Taiwan and the dangerous illogic of deterrence by denial

FILE PHOTO: Taiwan Air Force Mirage-2000 fighter jets taxi during military drills to test readiness ahead of Lunar New Year, in Hsinchu, Taiwan January 16, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu/File Photo

Executive Summary

What strategy should the United States use to deter China from using force against Taiwan? Some argue that deterrence requires convincing China that it would lose in a military contest, a strategy known as deterrence by denial. An alternative strategy, deterrence by punishment, attempts to convince China that even if it could win, the costs of trying would be so great that they would outweigh any possible gains.

Policymakers should choose a strategy by analyzing its costs and risks, balanced against the extent of the U.S. interests at stake. This policy brief concludes that the costs and risks of deterrence by denial are not justified on the basis of U.S. interests. Although there are many compelling reasons to prefer that Taiwan remain democratic and retain its affinity with the West, these outcomes are not so vital as to merit a strategy for which the immediate consequence of failure is high-end war with a nuclear-armed adversary.

A strategy of deterrence by punishment, by comparison, is pragmatic. It retains options for U.S. policymakers even if it fails — it neither produces immediate war, nor precludes a subsequent decision to go to war either to defend against or to expel an aggressor. So too is there reason for measured optimism that deterrence by punishment will work. The United States has real leverage, and an increasingly resolute set of partners, with which to convince China that aggression will be enormously costly.

  • Acknowledgements and disclosures

    With thanks to Lori Merritt and Ted Reinert, who edited this policy brief, and to Rachel Slattery who provided layout. Thanks also to an anonymous reviewer for providing incisive and constructive feedback that made this better.