Deterring a Cross-Strait Conflict: Beijing’s Assessment of Evolving U.S. Strategy
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Deterring a Cross-Strait Conflict: Beijing’s Assessment of Evolving U.S. Strategy

Drawing on newly translated scholarship, leading experts examine how Chinese analysts are assessing U.S. and partner deterrence strategies in the Indo-Pacific and in the Taiwan Strait.

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Newly translated documents discussed in these analyses include:

  1. An Analysis of the United States’ Deterrence by Denial Strategy Against China, by Ge Tengfei, professor in the School of International Relations at the National University of Defense Technology, and Chen Xi, a PhD candidate at the School of International Relations, National University of Defense Technology.
  2. Adjustments in the United States’ Conventional Deterrence Strategy Against China, by Zuo Xiying, professor at the School of International Relations at the Renmin University of China.
  3. Adjustments in U.S. Arms Sales Policy toward Taiwan: Characteristics, Trends, and Implications by Wang Shushen, director and researcher of the Taiwan-U.S. Relations Department at the Institute of Taiwan Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
  4. The Modern Transformation and Deterrence Role of China’s Sea Power Strategy, by Ni Lexiong, professor at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law.

Jump to commentary from:
Taylor Fravel | Elbridge Colby | Melanie Sisson

Taylor Fravel

Director, Security Studies Program and Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science, MIT

When viewed together, several themes emerge from these articles on Chinese perspectives and assessments of U.S. efforts to deter China, especially in the context of Taiwan.

To start, one feature of these articles is that the authors, when discussing the capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), generally use information from U.S. assessments, such as the Department of Defense’s annual China Military Power Report, or from other foreign news reporting. In some cases, the authors, especially those not affiliated with the PLA, lack access to Chinese assessments of PLA capabilities. In other cases, U.S. or other foreign sources might be cited to provide political cover so the authors can avoid referencing internal or classified Chinese assessments or discussing sensitive subjects more openly. But it is also an important reminder that within its civilian universities and research institutes, China has only a nascent security-studies community able to provide independent analysis of military and security issues to inform or contribute to Chinese policymaking. It also raises interesting questions about how foreign analysis and reporting on PLA capabilities is interpreted. For example, does the reliance on foreign sources of Chinese capabilities under- or overestimate China’s actual capabilities among Chinese readers?

Several of the articles provide detailed assessments of U.S. approaches to deterring China, focusing mostly on conventional deterrence. Some authors highlight the distinction pioneered by Glenn Snyder between two mechanisms of deterrence: deterrence by punishment, such as by threatening to inflict great damage on a target if it does not comply with a demand; and deterrence by denial, such as by preventing a target from achieving its objectives or at least from achieving them at an acceptable cost. U.S. experts who advocate for deterrence by denial, including those cited in some of these articles, often highlight that it is less escalatory and thus hopefully less dangerous than deterrence by punishment, which could entail significant attacks on the Chinese homeland. However, these articles tend to disregard or overlook such implications, instead simply emphasizing the growing magnitude of U.S. efforts in recent years to deter China.

These articles also miss a central element of deterrence, which is the role of assurances. A deterrent threat or capability is more credible when paired with an assurance about what the deterring state will not do if the target complies. Perhaps the lack of discussion about assurances is unsurprising given that the authors are analyzing the policies and actions of the U.S. Department of Defense, which also tends to downplay the role of assurances in discussions of deterrence. Thus, the authors view deterrence largely as a contest of military capabilities and relative ability to impose costs, which one author describes as “deterrence and counter-deterrence.” Yet this also means that inherently political problems to which deterrence is being applied, such as Taiwan, are increasingly viewed largely or solely as military ones, limiting the room for diplomacy and increasing the odds of escalation.

Although some of the articles refer to the security dilemma, they tend to conflate this concept with action-reaction spirals as implied by the idea of deterrence and counter-deterrence. Because the authors tend not to see China as contributing to these spirals—say, by adopting a more threatening posture toward Taiwan—but simply responding to U.S. actions, the articles also provide strong evidence for the existence of an increasingly dangerous security dilemma. The lack of awareness about this security dilemma highlights the growing risks associated with the current trajectory in U.S.-Chinese relations, as each side is doubling down on enhancing deterrence and counter-deterrence capabilities—without combining these with any assurances.

The success of deterrence is notoriously difficult to measure. Nevertheless, the most recent articles in this collection do not indicate that U.S. efforts to deter China are having the desired or intended effect of dissuading it from increasing pressure on Taiwan—much less from continuing preparations to take military action (if Beijing concludes it is necessary to do so, which it has not). Of course, in the domestic context in which these authors are writing, they will naturally highlight China’s resolve to resist U.S. pressure. But the idea of deterrence and counter-deterrence indicates that the action-reaction spiral in the military domain is only going to intensify. Some of the authors recommend some caution in terms of China’s responses to U.S. pressure, especially to avoid an overreaction. But one does not get a sense from these articles that China will be dissuaded as the United States might hope or intend. Instead, they suggest the opposite: that China will work harder to offset U.S. capabilities.

In this context, another striking aspect of several articles was their discussion of nuclear weapons. As a 2016 article notes, nuclear weapons play an important role in deterring the United States: “The main way to counter U.S. deterrence is to enhance one’s own deterrence power, including nuclear and conventional deterrence.” Moreover, several authors highlight how conventional U.S. deterrence efforts undermine China’s nuclear deterrent. One 2022 article, for example, concludes that the development of conventional capabilities—such as intermediate-range missiles, anti-missile systems, and anti-submarine warfare, among others—have “affected China’s second nuclear strike capability” so that “China’s nuclear counterattack capability is likely to be severely weakened in the future.” In other words, U.S. efforts to bolster conventional deterrence have prompted China to enhance its nuclear retaliatory capability, such as by building several large silo fields, thus hardening U.S. perceptions of the threat it poses. This is further strong evidence of a security dilemma in real time.

Overall, the articles indicate that the United States and China are becoming entrapped in a deterrence and counter-deterrence spiral that reduces complex political problems to narrow military ones, overlooks the role of assurances, and increases the chance of a major crisis.

Elbridge Colby

Co-founder and Principal, The Marathon Initiative

The sophisticated understanding of the nuances of the U.S. defense strategy debate exhibited in these pieces is impressive but not surprising. The Chinese scholars clearly understand the central trajectory and lines of thought among those active in this discussion. I was personally struck by one author’s especially insightful observation about my own work and its development over time.

The conclusion that at least some Chinese scholars have a strong grasp of the U.S. defense and strategic debate offers hope that Washington and Beijing can manage the challenges associated with the security dilemma. While the security dilemma is not the most significant element of the dynamic between the United States and China, it is nevertheless real and material. If untended, it could result in a conflict, which would be awful under any circumstances but especially if it were avoidable.

While the United States should move rapidly and effectively to build up a denial defense for Taiwan and other allies along the first island chain, it also needs to find ways to mitigate the dangers that Beijing will view these actions as provocative (fairly or not), foreclosing its hopes for eventual unification, or significantly diminishing its prospects for future growth and development. Unfortunately, it currently appears that Xi Jinping and the Chinese leadership do in fact believe that this is Washington’s intent.

In this very dangerous situation, the United States should focus its efforts on the gravest danger: China’s use of its military to attack Taiwan and, more broadly, to defeat America’s military in Asia and undermine the anti-hegemonic coalition. It should be laser-focused on avoiding this outcome by demonstrating to Beijing that such an attempt would likely fail. Accordingly, Washington should prioritize actions that improve a denial defense of Taiwan—not symbolic or political actions that anger Beijing but do little for deterrence. In other words, it should speak softly and work on sharpening its stick.

At the same time, U.S. military capabilities, activities, and posture should manifestly and credibly correlate to a denial defense of Taiwan (and other allies in the region), especially to the risk of a Chinese invasion of the island. Such a correlation would communicate in the language of military force that the United States’ actual capabilities and plans are consistent with a fundamentally status quo stance.

While this approach may well not work, it is superior to the alternatives. And the sophisticated, nuanced understanding of the U.S. defense strategy debate exhibited in these Chinese articles indicates that there are serious, well-placed Chinese scholars who could correctly interpret it.

Melanie Sisson

Fellow – Foreign Policy, Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology, Brookings Institution

For decades, the United States has advanced its interest in peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait by deterring the People’s Republic of China (PRC) from using military force and by deterring Taiwan from declaring independence. The ongoing success of U.S. cross-Strait policy therefore depends entirely upon Washington’s ability to convince Beijing and Taipei that U.S. commitment to both nonevents is equivalent and strong.

It is for this reason that China—both its leaders and, as the documents made available by Interpret: China make clear, its analysts—is attentive not only to the credibility of the threat to Beijing of possible U.S. military action in the event of a use of force, but also the credibility of the threat to Taipei of possible U.S. military inaction in the event of a declaration of independence. As the United States becomes more fixated on the former, however, it is becoming careless of the latter. In an effort to reinforce its deterrent threat to the PRC, the United States has increased regional military activity and expanded the number and frequency of its political overtures to Taiwan—including visits by current and former government officials, legislation in support of the island, and changes to past diplomatic practice.

Chinese analysts consistently interpret these behaviors as indications that U.S. opposition to a Taiwanese declaration of independence is waning. Reinforcing U.S. military capabilities in the region not only exacerbates this perception but also seems, for some, to raise anxiety about the security of China’s nuclear arsenal. Several analyses include a direct discussion of the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. deterrence strategy, and one goes so far as to propose that the “relatively close proximity of comprehensive national strength” is part of a U.S. design to “suppress the nuclear retaliatory capabilities of medium-level nuclear countries” like the PRC. If this reflects either an extant or growing belief that the United States is both losing interest in deterring Taipei and intends to eliminate the PRC’s nuclear second-strike assets, then even incremental changes to the United States’ military posture might not only undermine its ability to deter Beijing but also weaken nuclear stability.

This possibility is sobering. Such reasoning would encourage a program of nuclear expansion—not unlike the one the People’s Liberation Army currently has underway—and could even incentivize a nuclear first strike in the event of war.

It is impossible to predict what quantity, frequency, or combination of military and political activities will ultimately convince China that the United States is no longer committed to deterring Taipei. There is no question, however, that if Beijing arrives at this conclusion, it will significantly change its assessment of its incentive structure—very likely in ways that are dangerously incompatible with the United States’ interest in peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.

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