air superiority. It would also involve practicing rapid mine-laying, both real and decoy, by the Taiwan coast guard, navy, and air force. 

Similarly, demonstrating the capabilities of long-range artillery on Kinmen and Matsu, both new and old, through both practiced strikes on fixed installations (say, mockups of the Party headquarters on Xiamen, [廈門]), as well as on mockups of PLA Navy landing ships and ports, would force the PLA to expend time, resources, and planning to knock them out. Construction of new “cut-and-cover” bunkers, both real and decoy, would also complicate strikes, especially when assets are constantly moved between one bunker and the next.  

On a diplomatic-economic front, quiet discussions should take place involving the US, Australia, Japan, and the EU regarding contingency planning, potential economic actions, and diplomatic pressure to be initiated if China crosses over the threshold from “quasi-war” to war—through multiple scenarios, ranging from a “bolt from the blue” attack to a contrived incident to a Crimea-like seizure of Kinmen.     


The purpose of all this is similar to, but not quite the same as, deterrence by denial or deterrence by punishment; rather, it is deterrence through uncertainty, almost a melding of the two traditional deterrence concepts. These effects can be further compounded if they are executed simultaneously, forcing a huge amount of information, risk assessment, and decision-making onto the CCP/PLA. It will be difficult for the PLA to achieve information dominance when they themselves will need to face an escalating cascade of risks ranging from the tactical (Taiwan-specific), to the operational (responses from other Pacific powers), and upwards to the strategic (global backlash). Moreover, the presence of uncertainty and other hard-to-quantify factors will have the end result of disrupting the CCP’s use of force calculations—especially when these types of uncertainties may not be factored into calculations that are done under the assumption that the PLA will only need to fight a so-called “informatized local war” versus a global war. 

PLA war control seeks simplicity. To deter the PLA, Taiwan should look at complexity. 

The main point: The PLA concept of war control seeks to promote flexibility in warfighting intensity, in order to increase the Party’s advantage while preserving stability. To best deter the CCP from being confident in the PLA’s ability to attack, Taiwan should seek deterrent methods that promote complexity and uncertainty on the part of the PLA.